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. It's an attempt at 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 - you feel 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 a group of 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 - dreamlike. But however unreal such scenes may seem, they reveal ugly realities of Afghan realpolitik 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 to Tarkovsky's Solaris, repeatedly comparing the disorienting effects of Soviet (and later Western) involvement in Afghanistan with those of the noxious, hallucinogenic ocean in the classic film. But the analogies 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, the result is not always convincing. The elliptical nature of this film sometimes makes it is hard to be certain exactly what is actually being claimed. And where Curtis is more explicit, there is often something disingenuous about the argument. 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. But this is an odd proposition insofar as this kind of Manichean simplification has always been an important element of Western interventionist 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 cliques, political leaders and Great Men, rather than material imperatives. But there are still traces of idealism in some of Curtis's faux-naif pronouncements; 'in 1978, they decided to have a revolution' is perhaps the most ridiculous of these. 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 this is nevertheless an engaging film that brings to light some of the brutality and bloodshed caused by Western imperialism in the Middle East.