filmReview: HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis
BBC, 2016


Reviewer Ben Gatty

Adam Curtis’s documentary HyperNormalisation was released to acclaim on BBC iPlayer in October 2016. The over-arching theme of the film is encapsulated in the title: the term HyperNormalisation was first used by a historian of late Soviet Russia, to refer to the dissonance created when people know that many official narratives about the society are untrue yet, due to their pervasiveness, take such fake reports for reality.

I’m going to suggest that the film is essential viewing for psychotherapists, for a number of reasons that I’ll allude to throughout the review. First, I’ll give a fuller sense of what the film is about. You may remember the intro to the 1970’s Sitcom ‘Soap’, which would follow a highly convoluted precis of the story so far with the words: “Confused? You won’t be after this week’s episode…”. As the reader will be aware, making sense of complexity is rarely easy business.

Curtis has authored documentaries for the BBC for over 25 years, three times winning BAFTA awards. He began his journalistic career making shorts for the light entertainment show ‘That’s Life’: think singing dogs. Or rather, as he highlights in an interview, think of a supposedly singing dog. Curtis had been commissioned to film the wonder canine but, when on camera, the dog resolutely refused to perform. After some anxiety, Curtis realised that this was the true story: the dog – and his master – failed to live up to the fanfare. Thus his later output has explored the ‘real story’ behind a range of major concepts and world events. These deep readings highlight the strange within the familiar and the superficial, to markedly re-frame our understanding; there’s a whole lot of myth-busting going on. The films are edited in a playful way, with catchy tunes and quirky archive footage often serving to underscore central themes. The stylisation also gives us some light relief, for his films can be disorienting, as we reel from the impact of familiar material being rended again and again. Like his influences, the novelists Tolstoy and Dos Passos, stories of individuals interweave with bigger themes and events. Here are some of the strands in HyperNormalistation:

In early 1970’s New York, property prospector Donald Trump is gifted bargain price former social housing by finance companies who are now largely running the bankrupt city. Elsewhere in Manhattan, wide-eyed, a-political musician Patti Smith relishes the manifestations of chaos and poverty yet, like other artists of her time that she is seen to typify, is moved to do nothing but aestheticise the fall-out. We are encouraged to see her positioning as a symptom of the counter culture which, having failed to enable social change, turns inward. If you can’t change the world, change yourself: for example Jane Fonda, the film star once known as ‘Hanoi Jane’ for her opposition to the Vietnam War, who swaps political radicalism for aerobics and makes millions.

The Syrian strand of the story also starts in the 1970s, this time on an idealistic note, with President Assad seeking to unify the Arabic Middle East and finding a seeming ally in Henry Kissinger, American Secretary of State. Yet Kissinger is so solidly inured in his belief in the need for a ‘delicate balance of terror’ to fend off nuclear war, and so ill attuned to his impact on others, that he fails to see the terrifying consequence of duping the Syrian leader in such a brazen way. Assad becomes ‘bitter and vengeful’, seemingly leading his country to become the true heartland of Middle Eastern terrorism towards the west. Assad’s son Basher, current Syrian leader, was previously disinterested in politics. But once he becomes leader he takes the family feud forward, his regime seemingly becoming the initiators of the practice of suicide bombing.

Back in America again, Trump is himself facing bankruptcy and relies on a maestro in psychological manipulation to bale him out. Trump goes bankrupt anyway, but now has insight into what will aid his path to power. The way in which once progressive ideas from psychology and avant garde culture can be (ab)used is illustrated by Vladislav Surkov, former theatre director, now senior aide to Vladimir Putin’s government. Surkov applies a strategy from art practice, of creating confusion to manipulate the audience; he sponsors one set of radicals, then sponsors their opponents, then next he backs critics of Putin. He lets it be known that he’s doing all of this. The whole miasma acts as a smokescreen for the real agenda in pursuit, whatever that is.

There are many other elements to the story, some of them key, that I’m unable to include here, yet I feel that this is appropriate in this context. A criticism levelled at Curtis is that his recent documentaries are too fragmentary; it is unclear what he is trying to say. It seems to me that this is missing the point. The encouragement in a film such as this is that you work to make sense of it all. For me, Curtis does have a pretty coherent idea of what he is portraying, and does also point at a way forward. But, if we are to come close to the subjects at hand, and if they are to have any impact upon us, we need to engage with the paradoxes and experience the head-spin, and keep experiencing it. So, the film seeks to give us an embodied experience of elements that have led us to Brexit and Trump, Jihadist terrorism and getting lost through cyber space.

A guiding metaphor in HyperNormalisation is that of Eliza, the computerised therapy software that was to set-up to respond to statements in ways that mimicked Carl Rogers. Ironically it turned out that many of those who used the programme found it highly effective for therapy, despite being aware that responses were designed by a programmer. Curtis links Eliza to developments in the Web, whereby algorithms shape content on the basis of our prior choices, thus creating an ‘echo chamber’ that increasingly constricts our perception of reality, as we keep encountering similar, partial reflections of ourselves. Of course we can limit the impact of this by seeking out alternative ways of seeing, and doing so repeatedly. Good journalism can help enable this, as can good psychotherapy.

Whilst an earlier series of Curtis’s, Century of the Self (2002), looks at the shadow side of psychotherapy’s influence on 20th Century culture, there are, of course, many ways in which insights from clinical theory and practice can help people make sense of everyday life. Given the richness of many therapeutic understandings, it seems a pity that these perspectives currently have such a limited place in public discourse. Perhaps it is beholden on us to recognise more fully the kinds of hidden influencers indicated in Curtis’s films, and in turn to find ways to translate our language and guiding myths so that they can contribute more widely to how people can seek to understand and engage with the contemporary world.


Ben Gatty is an integrative psychotherapist, working for Transport for London’s Counselling and Trauma Service and in private practice in Highbury, N5.


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