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Adam Curtis | 16:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

Part One: Democracy on Trial

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between our everyday experience of the world and the stories that are made out of it.

Every day we experience millions of things, most of them are moments that at the time mean nothing. Only later do we take bits of that experience and turn them into stories.

In this way we make sense of the world, both on a personal level and on a grand scale. It is how history is created.

Television, particularly news and documentaries, has become central to this process, and I want to use stuff from the archive - both finished programmes and recorded fragments that were never used - to explore this area.

-What we know

-Who chooses what we know

-And what we don't know

In the process of making television lots of stuff gets left out, dropped. But these left over fragments don't make sense any without a story to put them in. And even they are just an echo of all the other stuff that never got recorded at all. That people just experienced.

I want to start this by telling the story of one of my heroes in television - the reporter James Mossman. From watching the stories he made I think he was fascinated by this same area both intellectually and emotionally.

Mossman is a strange figure. He was posh, probably worked in some capacity for the security services and during the 1960s he reported from all around the world for the BBC.

mossman.jpgHe became a star and did live TV interviews with leading politicians until, one evening in 1967, he went for the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, live on prime time. He accused him, effectively, of being morally corrupt. (I'll return to this in a later posting). The BBC took him off political reporting and sent him off to make arts programmes.

In 1971 Mossman committed suicide

mossmandesk.jpgI want to begin with a film that Mossman made in 1968. It is called "America: Democracy on Trial". It is a fantastic piece of verite film-making that is also a powerful piece of political reporting.  It is also beautifully photographed by a cameraman called Erik Durschmied.

It is set within the confines of the world of a real young family in the Bay Area in California in 1968. But their daily lives are played out against a backdrop of mounting uncertainty.

Their country is fighting a war in a faraway place that more and more people don't believe in. And they are beginning to lose faith in politics and its power to change the world. And starting to question what democracy really means.

The film is about the relationship between the everyday experience of the family - especially the wife, who is a fascinating and enigmatic character - and the big story they are told about the world. But it is made at a moment when that story no longer makes sense and the fragments that it is made of are beginning to fall apart.

Mossman never appears or asks questions, but he and his intelligence haunt the film like a ghost.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you Adam!

  • Comment number 2.

    Amazing film. Thanks!

  • Comment number 3.

    The BBC really needs to set up a subscription platform for users outside the UK. Firstly, they'd make a killing, secondly - I could watch the video. Until then I guess us outsiders will have to live in the dark.

    Very intriguing nonetheless, will have to watch all the videos Mr. Curtis has posted next time I'm in-country.

  • Comment number 4.

    Feels like Don Draper after his divorce and the failure of the new agency leaves him depressed and hard-up... Timeline is about right, after all!

    Good stuff though - and a joy to see in an era when factual programmes on the TV are generally mindless edits and endless repetition of basic facts seen earlier in the show...

  • Comment number 5.

    Four minutes? This can't be the whole film.

  • Comment number 6.

    Welcome back Mr Curtis. Now time to read the article.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is absolutely amazing. I'm stunned by the insight the people in the film have, despite their confusion. I wonder if families in America and here speak like this now? They seem engaged in a way that I don't think we are today. It might be that the filmmaker is having an influence on the conversations, but it doesn't feel like that.

    I love the contrast between the father's response to the different political candidates. I think the points AC makes about the negative idea of 'elitism' are in play (although I thought the Screenwipe piece about it was slightly unfair). Obviously it's a Kennedy and they are northern democrats and the whole Camelot thing; he mentions the motorcade and economic differences. It's an inverted classist opinion in effect. I wonder if this reveals something about the 'anti-elite' idea and it's foundations.

    I also love the young girl talking about 'fear', and what the filmmaker does with it, the way it breaks into the assassination report. It's that disruptive break, aurally and visually, that wakes you up and it's great because watching TV now is quite a passive experience, and the stylistic vocabulary is very limited these days in filmmaking I think.

    Anyway, there's so much in it that's interesting.

  • Comment number 8.

    Excellent film! I'm amazed at how much Mossman got them to share and at how beautifully the whole film fits together.

  • Comment number 9.

    A query for Adam: you use a lot of the footage in Mossman's documentary for your "It Felt Like A Kiss" film. However, there is a certain part of that footage which I haven't been able to find in the version of "America: Democracy on Trial" you link to here. It shows the family having a day out on some kind of beach, with the children playing in the sand while the mother looks on, smoking a cigarette and with a mysterious look on her face. I kept expectating for that bit to show up but it never did. Has anyoone else noticed this or am I going mad here?

  • Comment number 10.

