Adam Curtis has released another brilliant film, perhaps his finest. Bitter Lake is long, but it’s worth it. It’s visually stunning and examines history in Curtis’s usual manner, with a focus on incompetence, irrationality, complexity, the surreal, the absurd, and the macabre. He’s perfected his form of storytelling and woven together strands from previous films into one epic.
Adam Curtis’s latest film is available on the iPlayer, for Brits, for another 29 days; but for those outside Britain, you might want to watch it quickly on youtube before it’s taken down.
For more Adam Curtis films see The Great Big Adam Curtis Binge-Watch.
If the video is down please try here at the Daily Motion site.
If Curtis’s last film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), felt as if it introduced too many ideas, Bitter Lake has a unity of form and content that makes it his most compelling work for more than a decade. It’s at once his most experimental and his most satisfying film — a new departure for him and for digital TV. “The way factual programmes are edited has become so rigid and formulaic that people don’t really look any more,” he says. “What’s interesting about some of the experimental video stuff I’ve seen is how they hold shots for a long time, with the aim of making you really look at it. And I realised I had an opportunity to use the unedited Afghan material in this way — to allow you to become absorbed in it.”
At one point, an art teacher, sent to Kabul on a humanitarian mission, tries to teach a classroom full of Afghan children about conceptual art, telling them that Marcel Duchamp’s famous pissoir is a very important part of Western culture. The children look appalled. In another sequence, a bird tries to make friends with a British soldier lying in wait for his enemy. The soldier seemingly cannot believe he has found something so beautiful in the midst of so much horror.
Both sequences lend texture to the film’s broader thesis — that the simple “good-vs-evil” narratives our leaders have used to justify our interventions in the world’s trouble spots have no relevance to the complex realities we have found there. It becomes clear we didn’t really know what we were doing in Afghanistan. The experience, Curtis suggests, has marked Britain more than it has Afghanistan.
Curtis cites a biggest influence as John Dos Passos, the Depression-era American novelist whose opus USA combined fact, fiction and attempts to capture the nature of reality. (He also says he learned to use humour from Esther Rantzen; his first job in TV was on That’s Life.)
Despite using techniques borrowed from art, he maintains that what he is doing is journalism. “I’m not an artist, I’m absolutely insistent on that. I think journalists have an important mission, to tell us what is happening in the world. However, I’ve got this obsession with the fact that journalism is lagging behind modern sensibility. The ideal I always had was a hybrid: a strong piece of analytical journalism complemented by a strong sense of mood, an immersive way of experiencing the argument as well. We’re emotional people, we feel things too.”