I could start with a nod to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis by writing:
“Rupert Russell awoke one morning from unsettling dreams to find the world had gone mad.”
But that isn’t quite right and doesn’t fully describe the situation that filmmaker Russell found himself when he awoke on the morning of November 9th, 2016, to the news that Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States of America. Russell described it better himself:
“I felt a sense of unreality. That I had woken up on a different planet than the one I had gone to bed on.”
Seemingly, the world had had gone mad overnight. But how had this happened? And what had caused this strange insanity?
Russell wanted to understand what the fuck had just happened. He also wanted to do something about this new topsy-turvy world, where the lunatics had taken over the asylum. He was finishing work on his documentary feature Freedom for the Wolf. Nick Fraser, the editor of BBC’s Storyville, had come onboard as executive producer. Fraser had also just launched a new venture, Docsville, and asked Russell if he would like to make some short films for this new platform.
On the day after the election, Russell had written a Medium post on being sane in insane places inspired by the work of David Rosenhan, in particular his famous experiment in which he entered an asylum claiming he heard voices. The doctors and nurses had diagnosed Rosenhan as insane, however, the patients quickly realized that Rosenhan was actually faking it.
Russell also “sketched out two more essays on madness under the new regime of (in)sanity”. He sent these along to Fraser as a possible idea for a series of animations called How the World Went Mad which would diagnose Trump’s election as a form of madness and offer up a possible cure. Fraser told Russell to go for it.
The end result was a series of five short films explaining How the World Went Mad by which Russell asked the very pertinent question:
In a world gone mad who can you trust?
Beginning on that fateful morning in Fall 2016, Russell takes the viewer through a brief history of psychiatry, culture, and politics to explain how we have all ended up here. I contacted Russell to ask him about the making How the World Went Mad and what he hoped his diagnosis of our current malady would achieve.
How did you go about making ‘How the World Went Mad’?
Rupert Russell: I spent a month in the British Library going through histories and psychologies of madness. I picked out studies that could be linked together to form a narrative arc of the series: diagnosis, symptoms, transmission, epidemic, and cure. I turned the notes into scripts, recorded them, and sent the files to Dare Studio in Poland, who had worked on my last feature, who got to work on the animation. The rest is archival footage, which I trawled through.
The most arduous of which was finding out who the infamous “fat guy” that Trump tormented in The Apprentice was. When we locked picture, Alex Williamson composed a wonderfully off-kilter score and three sound designers at Unit Post created a soundscape of insanity filled with screams, explosions, and even orgasms.
The polemic for your films rests on the idea Trump is mad—what happens if he is not mad?
RR: The source of my anxiety, as I describe in Episode 1, “Diagnosis,” is precisely this question: What if Trump is the new definition of sanity and it is I who am in fact mad. The line between sanity and insanity has been a skipping rope throughout history, pulling people in and out of it. Gays, lesbians, and women have only recently escaped their 19th-century diagnosis as perverts and hysterics. The Trump/Pence victory signalled another swing of the rope. In their Handmaid’s Tale morality, these gender traitors deserve no voice in the patriarch’s definition of sanity—where only the male “commanders” are capable of rational judgements.
The insanity of this position should be self-evident. But too increasingly, it’s becoming the new definition of sanity. We are living through another reaction to social progress that has resurrected the same tropes and characters of the feminist backlash in the 1980s, which inspired Atwood’s original novel.
More diagnosis of ‘How the World Went Mad,’ after the jump…