It’s hard to describe Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake documentary in the proverbial nutshell.
It’s beautiful, funny, disturbing, profound, often surreal. It’s also highly ambitious, taking on a big historical narrative that interweaves the USA, Britain, the USSR, Saudi Arabia and above all Afghanistan. And it’s long – an epic two hours and twenty minutes.
So what exactly is it about?
In the film-maker’s words, it asks why the stories today’s politicians and mainstream media keep telling us have stopped making sense.
Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us lost, bewildered, disorientated, in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog – and then disappear again, unexplained.
You know the feeling?
Curtis argues that those in power simplify their stories into easy-to-digest nuggets, black-and-white arguments about struggles between Good and Evil. These simplified stories become “increasingly unconvincing and hollow”, he says, as they fail to grasp or understand the complexity and chaos of the real world.
Here’s a rough idea of how the documentary begins.
- A young ballerina girl is twirling around in a home movie, Super-8 style. It could be a typical slice of 1950s North American suburbia. In a way it is. Yet the caption tells us this is “Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 1953”.
- Next, more dancers. Black and white footage. Ballroom dancers, thousands of them, in gowns and tuxedos in a huge space. The caption says “London, the same time”.
- Next, two men dancing about in a wood, almost like wrestlers eyeing each other up. “Ukraine, 1989”. There’s a surprising amount of dancing in this documentary.
- Next, humans dressed as animals. It’s a TV studio. The cameramen are in traditional Saudi garb. “Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1974”.
- Next, “Wall Street, New York, 1993”. An aerial night-time shot of a skyscraper: Citicorp. I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner.
- Next, a spot of blood on the camera lens. Cars, soldiers, smoke, a war scene.
What do all these images mean? How are they all connected, if at all?
‘Little America’ in Helmand
The early sequence from Helmand Province is expanded upon. It’s referring to the dam projects of the 1950s in Afghanistan.
Thousands of US engineers were flown in to Helmand with their wives and families. They worked for Morrison Knudsen, the biggest construction company in the world (it also built the Hoover Dam and San Francisco Bay Bridge).
The king of Afghanistan wanted to transform the bleak Mars-like desert into a planned new world. His nation-building dream was to tame the Helmand river and remake Southern Afghanistan in North America’s image – much as FDR’s New Deal was literally stamped on the American landscape through huge public works. Hence the Helmand Valley Authority was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority in the US.
The American families lived in a complex near the king’s residence in Helmand. With its swimming pools and Christmas parties and little ballerina girls, the complex and the town of Lashkar Gah became known as Little America. There are plenty of surreal incongruities in the home movies and propaganda film footage from this time.
There were drainage and salination problems. The king was deposed. There was a series of coups, and the valley never did become Afghanistan’s breadbasket. Instead, it became the world’s largest grower of opium-producing poppies.
Sorry. I’m already giving the impression of a standard, linear, straightforward historical documentary. This is far from it. Adam Curtis’s film would probably be more commonly described as impressionistic, poetic, lyrical, in a style that he has honed over many years of documentary-making.
The BBC gave Curtis access to the unedited rushes of almost everything the station has ever shot in Afghanistan. Thousands upon thousands of hours of film, including many hidden gems never previously broadcast.
More surprisingly, his documentary also makes frequent use of clips from Carry On Up the Khyber and Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi film Solaris. There’s even a short sequence from the Afghan version of The Thick of It.
The Quincy Agreement
The documentary takes its title from the meeting of US president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, on board the USS Quincy on the Great Bitter Lake, which is part of the Suez Canal system.
It was 14 February 1945, the World War was coming to an end, the Cold War about to begin. After the Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt flew directly to the Great Bitter Lake to conclude a secret pact with the Saudi royal family. It’s sometimes called the Quincy Agreement after the ship.
The US would provide military assistance to Saudi Arabia and buy its oil. This gave the US control of a key energy supplier during the Cold War era. The Saudi monarchy in turn would gain wealth and military security, and would be free to promote Wahhabism, a violent, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Curtis argues that the Saudi regime in turn has fostered the various “pseudo-Jihadic” forces outside Saudi Arabia from the 1970s to the present, from the Mujahideen and Taliban to Al-Qaeda and IS.
All “ancient history” so far, you might think, yet this strange alliance continues to have major ramifications.
The soldiers from the superpowers arrived in Afghanistan thinking they had a simple mission: to fight evil on its home ground. The Western politicians’ stories about the world had become so simplified that they were completely out of synch with reality. The Western forces were dragged into ancient turf wars, battling to support governments riddled with corruption, often feeding the very problems they thought they were tackling.
Bitter Lake may not be a perfect film, but it is different and unforgettable. It might even make you see the world in a different way. It was made exclusively for the BBC’s iPlayer and – unlike most of the BBC’s output – will continue to be available online “for over a year”.
If you are outside the UK and can’t access the BBC iPlayer, don’t panic. Either get a free browser extension such as Hola (one of those brilliantly naughty VPN things that make the BBC think you’re in the UK), or search for the film on Dailymotion.com. Don’t say I told you.
The Great Wall
As a companion piece, check out Irish film-maker Tadhg O’Sullivan’s dazzling documentary The Great Wall, about the walls and borders of Fortress Europe today. Unlike Adam Curtis’s film there is no main commentary – apart from quotes from a Franz Kafka short story – but the footage and soundtrack add up to a powerful, mysterious, mesmerising experience. It’s a timely reminder of how half the world is becoming obsessed with building walls instead of bridges.
Check out Rabble magazine’s excellent interview with O’Sullivan by Rashers Tierney.