“Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us 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 destructive and dangerous force in the world.”
With these words, Adam Curtis begins his latest collagelike nonfiction horror film, Bitter Lake, which premiered on the BBC in late January and has since become readily available online. Lake centers on the modern history of Afghanistan and that nation’s influence on British and American foreign policy from the 1940s to the present. In characteristic fashion, Curtis presents the material nonchronologically, and he often deviates from the core narrative to consider other topics—in this case, the fall of the Soviet Union, the neoconservative revolution of the 1980s, and the Saudi Arabian government’s sponsorship of violent extremists throughout the Muslim world. Curtis introduces new ideas only to return to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, which he portrays as a living hell. This isn’t a history lesson so much as a waking nightmare, a death cycle. Those opening remarks might be impossible to prove, but by the end of the film, you feel in your gut that they make sense.
Bitter Lake differs from earlier Curtis essay films (among them The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) in that there’s less footage than usual from old comedies, industrial films, and advertisements. In the past Curtis employed such materials to foster a sense of ironic detachment from real events—Lake denies the viewer such comfortable distance. Much of the film consists of firsthand accounts of war-torn Afghanistan, recorded by Western soldiers and journalists as well as Afghans under fire. Another crucial difference is that Curtis doesn’t narrate over the events as much as he typically does—it’s like he’s been stunned to silence by the atrocities he’s witnessed.
Yet the filmmaking is no less artful than you’d expect from England’s most innovative documentarian. It’s just a different kind of artfulness, hardened and deformed by the facts of historical atrocity, much like Scott Walker’s albums The Drift (2006) and Bisch Bosch (2012). And like Walker, Curtis employs unfamiliar sounds to evoke a world deprived of humanity. The majority of the music consist of unnerving electronic compositions, which in turn often give way to ominous drone. When a familiar song comes up on the soundtrack—like David Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers”—the effect is like encountering a ghost from a simpler time.
Central to Lake is the specter of Wahhabism, “a violent, intolerant, and above all backward-looking version of Islam,” per Curtis’s narration. The film introduces Wahhabism early on, identifying the roots of its malignant growth at a 1945 meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia at the Bitter Lake that forms part of the Suez Canal. Roosevelt wanted to use his political power “in an extraordinary way, to remake the world,” and in order to do this he needed access to the Saudis’ oil reserves. In exchange for oil, he promised to provide the Saudis with money and military support and not to interfere with the nation’s religious affairs. The King then sponsored Wahhabi training centers across the country—to distract public attention, Curtis argues, from his controversial efforts to Westernize the country. Future Saudi rulers would take this mission one step further, sponsoring Wahhabi schools abroad. The spread of Wahhabism would lead to the formation of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Isis, the latter of which dominates the film’s despairing final sequence.
Curtis parallels the rise of radical Islam with the rise of neoliberal economics in the west. His mission, however, isn’t to suggest a correlation between the two. (Curtis previously inspired controversy with The Power of Nightmares by suggesting that radical Islam and western neoconservatism were interdependent phenomena.) Rather he argues that American and British governments have been unable to respond adequately to the threat of Wahhabism because they’ve given away so much political power to the markets since the early 1980s. There’s overlap here with Curtis’s 1999 documentary series The Mayfair Set, which was subtitled “Four Stories About the Rise of Business and the Decline of Political Power.” But before he painted neoliberalism as a malign force that decimated the manufacturing industry across the western world. In Lake, the ideology seems delusional, a fleeting distraction from economic crises at home and military entanglements abroad. When discussing the neoliberal revolution, Curtis sometimes cuts to vintage footage of Americans dancing at a discotheque—a pithy illustration of bread-and-circuses in action—only to follow it with an image of atrocity.
As such moments indicate, Curtis hasn’t lost his sense of irony, though the ironies in Lake tend to be very grim. Curtis can’t resist drawing parallels between the Soviets’ attempts to modernize Afghanistan in the 1980s and comparable efforts made by the Americans and the British 20 years later. He presents similar passages of volunteers from the occupying nations working enthusiastically with Afghans in Kabul, and in both passages, he shows Afghan women telling TV journalists how happy they are that the new era will see an increase in women’s rights. Their optimism is almost painful to watch, knowing how short-lived it will be. Still Curtis finds room for a bit of comic relief during one of these segments—a bit of TV news footage from the early 2000s showing a British woman struggling to teach a Kabul college class about conceptual art.
“We thought that we were civilizing a backwards country by exposing it to TV, modern bombers, schools,” Curtis quotes Russian journalist Artyom Borovik saying in the early 80s, “but we rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us.” Bitter Lake is Curtis’s attempt to do just that. The film, which presents the crisis in Afghanistan as all but insurmountable, suggests that anyone who tries to conquer the problem from without ends up sacrificing his humanity in the process. (Before he even introduces the subject of Wahhabism, he presents an American soldier bragging on his video diary that he just “went against orders and killed a whole bunch of people.”) And not only his humanity, but his very orientation in the world—losing himself in a cycle of violence, much like Bitter Lake itself.