The documentaries that Adam Curtis helms erupt with social and political relevance, always told with a quirky tongue-in-cheek style that references pop culture. Curtis’ films are my favorite agitprop. Some of his conclusions are liberal and some of his deductions are conservative. Another plus is that Curtis is a master at editing found footage, archival newsreels, and clips from television and movies. Curtis’ most important works are BBC productions.
All these elements combine in Curtis’ most recent film Bitter Lake, which is currently on the domestic festival circuit and available on BBC iPlayer (a cross-platform streaming service). Bitter Lake examines the Good Guy versus Bad Guy dichotomy that exists between America and Great Britain and the Soviets and Islam. Bitter Lake’s main concern is American and Russian and Great Britain involvement with Afghanistan in the last 70-years. Bitter Lake also delivers a portrait of Afghanistan’s path as a country since 1945.
Yet, as with all really good films, Bitter Lake is about so much more.
The irony of the subject matter and the date cannot be overlooked. Bitter Lake plays on Friday, September 11 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (7 pm.). There will a pre-screening reception. There will also be a post-screening Q&A with Curtis hosted by former Houston mayor Bill White.
You have to wonder how much of Curtis’ penchant for letting the viewer draw their own conclusions is related to the experience of seeing this film thought the eyes of a British citizen. For instance, Curtis uses text over the image of some nighttime thermography that recalls an incident in 1880. An Alizai tribe located in the Afghan province of Helmand killed 1000 British soldiers at the battle of Maiwand. Curtis never references this again since every Brit school kid knows about the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame fought in same war and had a leg wound that haunted him throughout his fictional life.
Similarly, Curtis shows a clip of tourists (from the look of the hair styles and clothing taken in the 1970s) walking on the head of a gigantic statue. The shot zooms out and you see how large the statue is. Along with several caves indented into the rock (interconnecting) this structured is known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. It’s a 6th century Mount Rushmore. Curtis never returns to this image or it’s implications, but everybody knows the Taliban blew the shit out of these two statues in 2024.
The Taliban upholds pre-Middle Ages ideals including bans on anything a woman can do. When the Taliban took over Kabul, briefly, they dug up the buried bodies of suspected communists and burnt their remains as a way of cleansing the countryside. Talk about superstitious.
Bitter Lake works in a discreet manner. One moment you’re laughing at English wives who are grooming Afghan hounds for the first ever visit of an Afghan king to London in the early 1970s. The next moment you are witness to home videos of torture (strangulation and waterboarding). This footage comes from the files of Jonathan Idema, associated with the CIA but operating as a free-lance anti-terrorist agent. The American government disavowed Idema. Idema did time, and was released by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who commuted Idema’s sentence of ten-years after he had served three.
When America first got involved in Afghanistan it was a post-WWII situation where domestic contractors installed infrastructure. The Morrison Knudsen Corporation built dams that accelerated the agricultural ability of the country. It also paved the way for acres of poppies. Curtis cuts to a shot of modern day occupational soldiers crouching among poppy plants. There’s also the involvement of private citizens, like Houstonian Joanne Herring, seen in an archival interview talking about her fact-finding mission to Afghanistan.
Curtis observes Saudi Arabia’s influence on America and Britain when they raised gas prices in the 1970s in an effort to turn public opinion against Israel. In the 1980s Britain would sell the Saudis a record amount of arms and jets. Around this same time in America restrictions on financial institutions loaning money were eased. Curtis follows the money as politicians give away more of their power to the banking industry.
Some reoccurring imagery from movies as profound as Solaris (1972) and as lowbrow as Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) pop up in Bitter Lake. The latter film is a popular British franchise that satirizes British culture.
Curtis does not present his fact in a traditional news form. However you become immersed in Curtis’ sometimes phantasmagorical editing and juxtaposition of images to the point where you see beyond the veil of customary reportage.
— Michael Bergeron