Each Tuesday, we recommend a documentary film or non-fiction series that you can stream online. We call them APPOINTMENT DOCS. Today, we're looking at "HyperNormalisation," a nearly 3-hour film essay that originally aired in October 2016 on the BBC. Hit us up with any streaming recommendations or newsletter feedback by replying to this email! – @lons


Most people, regardless of their personal perspective or ideology, have probably had the experience of listening to a political debate or watching a campaign ad and thinking that it does not reflect a clear, accurate view of the real world. For me, personally, this was one of the great motivating factors in joining Inside and starting to write newsletters: to get away from the social media echo chamber and cable news "horserace" coverage, and focus on what was really going on, and the issues that mattered.

The widespread use of the term "Fake News," first by professional writers, politicians and pundits, and now by the public at large, points to our collective recognition that something strange and new is happening, beyond old school "yellow journalism." That, somehow, our public discussion about the world has become confused and contorted. At Inside, as elsewhere, we've concluded that the best solution, at least in a stop-gap way, is fairness and rationality. Don't trust everything you read, get out of your personal bubble, look for evidence and corroboration, and let the facts - not ideology - be your guide.

In his nearly 3-hour 2016 film "HyperNormalisation," filmmaker Adam Curtis builds a fairly persuasive case that this may not go far enough, and in fact, that it may be nearly impossible to separate social and political reality from fiction in 2017. It's available in its entirety on YouTube, and though it's dense, demanding and, of course, lengthy, it's also fascinating and highly recommended.

Curtis's thesis is far-reaching, but I'll try to distill it as best I can: Beginning in the 1970s, the wealthy and powerful started using media and technology to construct an "alternate reality," a convincing but fake world that would be reassuring to the public, and allow them to operate the levers of power and control in relative isolation and obscurity. At some point, Curtis argued, these same elites began to lose control of their narrative, and the tools they had used to construct it, and now, what we are left with is uncertainty and fear, and a collective inability or unwillingness to trust any new information.

This, he argues, is why we can't ever seem to get our hands around problems and solve them. We're so invested in the fake world that we've come to know, we can't see beyond it to the real world in which we actually live.

It's a provocative case, and Curtis builds his film around it, like an essay, constructing his argument carefully. You may not end up agreeing with all of his assertions (and if you do, it'd be pretty terrifying, I imagine), but it's hard to find a lot of fault with his specific observations.

Over the course of three far-ranging hours, Curtis manages to fold in references to the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the Lockerbie bombing, UFO conspiracy theories, "Neuromancer," Jane Fonda workout videos, early AI experiments, Timothy Leary's acid tests, the film "Independence Day," Lonelygirl15 and more, but he focuses the story on the intertwined histories of the United States and Syria over the past forty years.

He also includes a look at Russia's "political technologists," how their theories enabled Putin's ascent and may have even inspired the Trump campaign. Again, whether or not you agree with everything Curtis argues about Trump's rise to power, and why he won, it's an extremely effective closing note, taking all of the occasionally esoteric and abstract theories of the previous 2.5 hours and demonstrating their application in the world.

I wish I could tell you that the film ends on an inspiring note, or with practical steps the viewer can take after screening it, but no such ray of light exists. Once we become truly unable to tell what's real, and it's in the personal and financial interests of the powerful to obfuscate rather than enlighten, how can we plan for what comes next?

Curtis returns throughout the film to the image of a small flashlight in the forest. It appears that you can at least see the path ahead of you clearly, but can you truly know where you are in the woods just by spotting a little dot of light? Or are you now doomed to wander the wilderness without a guide or direction? It's an unnerving question, and this is an unnerving film. But also potentially very important.


TITLE: "HyperNormalisation"
RUNTIME: 2 hours and 46 minutes
GENRE: Film Essay/Documentary

[Shoutout to Chris McCaleb of the excellent "Better Call Saul Insider Podcast" for the recommendation!]

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