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.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era