This weekend, Whitechapel Art Gallery, in London's East End, celebrates the work of the multi award-winning documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. As entertaining as they are informative, Curtis's films reveal a rare instinct for the importance of fleeting moments of history, and offer a compelling insight into the dreams and delusions of society. Through mosaics of archive footage and interviews, he pieces together a vision of the present woven from fragments of the past.
"I spend a lot of my time sitting in the BBC archive, and it often surprises you," says Curtis. "I go back over past events that, at the time, in the confusion and the chaos, no one really understood. I started in TV just as the uncertainty of the Cold War era disappeared, and I began to realise that many of those who believed that they knew what was what, from politicians to journalists, didn't really have a clue about what was going on in the new world. I've charted the collapse of that certainty and the rise, to replace it, of what I call radical individualism."
The programme, which Curtis will be on hand to discuss, begins with Pandora's Box: To the Brink of Eternity (1992), which looks at the troubling, and often bizarre consequences when scientific truth is manipulated in the pursuit of power. The Power of Nightmares (2004) examines the wilful creation of a climate of fear and paranoia in the "war on terror", while The Trap (2007), a real touchstone of Curtis's core themes, follows the utopian ideal of individual freedom in the Western world, and how the very notion has become enslaving rather than liberating.
Weighty issues, then; but what sets Curtis's work apart is that his films are shot through with a humour befitting of a career forged in the studios of That's Life. "I did work in trash TV," says Curtis. "I worked for Esther Rantzen and made stupid films about dogs that sang. But it taught me to try to entertain and inform in an amusing, original way."
8 and 9 December (020-7522 7888)Reuse content