The Film Interview: Chris Atkins

The documentary-maker on his "urban fox hunting" hoax - and why he frightens TV executives.

Chris Atkins is a British documentary-maker. His films include Starsuckers (2009), an attack on celebrity culture which involved Atkins and his researchers selling fake stories to Britain's tabloid press, and Taking Liberties (2007), a polemic against the New Labour government's record on civil liberties.

You hit the headlines recently with a video spoof that purported to show a new craze for "urban fox hunting". How did that come about?

In my teens I was quite active in animal rights. I have always felt that fox-hunting is the most ridiculous thing that British society has ever created, really, and after the fox attack on the twins in Hackney, the misreporting of that went off the scale. My film-making hackles get raised whenever I see misreporting - I saw misreporting about terrorism and civil liberties, so I made Taking Liberties; I saw misreporting around celebrity, so I made Starsuckers. It kind of just grabs me really.

In what way was the fox attack misreported?

Well, I suppose the fact that it was reported so much, the fact that it was reported over and over and over again. The media clearly wanted to continue the fox narrative and in my mind that was all part and parcel of the fact that the the coalition government said they were going to have a free vote on fox hunting. All of this sort of demonised foxes to the extent that MPs would be able to turn around and say "Oh we're going to vote against the ban because the public's behind us." What they'd mean is the Daily Mail, they don't really speak to the public.

Were you surprised by the extent of the reaction to the video, which provoked criticism from the RSPCA?

I was, to be honest with you. We didn't think it would be taken seriously. With some of these things, often they sit online for three or four weeks before people notice them; this was noticed within two hours, then within 12 hours YouTube had taken it down and within 48 hours it was in the Mirror.

I wouldn't say it backfired, but I would say it was far more successful than we intended it to be. We intended for it to be taken seriously and for people to get whipped up into a lather about it. A news reporter from BBC London was even dispatched to Victoria Park to a "crime scene" and did this whole piece to camera. It looked like something straight out of Brass Eye and I have never laughed so much in my entire life as when I saw that report, so you know, Mission Accomplished.

Did we mean to upset quite so many well-meaning animal lovers? No we didn't and we saw the level of anger from the public, which I thought in a way was quite comforting. The point of the film was to show people what really happens when you kill foxes.

You seem to have an ongoing concern with news values and the way the mass media operates. Does that make your films political?

I think it's more sort of social, it's more about people. Taking Liberties was about the rights of individuals and I suppose Starsuckers in a way was the right to not be bombarded by a media saturated with celebrity. Either the government or media corporations or whoever are out there trying to do us harm, and my films tend to expose that.

[My films are] about boring things like good and bad and the fact that there are people out there, people in power who do not have your best intentions at heart. What I find interesting is that television has singularly failed to make these films. Television in Britain has stopped making documentaries, they are terrified of making anything that has a point and a value. They will make twenty series of Wife Swap, but they wouldn't dare fund something like this.

Is that why you make films for cinema rather than TV? Because it's the only space you have to make them?

I like the movie, I love the format, although it's a pain in the arse in so many ways - you've got to persuade people to part with ten quid on a Saturday night to go and see it at the local Odeon, which is frankly an impossible task. But you're exactly right, it's the only medium left for somebody like me because television refuses to make anything like this, they're terrified of it.

They're terrified on two levels. One is they don't know what they're going to get. If they make Wife Swap - and I've been told this by senior commissioning editors - they can say at the end of the second quarter before the ad break "this chap is going to shout at this chap and then they'll fight," and they can guarantee that and they know people will come back after the break. I can't give them that - I can give them something better, possibly, but I can't guarantee that before I make the television programme.

Secondly, I grew up watching things like World in Action and really good Panoramas, great investigative journalism. That position is now dead, basically, because they're so terrified of upsetting people in power. They'll have a go at little people, they'll have a secret camera that catches traffic wardens and they'll go for people who say they'll fix your car and don't, they'll do that, but do they go after people in power? Absolutely not.

How encouraged are you by new media as a way of circumventing that?

The internet provides us with a medium to go from the producer to the viewer instantaneously and cut out Channel 4, cut out the BBC. We've just got to work out how to make it pay, and that will come, but the structure of us going directly to the public and cutting out the broadcasters I think is a wonderful thing.

In the meantime, you need to keep on convincing people to part with their ten quid on a Saturday night. How do you make your subjects work as films?

Well I suppose you need two things and I think we just about get away with this: you need a very strong argument, you need an argument that develops, but a very clear one, so you can say to people, "I am here to convince you and here is a series of points." It's like an essay really: Point 1 - freedom of speech; point 2 - habeas corpus; point 3 - ID cards; point 4 - torture; conclusion - we've lost our civil liberties. Secondly, you've got to have narrative, you've got to have human stories that the public can relate to and say "that's like me".

Certainly for my kind of films you need both of those. Something like Touching the Void just has narrative - and bloody brilliant narrative it is too - or Man on Wire. Those are solely narrative stories, but I think if you're going to invite that kind of emotional engagement let's do something with it rather than just pat each other on the back and go "What a great story".

Humour seems to be an important part of that emotional engagement as well.

Of course, you've got to make people laugh. If you've got an argument movie, nobody wants to go and sit in the cinema and be bashed over the head for 90 minutes. I certainly don't, I can't stand those sorts of films. So, if you make someone laugh, you release a lot of tension and kind of clear their head a bit and they go "OK, you've just bought me five more minutes of polemic."

You've got to keep topping them up on laughs, but the laughs have got to take them somewhere. There are so many moments that you have on films where it's absolutely hysterical but they don't take you anywhere, just people falling over or someone saying something witty, but it's not proving a point. But if you can get Tony Blair saying you can start giving Asbos to children before they're born, everybody laughs but they're also saying "Oh my God, this guy's a lunatic." You do something with the giggle.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.