Nick Ahad: The power of the media and our human need for narrative

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I’ve been preoccupied recently with the notion of the power of the sophisticated tool we call the media and the human desire for a narrative.

Last weekend I finally got to see the staggeringly powerful documentary Amy, the story of Amy Winehouse as told by masterful documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia. I confess, I wasn’t that great a fan of Winehouse when she was alive and creating work. I liked her music, but I certainly didn’t give her much thought beyond the media images of a self-destructing hedonist whose fame and fortune went to her head. Or more accurately into her nostrils and through her veins.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. A damaged, tortured artist with the tender soul of a poet, the story of Amy Winehouse is a very modern tale of a young woman failed by people around her at every single turn. The film shows how, at a low ebb, she escaped the media maelstrom to find refuge on a Caribbean island – a refuge that was shattered when her father turned up with a documentary film crew. It shows how she fell in love with a leech called Blake Fielder-Civil (footage shows him in a bar on the night of his wedding to Winehouse, joking that he is broke and ‘she’ will be paying for the drinks) and how their union was a catalyst for disaster. He has recently gone on record to deny he was the cause for her downfall, saying: “I don’t think I ruined her. I find it disrespectful to imply I was some Machiavellian puppet master.” A statement that ranks for me alongside the old chestnut “I’m not a racist, but...”

Can you tell that I left the Hyde Park Picture House more than a little angry that her candle was blown out far too soon? I was furious, emotionally wrought and metaphorically kicked in the stomach by the power of the narrative on show in Amy. As well as those who are clearly culpable and have blood on their hands (see the film, you’ll know who I mean), I also blame the media for Winehouse’s downfall. I have always believed that when celebrities do an interview or sell their wedding to a glossy magazine, they become fair game. I left Amy thinking a little differently. The media hounding of this young woman was, and there are many words I could use here – heinous, unconscionable, merciless – it was just plain wrong. I later realised that Kapadia is a master craftsman and I left feeling angry with the villains on stage because his grasp of narrative is complete. He wanted me to have a recognisable villain and a recognisable hero. Those are two necessary basic elements we need for a story.

There’s another tragic story being played out right now. It’s happening in Calais and it’s a story that most of us are only experiencing through the media. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that, when we think about our shared humanity with the likes of Amy Winehouse and any other poor unfortunate souls.