Adam Curtis: Meet the New Yemen, Same As the Old Yemen

[Scott Thill, Morphizm]
Our current obsession with Yemen is anything but current, brainiac documentarian Adam Curtis argued in his BBC blog “The Medium and the Message.”

In fact, it’s older than Osama.

“What I find so fascinating about the reporting of the War on Terror is the way almost all of it ignores history — as if it is a conflict happening outside time,” Curtis wrote in a post entitled “Yemen: The Return of Old Ghosts.” “The Yemen is a case in point.”

With nearly peerless artistry, the 55-year old Curtis has already explored the international roots of Islamic terrorism in brilliant films like The Mayfair Set (below) and The Power of Nightmares (above).

He’s also dissected technocratic rationality in Pandora’s Box, finance and freedom in The Trap, marketing and mind-control in The Century of the Self, whose title was borrowed by art-rockers And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead for their latest release, and much more arresting work.

But good luck finding them on television.

Curtis’ combination of resolute skepticism and dizzying montage is a hard sell for a mainstream media used to either lifeless documentaries or screeching ideologues, which Curtis has also noted in clever reels like The Rise and Fall of the TV Journalist. In fact, his dazzling experimental film It Felt Like a Kiss (at bottom) is still unavailable on his BBC blog, thanks to lame rights issues. (Thank the Big Bang for YouTube and torrents!)

But it is The Mayfair Set that dealt most closely with England’s failed empire experiment in Yemen and the Middle East overall. And those who think that Yemen is a new front in our geopolitical struggle from primacy are fooling themselves, said Curtis.

“In the wake of the underpants bomber we have been deluged by a wave of terror journalism about this dark medieval country that harbors incomprehensible fanatics who want to destroy the west,” he wrote. “None of it has explained that only forty years ago the British government fought a vicious secret war in the Yemen against republican revolutionaries who used terror, including bombing airliners. But the moment you start looking into that war you find out all sorts of extraordinary things.”

The most extraordinary thing about Curtis’ comparatively obscure documentaries is how they literally presage our own failed attempts at empire-building overseas. Nearly everything we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen has already been tried, and abandoned, by Britain. And that country, as The Daily Show‘s John Oliver recently explained to me for Wired.com, has plenty of lessons for America when it comes to fading empires.

“Losing an empire is an art form in itself, and it’s very easy to do badly,” the UK-born Oliver explained, with patented humor. “Try not to struggle too much; just relax and enjoy the fall. There is a quiet dignity to a well-executed plunge into the abyss.”

Adam Curtis’ criminally underrated documentaries are the best way to peer into that abyss, and others. It’s just too bad they’re rarely, if at all, shown in America.

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