BBC iPlayer review: Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis)
Ivan Radford | On 12, Feb 2015
If you’ve ever wondered why the world today is so messed up, or why the news doesn’t include random clips from Carry On Up the Khyber, then Bitter Lake is for you.
Adam Curtis’ documentary first aired in a small, five-minute fragment during Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe – a burst of brain-melting filmmaking that questioned the way the world is presented to us.
The question was simple: why doesn’t anything politicians tell us make sense anymore? The answer is dizzyingly complex.
Curtis takes us back 70 odd years to when a deal was struck on the titular lake (in the Suez Canal) between the US and Saudi Arabia. That agreement set in motion a machine that continues today: one powered by oil. Our dependence on the black stuff gave the nation political leverage, which led too America providing military clout and supporting the religious movement of Wahhabism, which, Curtis argues, helped to pave the way for radical Islam today.
Curtis presents this relationship between the Middle East and the West by editing together bits of raw material filmed in Afghanistan over the past 30 years by the BBC: rushes that see locals introduced to “art” (Marcel Duchamp’s urinal) and troops helping to import our idea of democracy, all acts fuelled by a lack of cultural understanding.
The movie wears its experimental approach on its sleeve. A sleeve adorned with an increasingly unpredictable soundtrack – Adam Curtis’ MP3 collection may be one of the most diverse, and disturbing, in Britain (listen out for David Bowie). But that disjointed style feels right at home on BBC iPlayer. It’s hard to imagine a traditional TV channel broadcasting this. Even its runtime – a daunting 2 hours and 16 minutes – feels boldly unconventional.
The hodgepodge of confused events only emphasises how crafted our perception of Afghanistan and other nations has become: normally packaged up neatly for the terrestrial news, it’s all part of what Bitter Lake reveals to be an oversimplified narrative. Good versus bad. Us versus them. That false dichotomy dictated foreign policy, as people in authority embraced the familiarity of the fairytale formula, only making conditions overseas worse.
And so we see soldiers shooting without knowing who they’re firing at. Then, we see people dancing – but to completely the wrong tune. The juxtapositions are as darkly funny as they are disorienting.
As the global picture become more complex, Curtis concludes, the story presented to us makes even less sense. It’s a lucid point that emerges through a hazy dream of logic and frustration, one that flits between facts and comedy footage with a scathing, if scattershot, eye. Digs at the banks, for example, who were given an increasingly free rein by the West and have built up their own power, do not always slot smoothly into the video essay – adding, you suspect, to its unwieldy runtime. And even in 127 minutes, no matter how ambitious those minutes may be, Curtis cannot possibly hope to explain in full the intricate subtleties of what has happened since 1945 – Reagan! Bush! Blair! Bush again! – without bias, generalisation or even producing dichotomies of his own.
But Bitter Lake isn’t your typical documentary: half art installation and half non-fiction, it’s less about answers and objective facts and more about provoking you to question the conventional way we perceive the world. It’s not tidy or easy to digest, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s all over the place, it’s challenging, and despite (or because of) that, it’s unlike anything else on the telly.
Released while the Beeb are preparing to move BBC Three into a fully online channel, it’s a promising sign of the kind of new content the broadcaster is willing to give a digital platform to. Unleashed from its five-minute, condensed form on BBC Two, Bitter Lake’s fragmented ideas coalesce to form what feels like a deafening, important truth bomb.
Bitter Lake is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until January 2022.