Bitter Lake: Adam Curtis offers a compelling explainer of our chaotic times
bitter lake

Adam Curtis uses Afghanistan as the prism for Bitter Lake, his latest rumination on the modern world, and he does more than any brief news report to make sense of the shifting sands of global power, writes Nick Mitchell

The central message of Adam Curtis’s extraordinary new documentary Bitter Lake is that politicians are no longer able to make sense of the complex, chaotic world with the simple moral fables of old.

This is a criticism the documentary maker extends to journalism – and, presumably, his colleagues at the BBC – when he writes in his introductory blog that the news cycle is now comprised of “disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information”, without any explanatory context.

Bitter Lake, a two-hour plus visual essay on the past 90 years of geopolitics, is clearly Curtis’s attempt to put that right – albeit in his own artsy style.

For anyone not familiar with Curtis’s CV – which included, most recently, 2011’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a brilliant three-part discursive series which joined the dots between Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and the selfish gene theory – he uses offcuts of archive footage, spliced together in unexpected ways, often accompanied by esoteric electronic music and weird soundscapes, and attempts to explain the competing ideas and shifting tectonic plates of global power.

With Bitter Lake Curtis uses Afghanistan as the unfortunate, bullet-ridden setting for decades of misguided incursions, foreign exploitation and political gamesmanship between the US, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, the UK.

At times, some of the clips in the 136 minute film, which Curtis sourced from thousands of old tapes in the BBC archive, are overlong or simply redundant to his narrative. Bitter Lake could quite easily have been trimmed to a leaner, meaner hour and 45 minutes.

But as it’s been released exclusively on the iPlayer (a bold new strategy in itself), we can forgive Curtis for being a little indulgent in the editing studio. And most of the footage he uses carries its own weird beauty (like a soldier playing gently with a bird that lands on his machine gun) or heart-wrenching power (a small girl with terrible war injuries gazing blankly into the camera from her hospital bed).

Curtis knows that often it’s the unintentional quirks or mistakes that make for the most compelling moments. There’s a lot of rushed zooming and refocusing in the offcuts, and when a soldier filming a battle scene misses a bomb strike completely, only to pan left hurriedly and catch a huge plume of smoke, it seems to underline the fact that most of the time world events can’t be easily condensed into a two-minute news report.

The death last week of King Abdullah makes Bitter Lake – which takes its name from a massively influential 1945 deal between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz – more relevant, as America’s uneasy relationship with the oil-rich, fundamentalist kingdom is back in the spotlight.

Chaos, complexity and brutal irony have defined the last century – it’s just as well that the BBC give Adam Curtis the freedom to at least try to make some sense of it all, in his own artful way.

Bitter Lake is available now to watch on the iPlayer (UK viewers only)

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