Too Dangerous for Television: Adam Curtis’ Afghanistan Documentary ‘Bitter Lake’


Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis’ aesthetically sublime and politically incisive new documentary, was commissioned for BBC’s iPlayer because it is presumably, as Russia Today writes, “too dangerous for television.” After consuming the film by way of a 21st-century samizdat, I can tell you that the propaganda arm of the Kremlin is correct on one score: Bitter Lake is politically dangerous for Western states, especially the US and UK. But it’s also an affront to Russia, and virtually every other state that has attempted to force strategic advantage in Saudia Arabia and Afghanistan. And it is, literally, too dangerous for television: Curtis was given access to years of footage of Afghanistan from the BBC archives. That includes every shot they refused to air on TV.

The film begins with a nightvision image of a full moon lingering over an Afghan mountain. Then Curtis speaks a voice-over narration:

Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow. This is a film about why those stories have stopped making sense, and how that led us in the West to become a dangerous and destructive force in the world. It is told through the prism of a country at the center of the world: Afghanistan.

What happens next is intellectually rapturous and visually alarming. The film skims into a musical montage, a documentary dance sequence that begins with a young British girl whirling on a stage in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 1953, where the story begins. From there: a stream of archival footage of London’s elite dancing in a ballroom; Ukraine soldiers frolicking by a fire; a Citicorp building lit up like a dance floor. The whole world, for decades, appears to be under the ideological sway of official narratives that justify political opportunism and militaristic intervention. Finally the footage transitions into a blood-smeared camera, swaying to the ground amid fighting in an Afghan war zone.

Along with Jean-Luc Godard and the now-passed Harun Farocki, Curtis is one of cinema’s most sharp-witted and dauntless chroniclers of Western power. His films, like The Century of the Self and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, take a razor to the narratives we inherit from state officials, corporate propagandists, and finance overlords. The complaint most often tilted at Curtis is that his documentaries put into action exactly the same methods they seek to depose: the narrative machinations of the ruling elite are traded for Curtis’ own politicized oversimplifications. I steadfastly disagree. Curtis works in documentary journalism; his toolkit is not limited to voice-over statements or straightforward narrative continuity. The arguments put forward in his films are worked out, stretched, washed, and burned in images. And the images we’re presented in Bitter Lake are undeniable.

Bitter Lake’s narrative begins at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal, with FDR’s little-known but historic meeting with King Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, during the events of World War II. FDR, at the time, was dying, but he knew that to secure the modernized world he began with America’s New Deal, he would need oil. In exchange, a large dam project, reminiscent of the one undertaken in the U.S., was inaugurated in Afghanistan. (That dam, by the way, had the unforeseen effect of rapidly increasing the growth of opium-producing poppies.) The terms of the deal also included the safeguarding of an ultraconservative strain of Islam that retained a powerful minority in Saudia Arabia — one that has mutated, many times over, into the Caliphate-seeking force we see today.

From there, Bitter Lake traces the complex interventions of Western and Soviet governments in Afghanistan, which were largely driven by the ideological conflicts of the Cold War. It moves back and forth between conventional documentary and contemporary footage of Afghanistan — as when, for example, American soldiers brag about being “born killers” and going “off-command” to slay Afghans. The film demonstrates, through the power of images, that Afghanistan has mysteriously resisted these interventions. As a result, the web of global politics, fed persistently by a financial system drunk on petroldollars, is now far too intricate to match the Good vs. Evil narrative we’re bequeathed. Even our own governments can no longer keep track of the story; in Afghanistan, the film unquestionably demonstrates, we no longer even know who we’re fighting against.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is the Guardian’s Emma-Graham Harrison, who lived in Kabul for years:

Adam Curtis’s long dive into the troubled and troubling history of Afghanistan is a brilliant summary of a lesson drummed into me over four years living in Kabul – how devastating naivety and good intentions can be when untempered by humility, knowledge or at least a desire to learn.

As far as Western states are concerned: it’s hard to believe a more damning or dangerous documentary will be released this year. Bitter Lake is an astounding journalistic intervention, a disorienting film where moments of ideological innocence are intercut with bombings and murder. In the face of increasingly simplistic narratives about the enlightenment and Western intervention in the Middle East: I dare an American network to air it.