Bitter Lake (review)

Adam Curtis’ new film contains plenty of interesting material but is undermined by a compulsion toward epicness.

“Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense, events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow. This is a film about why those stories have stopped making sense and how that lead us in the West to become a dangerous and destructive force in the world. It is told through the prism of a country at the centre of the world: Afghanistan.”

These are the words with which Adam Curtis introduces his new documentary Bitter Lake. They are, however, misleading. Rather than an account of the alienation of Western electorates told through the prism of Afghanistan, what we get is an interesting history of outside interference in the country plus annoying and unconvincing forays into tangentially connected areas most of which have a Saudi connection.

If you’ve seen an Adam Curtis documentary before this probably won’t come as a surprise. He has a phenomenal talent. He can find footage most filmmakers would never think to look for and use it provide a way into complex topics. His visual style has its detractors but it has a transfixing effect on me. However, this aptitude is annoyed by a succession of rather annoying habits. His narratives often flit between topics connected mostly by Curtis’ imagination and big stretches of his narration amount to little more than a succession of glib statements.

This send up distills these problems very well:

His virtues are certainly on display in Bitter Lake. One cannot imagine anyone else illustrating the unreality of Western perceptions of Afghanistan with clips from a 1971 episode of Blue Peter devoted to a club of Afghan hound owners preparing to present their dogs to the King of Afghanistan during his visit to London. Nor had I heard before that one can only grow poppies in Helmand because of American irrigation projects in the area, nor had I seen the parallels between the Soviet and NATO projects in the country made so forcefully, nor had I heard the suggestion that British forces in Afghanistan were in fact not fighting the Taliban at all.

However, in places his narrative thread begins to visibly fray. To hear Curtis tell it the Taliban was exported directly from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. We are told a lot about the Saudi radicals who went to fight and the support their government gave them. These, however, constituted a small part of the resistance to the Soviets. More significant was that the Americans were conveying their support to the Mujahedeen via Pakistan’s intelligence agency, The ISI. This organisation was riddled with Islamist sympathisers and they pushed the aid towards organisations that shared their viewpoint. Yet Curtis doesn’t mention the role of the ISI or even its very existence at all. The only reason I can see for this omission is that spread of Wahhabism is a passion of Curtis’ – it was the subject of one of his previous documentaries –  and that Saudi Arabia features more prominently in that story than Pakistan.

This is not, however, the worst example of Curtis’ peculiar focus.  The fact of Saudi influence is indeed relevant to the story, it is just not less relevant than other factors he neglects to cover. Stranger are some things that Curtis includes but which seem wholly irrelevant. Consider the following part of his narrative. In 1973, Israel goes to war with its Arab neighbours. In protest at American support for Israel, Saudi Arabia dramatically scales back oil production. This in turn leads to a spike in oil prices which leaves the Saudis with vast amounts of money. They spend much of this bounty on weapons from British and American arms companies. However, when menaced by Saddam Hussein it becomes apparent that despite all these massively expensive purchases, the country would still need American assistance to defend itself. Osama Bin Laden was appalled by the prospect of infidel soldiers being stationed in ‘the land of two holy cities’ and this becomes the catalyst for him to take up arms against both his own government and the Americans. The problem with this is that the first part doesn’t actually relate to the second. Whether or not Saudi Arabia had bought planes from BAE systems it would still have needed American troops to protect itself from Iraq and Osama Bin Laden would still have been radicalised by that. Curtis appears to be talking about arms deals with Saudi Arabia solely because he wants to talk about arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

This is far from the most stretched connection. We get long digressions on the increasing power of the financial sector, a strange inclusion in a story about a country where 90% of people don’t have bank accounts.

Now in a digression whose apparent randomness even Curtis would have to admire, I want to talk about Michael Bay. In the video below the cinematographer Tony Zhou explains why the Transformers director makes such consistently bad films.

Zhou argues it’s not because Bay is lacking in technical skill. In fact, when it comes to injecting a sense of scale and movement into shots nobody can better than Bay. Rather the problem is that he’s good at it, so he does it even when shooting a scene to look massive and dynamic undermines the story it’s supposed to be telling.

I’d argue that Curtis has a similar problem. He is great at finding surprising connections and stories that span vast canvasses. However, this gives him an overwhelming inclination towards huge stories that try to explain everything. This is a shame because his best films like the Century of the Self and the Power of Nightmares have pretty clear topics that encourage him to be coherent and convincing. By contrast, his more recent films with nebulas topics like computing or freedom have brought out the worst aspects of his style.

Bitter Lake is about 2/3rds the better Curtis telling a compelling story about Afghanistan. Unfortunately for much of its run time the bad Curtis turns up to warble about “how politicians have lost control” or banks or something. I can’t say I cared very much what it was.

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