Bitter Lake: a review

bitter lake

A young British woman lectures a room of Afghan students. ‘Does anyone know what this is?’ she asks, pointing to a photo of a urinal. ‘An artist called Marcel Duchamps, who is very important in Western art, put this toilet in an art gallery about 100 years ago. It was a huge revolution.’  This is one of many funny, unsettling and haunting moments in Adam Curtis’ new documentary, ‘Bitter Lake’. His contention, explored ‘through the prism’ of Afghanistan, is that Western politicians frame complex events in simplistic terms of good and evil – a vision which reflects that of radical Islamism. As a result, he argues, the West has become ‘a dangerous and destructive force in the world.’

Curtis’ own sparse narration is equally simplistic: a kind of ‘Ladybird Book’ treatment of Afghan history. His starting point is the 1945 pact between the USA and Saudi Arabia. This granted access to Saudi oil in return for US military protection and non-interference in Saudi society – a society permeated by a modern, extremist ‘Wahabi’ mutation of Islam. This aside, Curtis’ story is not placed in a historical context. The strategic realpolitik behind the occupation of Afghanistan is neither explored, nor even hinted at. Instead, he takes at face value the stated intentions for the Western and Soviet invasions and documents the consequences that spiral from the willful blindness at their core. But the story is given nuance through the moments of archive footage he selects (much of it previously unseen) and the connections he draws between them – a device that subverts the familiar tale of ‘liberation’ and invites an uncomfortable reflection on Western attitudes and values.

From the start, when an explosion splatters blood onto the lens, the film demonstrates how our cameras – ubiquitous, uninvited, invasive, ‘embedded’ – are also instruments of war. In one of the most excruciating scenes a TV journalist stage-manages the interaction between a man and his traumatised little daughter, who has just been blinded and maimed by a bomb. Why does he do this? To construct a ‘heart-warming’ story for us, the viewers back home. There are moments of rebellion too: a room full of women hide their faces from the prying camera with a book called ‘Act English’; a man performs an impromptu martial arts routine directed, with smiles, at us; and in an extraordinary and moving sequence a young Mujahadeen fighter defies the camera and us, the watchers, with an invocation and a curse that draws on the land itself and Afghan sovereignty over it.

Avoiding the ‘continuity editing’ that hails from Hollywood – in which a seamless flow of shots creates a story for the viewer to passively consume – Curtis uses instead the montage technique pioneered by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In this, the sequence of apparently unrelated images creates a ‘dialectic’ (conflict) which forces the viewer to create new meanings – meanings that are not contained within the individual images themselves. The scene of the young woman and the toilet is thereby informed by the footage that precedes it – a man being tortured, his head held underwater.

One of the most chilling moments is a sequence where a soldier in full body armour collects ‘DNA samples’ from an Afghan villager, an image which recalls the work of the SS ‘geneticist’ Josef Mengele. Behind him another soldier pets a tethered goat. The contrast between the treatment of the animal and the person, unintended by the soldier who filmed it, is pointed and painful. In a later shot we watch as a British squaddie hidden in a ditch is entranced by a bird that comes and perches on his helmet, and this informs the moment with the goat. The interaction with the animals now seems to reflect a longing for a lost innocence: the innocence of a world in which ‘we’ are inarguably ‘good’.

The conclusion drawn by Bitter Lake is that British and American ignorance of Afghanistan meant that ‘the West’ was drawn into a complex Civil War with terrible consequences for the Afghan people. In this the film is hardly radical. But there have, Curtis argues, been unpredicted consequences for us, too, as there were for the Soviets. Our bloody interventions, so costly for the nations we invade, inevitably force us to question the very values our leaders claim to be exporting. In the process we are bought face to face with the vacuous nature of our own culture – a culture where 1% of the population own more wealth than the other 99% yet the placement of a toilet in an art gallery is described as ‘a huge revolution.’



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