Return to Recent Articles menu

Review of Bitter Lake (2015) dir. Adam Curtis

By Gerry Fitzpatrick

28 April 2015

This film Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis is unique for the simple reason that no film maker has ever been able to have the degree of access to broadcaster archives and been able to shape the footage without proprietorial interference.

The resulting film – a documentary about Afghanistan, continues themes of Curtis's previous films for the BBC. These are that the world was and will always be, a confusing place – particularly for those who try to make sense of it.

Curtis's approach to the subject is  seen from the first sequence – a ghostly series of images of the US  State department history of the life and mission to modernize Afghanistan based in Helmand province in 1946. This speaks of a time of high confidence of post-war American anti-Communist expansionism and how the Afghan ruling elite embraced western development. Curtis then weaves a similar story of the post war American mission to Saudi Arabia. This mission was also surrounded by optimism. Curtis then seeks to teach his audience a truth about these two situations:  America and Britain tried to achieve their aims in the Middle East and Afghanistan by telling stories about “good” versus “evil” and that as Curtis puts it “we see now that these stories don't work”. 

But the film goes much further than trying to show mutual incomprehension of cultures like it does by showing British Paratroopers in Helmand trying to order coffee supplies at an Afghan General Store or the innocence of Blue Peter presenters grooming their  Afghan hounds to show to the visiting Afghan head of state as he goes down the Mall. By this and other absurd and music hall moments Curtis tries to be uncontroversial. This would explain why both liberal and right wing commentators choose to not only recommend the  film but to celebrate it. Not being “doctrinal” they believe the film must be closer to the truth. But there is another reason why Curtis's  approach being read this way which I shall return to.
Following the comedy and the absurdity, Curtis, does have an important and tragic point to make. And that point is the standard bourgeois warning: you can't change human nature especially if that “nature” is tribal and premodern. To do so only leads to disaster. For Curtis (and his ideal audience), the conclusion is always the same: the untouchables must not be touched and no good can come to those who try to help them.

The untouchable ones in Curtis's film are the Afghan and Wahhabist Saudi Tribes who are opposed to the westernization of Muslim lands. Curtis also points out that the current war that the Saudi ruling class are waging against the Wahhabist tribe is not one of “good” versus “evil” but one of power that has been going on between the House of Saud and the tribes since the 1920s which now includes Iran, Israel and western interests.  Curtis then ends the sequence on what he thinks to be a devastating conclusion: that what drives the Saudi ruling class are the same absolutist Wahhabi beliefs (what Curtis does not say is that the Wahhabist's are a tiny minority within Arabia). 

Therefore according to Curtis we are supposed to appreciate the limits to modern politics and cultural change. Change in these extreme and pre-modern societies is therefore an illusion. Presented in such away the lesson appears to be clear cut and unquestionable. When of course historically speaking, it is not. In fact the Saudi and the Afghan examples are at the extreme end of the range of Muslim societies interactions with modern society. The confrontation in Egypt for example is one of reaction versus revolution with class playing a key role as it does in Malaysia, Indonesia and India. 

This problem is made more explicit when Curtis chronicles the various attempts by movements and their ideologies to shape Afghanistan. The fate of the Afghan Marxist regime is supposed to be taken in the same way as the other attempts at change whether that was by modernization, or forced democratization by the west. In restricting his account to the influence of Afghan and Wahhabist tribes and the ruling elite in Arabia he has no time or inclination to include a range of societies and experience to supplement his selective account of these traditional societies.

Curtis's technique has a role to play here. For Curtis's technique is an archaeology of film in a way that an “archaeology of knowledge” was the aim of the French Critical Theorist Michel Foucault and each have the same drawbacks. In that the Foucault document and the Curtis “found” footage are given a mysterious aura. This is partly due to the way strangeness is presented by Curtis artistically to appear to be a separate quality. 

Watch the paratrooper in the general store sequence again and you will  see how strangeness, irony and comedy are born of a genuine formal attempt to be in the world and make sense of it – the more the sequence goes on the more the failure to control body language shows each party becoming more wary and suspicious of the other. It is then  a matter of adding the next sequence - a series of vexed British commanding officers asking forcefully and fruitlessly (in English) of  a village local, “where are the Taliban?” or later, “have you seen the Taliban?” Curtis concludes by commenting that the British in Helmand did not understand that the conflict there was politically local and had little to do with the Taliban. In letting oddness, absurdity and strangeness stand for the imperial experience modern history ceases for Curtis to have meaning. When more properly speaking it is the growing British isolationist view against continued involvement in “foreign” or “other people's wars” that ceased to give meaning to the futile British military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Return to top of page