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 stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

So begins Bitter Lake, the new film from Adam Curtis who has previously brought us intellectually-challenging films such as The Century of the Self, which showed how the work of Freud, Jung and others was appropriated by business and politics, Power of Nightmares, that compared the rise of American neo-Conservativism with the radical Islamism  and claimed similarities between the two, and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which argued that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have ‘distorted and simplified our view of the world around us’.

Bitter Lake is being sown by the BBC only on iPlayer (the earlier films were shown on BBC2), which may or may not be an act of timidity on the broadcaster’s part.  It certainly comes at an aptly coincidental moment, appearing only days after the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, since Curtis’s film sets out to trace the connections between western support for the House of Saud and the British and American debacle in Afghanistan.

Peter Kennard , Photo Op, 2006
Peter Kennard , Photo Op, 2006

Stylistically, Bitter Lake shares the same features as Adam Curtis’s earlier films: a big idea presented through a marriage of extraordinary images, unearthly music and Curtis’s trademark narration.  Still immensely interesting to watch, this was, however, the least satisfying or revelatory of his documentaries.

Bitter Lake

At over two and a quarter hours, Bitter Lake really consisted of two separate films yoked together: one dealing with the origins of the west’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and how it has continued to shape policy; and the second on how the British involvement in Afghanistan descended into chaos and ignominy. The latter theme unbalances the film, as Curtis makes extensive use of footage shot by BBC cameramen in Afghanistan that has never previously been seen – footage discovered as BBC offices in Kabul were being cleared.  To build Bitter Lake, Curtis reviewed the many thousands of hours of unedited rushes – consisting of almost everything ever shot by the BBC in Afghanistan.


US president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia at Bitter Lake, 1945

Bitter Lake takes as its starting point the meeting in February 1945 between the US president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on a yacht on the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. The pair struck a deal: the US would support the newly-formed state of Saudi Arabia and, in return, the Saudis would ensure a continuing stream of oil to the west. From that one meeting, argues Curtis, came the spread of Wahhabi Islam which has exercised a baleful influence across the Middle East.

But that influence reached beyond the Middle East, argues Curtis. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the west has not only destabilised politics in the region, but in the west as well.  Curtis traces the impact of the oil shock of 1973 in bringing Thatcher and Reagan to power, and in the huge volume of petro-dollars that soon sloshed around the global financial system, consolidating the power of the big banks. Meanwhile, more Saudi money was channelled into spreading Wahhabi teaching through Pakistani madrassas, ultimately providing the ideological motor for Islamist terror groups.

But that thesis is buried in the avalanche of images that Curtis has unearthed from hundreds of hours of un-broadcast footage from Afghanistan.  Some of those images are extraordinarily memorable. There’s the bizarre sight of Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton marshalling a convoy of Afghan hounds to line the route when King Nadir Shah visited London; the three unsuccessful attempts by the Russians to assassinate the Marxist leader after the 1978 revolution (on the third occasion, they successfully poisoned him at an official banquet, but were foiled when servants called in a Russian doctor (not in on the plot) who stomach-pumped him).

Soldier and dove

There are countless shots of war, including footage of an attack on the Afghan president’s motorcade filmed from perilously close to the action, and of a cameraman lying in agony on the street, a gaping wound in his thigh, before he is ignominiously dragged out of shot. There’s a moment of quiet beauty as we observe a British soldier captivated by a dove that settles on his hand – and one of sheer absurdity at a Kabul training session in which a young British art teacher is seen introducing conceptual art – with a slide of Duchamp’s urinal – to a room of bemused and silently shocked students.

This footage takes up too much of the running time. Beguiling as it often is, it doesn’t really add anything to Curtis’s thesis – that a succession of Western leaders have infantilised world geopolitics into a binary face-off between good and evil. Bitter Lake presents a narrative of terrible arrogance by western leaders, their projection of ideals and power on Afghanistan, and their readiness to walk away when everything goes wrong. ‘Afghanistan’, concludes Curtis, ‘has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs.’

At the end of the 20th century Faced with a complex and chaotic world  Politicians retreated into simple stories of right and wrongMoral fables of good and evil

A similar assessment can be found in Jackson Lears review of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices in the current issue of the London Review of Books, in which he speaks of ‘Clinton’s exceptionalist faith in America’s unique responsibility for ‘global leadership’’:

There was a time when this meant leading by example, but since the Second World War, the phrase ‘global leadership’ has served as a euphemism for military intervention – multilateral if possible, unilateral if necessary. Indeed, exceptionalism has proved a durable justification for unilateralism. Presidential candidates from both parties have long felt obliged to pay homage to the exceptionalist creed, but Clinton’s attachment to it is obsessive. She says she wroteHard Choices ‘for anyone anywhere who wonders whether the US still has what it takes to lead’. She recalls Madeleine Albright’s threadbare interventionist slogan: the US, Clinton insists, remains ‘the indispensable nation’. As secretary of state, she acted on her faith by sponsoring the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and advocating US intervention in Syria. […]

Clinton’s hawkishness is a matter of moral and intellectual conviction. In Hard Choices, she tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as secretary of state. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing. Recent history becomes a series of rescue missions, staged opportunities for heroism worthy of Hollywood: mobs of brown-skinned extras look up to see helicopters – we are saved! The Americans have arrived! Such are the dreams that hover unarticulated in our political unconscious, allowing our leaders to redefine war as humanitarian intervention. […]

Clinton shows little concern for the actual consequences of ideas. Her indifference is most apparent in her attachment to the failed military policies of the recent past. While she admits she ‘got it wrong’ in voting for the invasion of Iraq, she shows no sign of having learned from her mistake. […] Like most other Washington policymakers, she has forgotten the failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. She praises Petraeus’s strategy for its focus on ‘winning Iraqis’ “hearts and minds”’, but she does not seem to remember the history of that phrase.

So much more to look forward to, should she win the Presidential election next year!

See also

4 thoughts on “Bitter Lake: helping make sense of complex reality?

  1. What is going on, especially the US involvement in the destabilization and coup in Kiev, followed by the suspicious secrecy re MH17 and total trashing of Putin plus sanctions indicates what levels the US Is prepared to sink to stay in charge. Exceptional, for me, would be a President with the courage to bring nations together even if it means the eventual ascendency of some other land. The word “graceless” is much too kind for the current duplicitous hegemony. Beside this, Putin seems like quite the statesman in this interchange at the Valdai Discussion Club, fielding tough questions from many countries in October. Taking the chance that you might be interested…

  2. Thanks Gerry. I also found Bitter Lake interesting but too long and a bit self-indulgent. I have always found his work interesting but he uses fast images which are often quirky, sometimes beautiful, and distract me from the underlying theme.
    Oh God you’ve reminded me that the US elections will soon be upon us again. What a depressing thought. Bush the third or Clinton the second. Does it really matter? I think that American exceptionalism is less a misplaced ideology and more an economic imperative. Will the mighty empire begin to crumble before 2016?

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