I loved Bitter Lake. It is very much of a piece with the previous Adam Curtis documentaries (particularly the soundtrack of John Carpenter and tracks by Burial
), though it is also in some ways more ragged and fractured due to dealing with lots of outtake, B-roll, not intended for broadcast footage. In its messy, sproket-laden, burnt out, out of focus, roving footage it can at times feel a little like Decasia, albeit not as extremely decayed as that film! But that is what makes it so compelling too in adding a sense of versimilitude and beautiful (or terrible) imagery captured by chance, and it also adds to the big unstated critique (which I think is telling since there are a lot of stated critiques throughout!) of the film that there are all of these news crews shifting people into position or barging in on people before setting up their 'professionally composed' shot, showing how manufactured imagery is and that behind the image there is a crew setting up the circumstances, liaising with representatives, or sticking on a naively patronising screening of an episode of the BBC's Blue Planet series for Afghan elders to lure them into (Western) audience pleasing poses. And alternatively on the other side there are militant Wahhabi-styled fighters trying to create an extreme form of historical caliphate states who at the same time are filming everything, or having their intimidating press conferences interrupted by their mobile phone going off!
This is close to being an equivalent of Hearts & Minds for a century of conflict in the Middle East, especially in the brilliantly provocative late section exposing the complete failure of the British forces in Helmand province in Afghanistan to understand any of the different factions using them, instead just randomly killing 'the bad guys' and creating even more havoc.
I think this is perhaps the first documentary film to even begin to have tackled the complexities of international power politics in the region, perhaps because it deals with a lot of subjects that are likely still extremely sensitive now, particularly the subject of the United States's 'special relationship' with Saudi Arabia and also the UK arms industry's role in supplying such regimes (which is the kind of stuff that Mark Thomas
was talking about in his brilliantly militant Channel 4 TV series in the late 1990s). There's a lot of amusingly 'incriminatory' footage in this section (some from the BBC children's programme Blue Peter!) of the President of Afghanistan being kowtowed to by Margaret Thatcher or the Queen, while Princess Diana follows on behind!
This film covers so many subjects yet manages to create a disturbingly coherent narrative out of it. Beginning with President Roosevelt meeting and pledging support to King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, something which Curtis's narration suggests kicks off the modern cycle of US support for the regime up to the present, the film goes on to cover the FDR style creation of dam projects to create fertile land (eventually to be used for opium poppies, showing that long before there was concern over terrorism coming back to attack Western countries, the drug trade was already doing the same thing); the repression of militant Wahhabism within Saudi Arabia whilst encouraging the same in countries safely further away, such as Afghanistan; the Arab-Israeli War of the 1970s and the oil crisis, which segues into the rise of the banks and decline of Western political power; the backdrop of the Cold War in the section dealing with the idealistic regime change of the Soviet Union leading to the decade-long war in Afghanistan; the Mujahideen giving way to the Taliban, Bin Laden and then ISIS. Of course 9/11 is in there too.
Throughout there is this overriding sense that the Western powers have a kind of smug, simplistic way of dealing in the region (from politicians to soldiers to journalists) which is perhaps emphasised by the lack of communication and use of outside imposed figureheads or pre-existing authorities to govern through, creating a supposedly comforting sense of self-rule but which seems to completely ignore the complex realities of the situation and seems to see the Afghans as a faceless mass to be herded like sheep (or destroyed like cattle) rather than individuals with their own lives and localised conflicts that might have nothing to do with anything going on on the national level.
The use of film footage is excellent too. I think I really should have chosen Carry On Up The Khyber for my war list in place of Zulu! And the use of the inscrutible sea in Solaris as a metaphor for the psychological effect that Afghanistan had on the Soviets (and the Western powers a decade later) is beautifully apt.
The structure of the film is fascinating too. It starts off in the mode of say The Power of Nightmares or The Trap with Curtis's confident and authoritative narration talking us through the historical events, yet after a couple of minutes of this the film is punctuated by contemporary narration-less B-roll footage of the current situation, say a sweep of a house or people getting forcibly retina scanned, or footage from a terrorist attack on President Karzai's motorcade, or a riot after a mistaken air strike. Then the narration will come back and the film switches back and forth between the two throughout. It is as if we are seeing the context that the ahistorical Western forces operating in the present are not privy too. Their obliviousness allowing for a certain degree of (self) protective cultural lack of awareness towards those they have to govern. And there is a lot of neocolonialist-seeming cultural trampling going on here from all those vying for power in the region, but particularly in the 1970s extreme tourism film, or the lady for some reason trying to teach a class about conceptual art! Balanced of course by the Taliban destroying sculptures and film footage. You've lost your heritage but here's a signed toilet instead.
It is a scary, relevant, funny, horrible, jawdropping and necessary film. And some of the juxtapositions of imagery from this discarded footage are shattering.