    Mr Curtis, I'm 22 and have watched most of your work. I think you should begin to give lectures or screenings in NY, at copper union, and more screenings with talk backs at US colleges. I believe that making yourself a more physical figure would really help spread your ideas, and help period.

    Catherine Dupois, NYC

  • Comment number 11.

    Information is a strange force that provides the potential for knowledge. The development of that potential is dependent upon the openness of the receiver as well as their ability to discern what they require and to leave the rest.

    The beauty of the viewpoint of the purveyor is that their perspective allows for the encircling of the issue when opposing positions are presented. Total vision comes from the surrounding effect of the knowledge that is derived from the potential that the information carries.

    Adam does us a great service by presenting as he does. We can return the favour by making use of the offering to better our understanding of the knowledge that that information engenders.

  • Comment number 12.

    This video, and Mr. Curtis' perceptions and prefacing of it, have helped me achieve a greater sense of human story-telling and the underlying historical moments. History beyond history. An ever-present, radiant passion and expose of the world-at-large can always be expected from Mr. Curtis' work. Inspired by this blog post, I created the following Facebook Page. If you enjoyed Mr. Curtis' post here you should find or post a video about James Mossman as a tribute to Mr. Mossman on this page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/James-Mossman/107432269301204?created&v=wall

  • Comment number 13.

    This is a brilliant video. It shows how supposedly detached video without authorial intervention can still carry a point of view, but what's striking is how much respect the filmmaker gives to the people. The tire salesman could be as comical as Hank Hill in King of the Hill - or a lot worse, but both he and his wife's hopes and dreams are given total respect respect. It's impossible to find anyone today who pays attention to the desires of ordinary working families. But maybe working families don't have any dreams.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks! I find your work absolutely fascinating.

    I enjoyed hearing you talk at the BBC's TV Drama Writers Festival yesterday. You talked about the use of images in documentaries which reminded me of a recent Estonian documentary which uses archive footage in a creative and playful way to tell a story on a serious subject. The documentary is called 'Disco and Atomic War' and it's about the effect of watching Finnish TV on Estonian mentality during the Soviet occupation (that's how we learned about The Prague Spring and Chernobyl that the local media pretended never happened, but also Knight Rider. Men made demands for freedom of speech by day and watched mouth-watering supermarket adverts (thanks, Edward Bernays!) by night). The Soviets had been trying to get rid of the Finnish TV signal reaching Northern Estonia since 1950s (for 4 decades!), and they were sure CIA was behind the whole thing. Sorry about going slightly off topic here but I thought it's something that might interest you.

    All the best,
    Margit Keerdo

  • Comment number 15.

    Dear Mr. Curtis:

    I truly appreciate your amazing tribute to the late, great James Mossman.
    PLEASE post his legendary encounter with Prime Minister Harold Wilson on Panorama,
    which was broadcast in September of 1967. If it is not possible to post the entire
    interview on your blog, would you consider posting it on YouTube?

    Thank you

  • Comment number 16.

    This fascinating film is clear evidence that society has truly become dumbed down by years of hypnosis from the mainstream media. The sad reality is that most people don't care about these sorts of issues anymore. This is a truly enlightening film which despite its apparent innocence, reveals some startling and deeply sad truths about modern society.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yes we live on stories. Religion gave us some of those stories, and the things we believe in in our age are similar over-simplified stories - as much a religion. People with good intentions love causes and myths, and with our skeptical, analytical bent we've become very good at debunking them.

    Though not that good. We still live by plenty of myths :)

    The strange truth is that we probably need myths - as Ted Hughes thought - to give us something to live for. Analysis doesn't give us that

  • Comment number 18.


    Yes I was waiting for this same footage. Adam how did you pull extra footage from this program? Do you have access to the raw footage of the project? Thanks for sharing so many lost gems.

  • Comment number 19.

    So much truth in this film. The real struggle within people trying to understand themselves and the roles they are playing. The interconnectedness the balance of which seems to expect people to accept war. Which for a mother ultimately means coming to terms with the possibility of having to sacrifice her children for something she doesn't understand and nobody can explain to her.
    I love the part in the cemetery when the father states, "Sometimes you have to give up your freedom to protect the whole country..." the mother answers with exasperation, "But not by war, not by war, there has to be another way, there HAS to be another way!" If only politicians had to first offer up their own children I'm sure there would be a lot less war.

  • Comment number 20.

    Thanks for this, plain-speaking with a very interesting film. I'm a trainee journalist at Sheffield University, I've got a blog on music, culture, politics etc. My latest piece also looks at aspects of American democracy; like you say, what we know and what "they" don't want us to know; as well as the disparity between what we know and our response to it. It'd be great if you could take a look
    Forgive the hustle, thanks.


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