The new Adam Curtis documentary Bitter Lake, is either a stunning new way to tell a narrative of history that many don’t fully know, or is a jumbled hurried mess, and in fact it really depends on how you look at it. As far as I can see there’s three ways to look at it. One is as a pure documentary. Second is as an art piece. Thirdly is as a hybrid of the both, and that’s the only way it works for me, though it’s not without some problems as a piece.
Bitter Lake is a two hours, 17 minute, film that details the role of Afghanistan in global politics, especially the politics of the West, and how deals made by the American government after the Second World War led to the current problems with Islamic extremism. In some ways it’s a companion to the Power of Nightmares but it tells it’s own story through Curtis’s patchwork of news footage, interviews, archive from films, TV and advertising, not to mention footage you wonder just where he gets it from (there’s one scene of fleeing Taliban soldiers that I have no idea how Curtis got his hands on it) but it’s the raw news footage that’s jarring as it enables Curtis to bring down the illusion of what TV news is.
The problem I have though with Bitter Lake isn’t it’s length but the way that Curtis meanders for much of the film at a comfortable pace, and then in the last half hour crams an awful lot in which leaves the viewer in a bit of a sensory overload trying to keep up with the narratives Curtis is tying together. It could have been tighter which would have tightened it up not only as a highly effective documentary, but as a work of art which is what Bitter Lake is. This is documentary as art and you haven’t seen anything quite like it as Curtis tells us this almost fairytale type of story of shady American deals, or Saudi Arabian tyranny, Afghan suffering at the hands of the Russians, Americans, British and Taliban or simple beauty or simple horror. This is something that couldn’t work on mainstream TV in 2015 and that is simply a tragedy, yet well done to the BBC for bankrolling it and giving it a pride of place on iPlayer. I can’t think of any other channel in the UK (bar Channel 4 back in their pomp) that would let a filmmaker do this.
See Bitter Lake, and see it if possible in one sitting uninterpreted. I’ve included the iPlayer link above but this is only online for another three weeks or so, which isn’t a problem as there’s a Youtube version, though who knows how long that stays there?
This is possibly the most important film of the year not only for it’s historical content, but for how Curtis spins his vision. Watch it, you shouldn’t be disappointed