Morally complex and visually stunning, Bitter Lake, directed and edited by documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, offers viewers a unique look into Afghanistan and its relationship with the West. Starting in the aftermath of World War Two and moving chronologically to the present day, this new epic film from Curtis weaves experiences in Afghanistan into the broader geopolitical picture, illustrating how politicians have, for a long time, taken complex issues and presented them to the public as ‘moral fables’ of right and wrong.
Curtis attributes many of today’s troubles in Afghanistan to the meeting between President F.D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in 1945. An alliance created for the purposes of oil trade, Curtis says, inadvertantly ended up protecting the puritanical form of Islam known as Wahhabism. This violent ideology, whose followers want a return to an imagined tradition and culture of 7th Century Islam, was initially supported by the Saudi royal family as means to unify the fledling nation. Failed attempts to eradicate it meant in time the only way for the royal family to maintain power was to simply export such radicals to bordering countries. Consequently it has survived, gradually mutating into the radical Islamic ideologies that exist today.
Echoing the exposés of political manipulation featured in his previous documentaries, including most notably, The Power of Nightmares, Curtis argues that the simplistic good versus bad, us versus them, analogy has been constructed and promoted by politicians during the last thirty years. He reveals that the countless conflicts that have arisen in Afghanistan have always been much more complicated than western politicians would like the public to know. The structure of the film itself is therefore accordingly complex; archive footage from every source imaginable, including the Russian science-fiction film Solaris, and a segment from Blue Peter from the 1960s, is chaotically spliced together to create a bizarre, staccato exploration into the threads linking Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, America, Saudi Arabia and Britain to drugs, oil, arms and corruption.
However, the film is not without its faults. Curtis expects us to simply believe his version of events, which includes many sweeping statements that verge on over-simplification – the very accusation he hurls at politicians. The confusing mass of footage stitched together is somewhat frustrating and largely anonymous, while the narrative does, in parts, appear one-sided. In spite of these criticisms, however, the film is definitely worth a watch. It is altogether gripping and beautiful; funny and terrifying, all while unravelling the polarised, black and white image of the world that we have been fed.
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