Explore Afghanistan’s Complicated History in ‘Bitter Lake’
Adam Curtis’ newest documentary shirks simple narratives and linear storytellin
The wheelchair-bound veteran does pull-ups on the subway car. His face contorts behind his sunglasses.
“We’re going to fry their village!” he yells in Russian.
“Why don’t you shut up?” a woman asks him.
“We’re your boys, you stupid bitch,” he screams while trying to ram his wheelchair into her legs. Another man pulls him away. The veteran leans forward, grins and takes off his sunglasses. His eyes are wild.
“We’ve brought back mujahideen ghosts!” he laughs. He’s a veteran of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
It’s a scene from an unidentified Russian movie. Filmmaker Adam Curtis uses the clip in his new documentary Bitter Lake to help illustrate the lasting impact the invasion had on Russia.
On the surface, Bitter Lake is a movie about Afghanistan. The bulk of its more than two-hour run-time covers the country’s history since World War II, and its interaction with foreign powers.
But Afghanistan is just a prism to view more complicated ideas. Bitter Lake is about the West, reductionist narratives of good versus evil, and the failure of journalists and politicians to make sense of an increasingly complicated planet.
“[Those stories] led us in the West to become a dangerous and destructive force in the world,” Curtis argues.
He’s a fascinating director. His previous films include The Power of Nightmares—which charts the rise of neoconservatism alongside Islamism—and The Century of the Self, which explains how advertisers used Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas.
Bitter Lake has all the marks of a Curtis film. His style is minimalist, dream-like and frightening. He relies on stock footage, unedited news rushes, ambient music, interviews with primary sources and sparse narration. The finished product is always moving, surreal and unique.
He uses newsreel footage spliced with home movies from diplomats, the 1972 film Solaris and a British comedy called Carry On… Up the Khyber.
Curtis also spent days in the BBC archives pouring through hundreds of hours of unwatched footage filmed in the past decade in Afghanistan. He pulled strange and candid moments from the footage and uses it as the backbone in Bitter Lake.
British Army officers walk into a store to negotiate the rental of a copy machine. The soldiers haggle through a translator. The Afghan wants $500 per month to rent the machine. It’s unclear if either party fully understands the terms of the deal.
A wounded little girl waits in a chair next to an older man. Her face is scarred, her limbs wrapped in bandages. A plastic tiara sits on her head. One eye is swollen shut, the other is blank. Men off camera argue about how to best set up the shot. Should she hold the flower or should the man kneeling at her side give it to her?
A well-meaning British woman attempts to teach conceptual art to a group of Afghan women using Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The lecturer struggles to explain how a signed urinal is a piece of powerful political art.
Bitter Lake is dense, complicated and smart. At the heart of the film is the sense that the past was easier to understand. During the 20th century, rival political philosophies such as fascism and communism provided relatively uncomplicated bad guys.
The West attempted to construct a similar story about the war in Afghanistan. But the country is far too complex to reduce into a conflict between good and evil. Worse, years of meddling by foreign powers have deepened a system of graft and corruption amid a tableau of overlapping tribal and familial relationships.
When Western leaders framed Afghanistan in the old narrative, they played into its system of corruption. Worse, they set their own soldiers on a course for failure.
An interview late in the film with a British Army captain explains just how deadly a mistake this was. “We understood the conflict as good, bad. Black, white. Government, Taliban,” he says. “They’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other … over power.”
According to the officer, the Taliban—and so the bad guys—were whoever other Afghans told him were Taliban. Once the local tribal leaders figured that out, they often accused rivals of being baddies as a way of getting the British to do their dirty work.
“We thought that we were civilizing a backwards country by exposing it to television, to modern bombers, to schools,” Curtis quotes Russian reporter Artyom Borovik. “But we rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us.”
Bitter Lake argues that the war in Afghanistan affected the West in ways that it’s only beginning to understand. To Curtis, the most important is that it eroded the West’s ability to hide behind a simple narrative. “Underneath, we believe in nothing,” he says.
Those coming to Bitter Lake looking for an easy understanding of the war won’t find it. That’s a good thing.