Why Adam Curtis’s ingenious documentary on Russia is a must-see

Why Adam Curtis’s ingenious documentary on Russia is a must-see | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Sunday 16 October 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

Adam Curtis is not only one of this country’s most celebrated documentary makers, but also admirably unconstrained by convention or the rule book of his profession. As he showed in HyperNormalisation (2016) – a philosophical exploration of power, reality and falsehood – his technique sometimes approaches psychedelia.

Not so in his new seven-part series, Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone (iPlayer), which is best described as a historical video collage, drawing upon thousands of hours of raw footage filmed by BBC crews to create a tapestry of Russian experience between 1985 and 1999.

Apart from straightforward captions and subtitles, there is no directorial intervention. The footage speaks for itself, charting the sequential fall of communism and democracy, and the terrible failures of successive ruling elites.

From the start, we see Russians dreaming of a better future: Coca Cola, shopping for Western goods, exotic pets like lemurs, and a world free of insane planning. Then we cut to a woman cutting dowdy wallpaper: ‘I don’t live by dreams. Even if I did, they wouldn’t come true.’ 

The promise of Gorbachev is presented as a mirage. ‘All the democracy will end soon,’ says a young man. ‘It’s a joke to pretend otherwise.’ The real world is one of grinding poverty, food shortages, defeat in Afghanistan and disaster in Chernobyl. 

Clips from a hilariously bad Soviet television adaptation of Lord Of The Rings encapsulate the mood of a nation where fantasy is risible rather than inspiring. With Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, the rise of oligarchs begins; its counterpoint is the unbearable sight of a young girl skipping from car to car, begging for money for food. 

The Berlin Wall falls, Boris Yeltsin leaves the Communist Party and the Soviet Union implodes. We know, of course, where all this is heading, and the price that Ukrainians are paying at this very moment for what will ensue; not only the rise of Putin, but the failure of the West to thwart his neo-imperialism at the start. If any documentarian can put a whole nation on the couch, it is Curtis; but in so doing, he also holds up an unforgiving mirror to the rest of the world. 
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Why Adam Curtis’s ingenious documentary on Russia is a must-see | Soho House


You Won’t Be Alone (selected cinemas, 14 October; video on demand, 20 October)
Magic realism, folkloric horror or identity politics? Try all three. Set in the hills of 19th-century Macedonia, the debut feature from Macedonian-Australian writer director Goran Stolevski tells the tale of Nevena (Sara Klimoska) who is saved as a baby from the clutches of the hideously disfigured witch or ‘wolf-eateress’, Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), by her mother who pledges to hand her over when she is 16.

The witch claims Nevena, and gives her the shape-shifting power to inhabit the bodies of others – which she does, becoming, in turn, Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), Boris (Carlota Cotta) and Biliana (Alice Englert).  For all the bloodshed, terror and trauma, there is a whisper of hope in this extraordinary film. ‘It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world, a biting, retching thing,’ is its refrain. ‘And yet… and yet…’ 

Why Adam Curtis’s ingenious documentary on Russia is a must-see | Soho House
Why Adam Curtis’s ingenious documentary on Russia is a must-see | Soho House


Faster Than A Cannonball: 1995 And All That by Dylan Jones 
As Dylan Jones writes, ‘while it lasted – and it lasted for approximately four years, just about the same time as Swinging London did back in the sixties – it was a truly wonderful thing.’ And he is right. The mid-1990s were indeed a remarkable period in British culture, a ‘fairground’ as he puts it in which Britpop, the YBAs, New Labour, a booming magazine market, fantastic restaurants and a mood of hedonism conspired to create an undoubted moment of confidence, ebullience and optimism.

Now well-established as one of our finest cultural chroniclers, Jones speaks to most of the key protagonists, taking 1995 as the hinge of his narrative. Brick by brick, he brilliantly reconstructs a moment in recent history that has continued to resonate – notably in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. This side of Brexit, the pandemic and the Truss regime, it feels both enticingly close and a last hurrah for something uniquely open, eccentric, generous and British. Come on, 2025: what have you got in store? 


It takes a lot of confidence, talent and musical eclecticism to produce an album that is so instantly infectious as this sophomore outing by the Leicester five-piece. After last year’s excellent debut, life’s a beach, frontman Murray Matravers and his crew deliver 15 tracks with deep roots in funk, fusion and old-school crooners’ lounge music.

The lyrical spice is never in doubt: in ‘Silver Linings’, Matravers laments that ‘I’ve spent a long time waiting ’round for big things/ Opportunities come and go like cheap drinks but/ Cheese and beans and paint-stained jeans/ Inhaling canisters made for whipped cream in my teens.’ Few vocalists could get away with referring to Jay-Z and The Great British Bake Off only a line apart. Just as interesting is the musical ambition. Imagine The Streets, with Stevie Wonder writing the songs and adding vocals, and you’ll get a sense of where Easy Life could be heading. Tour dates can be found here.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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