'Bitter Lake': Rotterdam Review

Bitter Lake Still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Bitter Lake Still - H 2015

Insightful, sprawling essay-documentary asks Why Are We In Afghanistan?  

Adam Curtis' latest essay-project for the BBC uses Afghanistan as a prism to view the modern world and its media manipulations.

A bold, bracing immersion in the shark-infested pools of post-1945 global politics, Bitter Lake is the latest provocative polemic from BAFTA-winning British journalist Adam Curtis. Commissioned by the BBC for exposure via the organisation's internet television service iPlayer rather than conventional broadcast, this idiosyncratically illuminating study of disastrous foreign entanglements in Afghanistan will doubtless make waves on both big and small screens overseas following its world-premiere at Rotterdam. Epic in scope at 137 minutes, it's an accessible primer on recent world history which could easily warrant theatrical distribution in numerous territories, if appropriate rights issues can be negotiated.

Curtis' audio-visual collage harvests myriad gems from the BBC's archives, accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack which ranges from a David Bowie ballad to samplings from the score of John Carpenter's The Fog. Curtis's fondness for background music—a near-inescapable element of documentaries these days—is an intermittent distraction here, at times to the extent that the score competes with dialogue and voice-over for our attention. Such pill-sugaring is hardly necessary, given the way the film's visuals and text speak eloquently and persuasively for themselves.

Needless to say, not everyone will share Curtis's perspective on Afghanistan, and what the country has revealed about the wider world since a "modernization" programme was started in 1946 and the Americans arrived with their industrial and technical know-how. Having made his name a decade ago with a three-part comparison of neo-Conservatism and radical Islam, The Power of Nightmares, his subject now could be dubbed 'the nightmare of Powers,' given Afghanistan's long-acknowledged status as the "graveyard of empires."

The history of foreign involvement in this central Asian state stretches back far beyond 1946, of course. But apart from the occasional reference to the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, Curtis makes no mention of what historians and Rudyard Kipling dubbed "The Great Game": Britain and Russia skirmishing over control Afghanistan from 1813 until the First World War. During the remainder of that century—and on into the present epoch—both the UK and Russia/USSR learned to rue their involvement in this mountainous, tribal country slightly smaller than Texas. Ditto the United States, via the Afghan War which began in 2001 during the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities.

The root causes of this conflict are Curtis's primary focus here, but Afghanistan is essentially a prism through which he analyzes the shifting poles of power across the globe over the last 70 years. And while most viewers will be aware of the crucial importance of the Yalta conference in February 1945—when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin decided the shape of the European continent—Curtis posits the ailing Roosevelt's very next, much less high-profile appointment, with King Abdulaziz of Saudia Arabia, at the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal, as an equally seminal event.

Because while Curtis's fundamental point is the danger of applying good/evil labels to people and organisations—alongside the danger of politicians ceding power to financial institutions—the Saudi royal family (whose King Abdullah died on the eve of the film's premiere) is unambiguously the "bad guy" here. Mention of the Saudis is, for example, often accompanied by Carpenter's hauntingly sinister piano-based Fog theme. The governments of George W Bush and Tony Blair get off lightly compared with Curtis's jeremiads against the Saudis and their 'Wahhabist' form of Islam—"radical, violent and extremely puritanical... intolerant... backward-looking"—which they have successfully exported to other countries in the volatile Middle East.

Not everyone will agree with Curtis's points or conclusions, needless to say, and many will be frustrated by his twin-track approach. He alternates between a sober, pedagogical and chronological survey of Afghanistan over recent decades—"unexpected consequences" is a repeated refrain—and footage of the country's current chaotic state which takes a much freer and looser approach to editing.

His two chief cinematic reference-points sum up his eclectic and imaginative approach: Andrei Tarkovsky's science-fiction classic Solaris (1972), and Gerald Thomas's saucy satire Carry On... Up the Khyber (1968)—Tarkovsky mentioned by name in the very brief closing credits, Thomas's name mysteriously omitted. This kaleidoscopic barrage of images and associations skirts waywardness and incoherence at times, but is achieved with sufficient brio and sensitivity to endow Bitter Lake with a rich complexity that rewards close attention. It's not just still waters than run deep.

Production company: BBC
Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Adam Curtis
Producer: Lucy Kelsall
Executive producer:
Cinematographer: Lucy Kelsall
Sales: BBC, London
No Rating, 137 minutes