Review: Bitter Lake

Image: BBC
Image: BBC

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A mirage forms a flickering image of a camel and rider. Their general form is discernible but the colour, the camel’s features, the rider’s identity and all details that reveal anything more useful than the fact that a camel and rider are visible are too complex to be seen through the filter of the heat haze. This brief clip in the collage that is Bitter Lake oddly enough draws a strong parallel with the overarching theme of the film. That what we see of world affairs is in fact a simplified image of events with much of the real information obscured or lost, often leaving us with the wrong impression, like water in the desert.

Bitter Lake is the most recent documentary from filmmaker Adam Curtis, creator of the BBC documentary series Pandora’s Box and All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, among others. His idiosyncratic style sets him well apart from others in the field; he builds a collage of footage not only linked by chronology and relevance but also by aesthetic. His films can stand as sources of information and as works of art on equal footing. Like a video essay of sorts, each film usually has a thesis idea which is discussed and expounded upon by Curtis with the detailed string of footage playing accompaniment to his solo performance.

Curtis proposes that our desire for simple explanations for what goes on around us is incompatible with the way the modern world works, using the Middle-East as an example. Starting with American engineers brought in to modernise Afghanistan in the 1940s, he explores the events and reactions that follow this and many future instances of western presence in the area, continuing to the modern day, up to and including ISIS. He then goes on to discuss how the parties involved in these resulting conflicts provide their own condensed narratives to make sense of this chaotic situation that the Middle East has been plunged into, usually to their own ends. Using the words “ruthlessly simplified” to describe this, he suggests that this spinning of stories is very much a part of war itself.

I could continue explaining the content of this film but I would rather have you watch the film and listen to Adam Curtis narrate the events far more articulately and in much more detail than this review will allow. It would also leave me no space to talk about the equally important aspects of this documentary outside of pure information.

Some of the most powerful sequences in Bitter Lake are where the voiceover stops and the footage is left to speak for itself. The lines between war film fiction and reality are uncomfortably blurred by a clip of a group of Marines euphorically telling the camera how they fired several rounds against orders, killing a ‘whole bunch of people,’ a scene which would not be too out of place in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Later in the film there a number of shots of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, since destroyed by the Taliban, zooming out to emphasise the sheer scale of these colossal sculptures. They serve as a reminder of Afghanistan’s past and add an extra dimension of beauty to a country popularly thought of as a battleground.

While these stretches of film do well to set the tone, they do end up leaving extended gaps between the actual content. On the one hand this does well to produce a bleak mood, like the arid environments present in the Middle East but on the other, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to complain about these artistic flourishes getting in the way of learning about the situation there. After all, Bitter Lake is still a documentary at heart.

Of course, I can’t talk about at Adam Curtis film without mentioning the soundtrack. One of the most recognisable traits of his distinctive style is the diverse selection of music accompanying the footage, ranging from classical to ambient electronic. London based producer Burial is a particular favourite, often evoking an increasing sense of paranoia and tension, as his voiceover tells us of the dark world beyond our screens. These modern compositions seem almost anachronistic when played alongside scenes in a country so less developed than their place of origin, the most memorable instance of this is when Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ blares over scenes ranging from a Middle Eastern man laughing and joking as his friends film him to a footage western military ground offensive to a Taliban rally against British forces. While it might seem like it would be out of place, it manages to link these initially dissonant scenes together by adding a melancholic harmony over all three.

The song serves as more than just atmosphere building. West’s vocal performance in the particular segment used is overlaid with so many electronic effects that any lyrics are lost, reducing the verses to bleeping melodies. This satisfyingly reflects this idea behind the film, of the gross simplification of the world around us. Curtis discusses the fact that despite the clear complexities of the situation in the Middle East which he outlines, those in power still present us with basic narratives of Good versus Evil. Several factions exist in the area, existing in conflict with the west and themselves but we still hear about them largely in an ‘extremist group of the week’ format. If we’re lucky, we even get effective supervillain figures like Bin laden to allow us to really focus our emotional response onto a convenient point. Islamic state fights the west today, will Al-Qaeda make a comeback next episode? Stay tuned to find out.

In the end the thread holding this tapestry of a film together is truth. As a documentary it is supposed to bring us the truth and it does its best to sharpen the blurred images we are faced with. Beyond the voices we hear in our media Curtis reveals a cacophony of truths all interfering to form a morally chaotic landscape. His explanations do little to give us satisfying answers and serve more as admission that any attempt to construct a narrative around these events ends up being inadequate in one way or another. That the purest instances of truth he can produce are these clips of archive footage that simply show us what happened in a very limited frame of time and location. This shrug could be the only ‘real’ response to this evironment, a postmodern rejection of the notion of absolute truth in favour of deconstructing the stories we are told.

As Nietzsche said, ‘There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes – and consequently there are many kinds of truths, and consequently there is no truth.’

2 thoughts on “Review: Bitter Lake

  • When i saw this documentary it really spoke to me. Im at durham now but in 2012 i was in Afghanistan with the army. I Spent six months there and came back feeling confused and that the whole trip was hopelessly pointless. This documentary helped me tie up and link loose threads that i was searching for in my mind. Before we went, we were told that the enemy was ruthless, well organised and everywhere, and anywhere all at once. We spent so long looking for monsters under the bed and almost always finding nothing. Yes we were shot at and there were IEDs and such all around and of course it can be a dangerous place. But almost every compound we went in that we were told was ‘definitely’ a large scale weapons factory or store turned out to be someones home. The fear and paranoia that the media seems to love to spread, was so heavily disseminated through us all that we were seeing enemies everywhere. Which is why i think how we came to make so many in the first place. If you treat everyone as a threat and group so many different people as one enemy and call them Taliban, then you are bound to become at odds with them at some point. Simplification and ignorance made our time their destructive rather than constructive. The one lesson that i came home with though and id like everyone to learn (if they haven’t already) is that everybody in the world is genuinely the same, we are all looking for the same basic things in life. And there is no such thing as good and evil and that concept is so corrosive to our world its sickening. A lot of what Curtis says has no reference or evidence. Some references at the end would help, Harvard style please, but i am inclined to share his general opinions of the world. Thanks for making the article. Proud another Durham student is taking note

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  • great review! 10/10 would recommend to a friend! 98% of students thought this was well written! try it, you’ll love it, or your money back! excellent! he’s done it again! great review!

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