Bitter Lake is a highly unconventional documentary, in equal parts haunting, chilling and moving. Like some of Adam Curtis’ earlier pieces, narration is kept to a minimum — quite fitting, considering the touching meta-narrative it tells. At over two hours long, it is like falling down the rabbit hole.
Bitter Lake is titled after the one-time meeting place of President Roosevelt and the Saudi royalty. Curtis painstakingly puts together an array of scenes like a jigsaw puzzle, to create the story of our lives, with all of modern western civilisation and global socio-economic geo-politics as its backdrop. Curtis adeptly uses music and archive footage to create an audiovisual experience which draws you in and refuses to let go. This is a visual essay, even a manifesto of sorts.
Film clips jump about from locale to locale, era to era, in a non-linear fashion as bewildering as the death and destruction they portray. Curtis has a storyteller’s voice, a voice of reason, yet his tone is that of a doctor soothing a dying patient.
The film reminded me of Hansen and Rubin’s “Listening Post” art installation at the Science Museum in London, the eerie, unnerving feeling of being privy to dangerous knowledge. But Curtis is no crackpot conspiracy theorist — he merely blows the dust from parts of the recent historical record, bringing new light to areas that we (or at least our leaders) have chosen to forget. The plot itself is so convoluted that I won’t even bother to describe it, but I can sum it up with snippets as tangled as the film itself.
Mystery and intrigue, love and war, cloak and dagger, religion and oil. Opium and dams. The Cold War. Social engineering. Arms deals. Attempts at anti-communism failing, the fundamentalist and extremist “cure” being worse than the Stalinist disease. The balance of power. Psychotropic slow pans over beautiful landscapes. Petrodollars and banking. How the neoliberal Tories and Republicans replaced wage growth with lending and easy credit, an illusion of progress. Self-perpetuating violence, a vicious circle. How Kabul was destroyed in the post-Soviet power vacuum. Bribes and corruption. Why the 21st century brought a simplification of everything into perceived black and white, good versus evil, a fatally flawed moralisation.
If you want to know more then I’ll leave you with a quotation from Thomas Paine, which is paraphrased by Reagan near the film’s conclusion: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
I must warn you that his film contains graphic imagery; Curtis is not afraid to show a brutal and unflinching depiction of the past 70 years in Afghanistan, which includes harrowing images.
If you only see one film in 2015, make it Bitter Lake. Everything else is irrelevant. This is something you should watch as if your life depended on it.
Bitter Lake is available on BBC iPlayer.