Available only via BBC iPlayer, Adam Curtis’s new documentary, Bitter Lake, takes a sceptical, sideways look at the calamitous history of Western military and cultural intervention in the so-called 'graveyard of empires' and the concomitant rise of Wahhabism there since the 1950s. As such, the film is to some extent a reprise of Curtis’s earlier exploration of East-West geopolitical entanglements in The Power of Nightmares (2002). In a tour-de-force of television storytelling, Curtis shows how the manoeuvres of the great powers in Afghanistan have often been self-defeating, as Western states support allies who will later be enemies and attack enemies who will later be friends. In doing so, he emphasizes the decompositional tendencies of twentieth-century imperialism. Indeed, while some left-wing commentators, such as Michael Parenti, stress the coldly calculating, clinical nature of Western interventionism, Curtis suggests that its operations are often quite irrational – perhaps increasingly so – as he sets out to show the often unintended and frequently deadly consequences of Western meddling in the Middle East.
Images of some of the abuses and indignities suffered by Afghans at the hand of Western forces in recent years – bombings, detainments, retinal scanning – are mostly presented without voiceover; but together they present a picture of the West’s recent Afghan campaign that is starkly at odds with the one presented by mainstream news media and television drama. Yet much of the film’s interest lies in its documentation of the cultural, as well as the military implications of Western intervention in Afghanistan. One of its most wince-inducing scenes, in fact, shows an earnest British art critic rather haplessly trying to explain the momentousness of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal installation to a classroom of understandably perplexed Afghan women. This is cultural imperialism gone horribly wrong.
Bitter Lake is oddly evocative, its argument illustrated and enriched by haunting music, archive film and revealing rushes of television news footage. Curtis works in the tradition of what film theorist Patricia Pisters, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, has recently called 'filmmaker-metallurgists', bending the 'matter-flows' of the archive to create alternative histories. Watching Curtis's ‘outtake’ sequences - the news films that never made it to our screens - one feels a strong sense of the uncanny. Curtis’s material exposes, in Freud's famous formulation, that which ‘ought to have remained hidden and secret’. As we listen to US marines - shrouded, symbolically enough, in darkness - boasting of being ‘natural born killers’, we are made privy to the obscene underside of Western rhetoric about democracy and freedom. The footage of an armed attack on President Karzai's motorcade, meanwhile, is both horrific and - perhaps because of its graininess and the absence of any voiceover - distinctly dreamlike. But however unreal such scenes may seem, they reveal ugly truths about Afghanistan then and now. At its best, Bitter Lake invokes a form of political uncanny, staging a return of our repressed knowledge about Afghanistan's bloody history, unearthing 'strangely familiar', half-forgotten stories about the country’s imperialist past.
Curtis also suggests something of how the confusions and contradictions of Western geopolitical strategy are reflected and refracted in popular culture via references to the Afghan version of The Thick of It and Solaris, repeatedly comparing the effects of Soviet (and later Western) involvement in Afghanistan with those of the noxious, hallucinogenic ocean in Tarkovsky's classic film. Such points are mostly left implicit. In fact, Bitter Lake, perhaps to a greater extent than other Curtis documentaries, is largely a writerly text: the viewer is invited to forge connections between seemingly disparate textual elements.
When Curtis himself tries to join the dots, however, he is not always convincing. While the elliptical nature of this film sometimes makes it is hard to be certain what is being claimed, there is something disingenuous about some of Curtis’s arguments. As in The Power of Nightmares, Curtis seems to take at face value the US ruling class's post-9/11 claim to want to ‘liberate’ the Middle East into democracy, arguing that this noble vision failed. I'm not so sure: no doubt many US politicians and top brass genuinely bought into their own rhetoric - but surely not all of them did. Curtis also claims that Western politicians since the close of the twentieth century have collapsed their explanatory narratives into ‘simple stories of good versus evil’, thus obscuring the truth, for example, about what has been happening in Afghanistan and why allied troops were sent there - an odd proposition insofar as Manichean simplifications have always been a key element of Western propaganda.
By acknowledging of the role played by Saudi oil and opium production in the fortunes of Afghanistan, Curtis mostly avoids the impression given in some of his other documentaries that history is driven by the ideological convictions of political cliques, leaders and Great Men, rather than material imperatives - although there are still traces of idealism in some of Curtis's faux-naif pronouncements ('In 1978, they decided to have a revolution'). At such moments one become aware of the contrast between the rich, materialist analysis of Curtis's archive material and the rather attenuated, idealist nature of some of his theses. But these are relatively minor objections to what is an engaging film that brings to light some of the brutality and bloodshed caused by Western imperialism in the Middle East.