Director Adam Curtis claims that he's a journalist, not an artist. There's a presumption in this idea that the two are mutually exclusive, though I'm not sure I believe that. I certainly don't believe it of Curtis, whose films are powerful beyond the scope of mere document. Curtis's new film, Bitter Lake (2015) pushes at the boundaries of non-fiction. It's a film of great formal daring, one that internalizes post modernism in its image collage and its multitude of allusions. It's an object designed to be consumed on the internet, though it works fine as a cinematic experience. Whether or not it manages to connect the dots of its argument--something that can be debated--is almost beside the point.
The argument is this: at a meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia after the British pulled out of the middle east, the two leaders struck a bargain. The Saudis would ally with the United States, but the United States would leave the Saudi's religion alone. That religion, a fundamentalist version of Islam called Wahhibism, became the Saudi's main cultural export. So virulent was it that King Abdulaziz himself had to execute the zealous Bedouins whose zeal put him on the throne in the first place. One of the places that Wahibism took deep root was Afghanistan. Mid-century, Afghanistan was attempting to modernize itself with the help of the United States. In the course of internecine political maneuvering, the Afghans attracted the attention of the Soviet Union, who invaded in 1980, ostensibly for the country's own good. The Wahabists among the Mujaheddin saw things differently. The war in Afghanistan eventually devolved into a multi-sided affair between tribal factions and warlords, something the United States failed to account for during it's post-9/11 invasion. Craving tidy binary narratives of good and evil, the Americans were easy to manipulate by the various factions, who have the Americans so twisted up that they see everyone in the country as a bad guy. Bitter Lake sees the democracies of The West as inherently naive (memorably lampooning them with clips from Carry On Up the Khyber), having been groomed for Manichean fairy tales by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher, who sold the public an infantile view of a very complex world.
Bitter Lake weaves a vast and complicated web of connections. It is impossible to understand the politics of Afghanistan, the movie argues, without understanding the oil shock of the 1970s, impossible to understand how the chains came off banks without understanding the concept of the petro-dollar. Curtis has assembled a vast array of images to illustrate his points, culled from just about everything the BBC has ever filmed and sources beyond. The cascade of images on the screen is sometimes oneiric, as if Curstis's film is a bad dream welling up out of the collective unconscious. It's one of those dreams where everything keeps repeating, because various actors in the conflicts continue to forget the lessons of the past. They continue to blunder into conflicts they don't understand. The film is haunted by the past in a way that those people dealing with the mess the world is in are not. The past isn't another country here. It's always with us.
In some ways, Curtis casts too wide a net. Some of Curtis's connections--particularly the participation of banks in the broad mainstream of his narrative--play like conspiracy theories. The shift in governing power from elected governments to financial institutions may be real, but Curtis places too fine a point on the mechanism. There are almost surely other forces at work beyond the influence of petrodollars. Still, Curtis makes a case for enough of his conclusions to take all of it seriously. There's an interesting dichotomy at work here, too. On the one hand, Curtis suggests that the mess the world is in is the result of a simplistic worldview confronting a multifaceted problem with which it is ill equipped to deal, but Bitter Lake inadvertently suggests and equally simplistic through line from the preservation and dissemination of Wahhabism through to every other political disaster of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Bitter Lake may pose as journalism, but it's a sophisticated art object, too. This is a film that's internalized the ways people put images together from sources as diverse as the French New Wave, music videos, and internet video essays. Curtis very much has a hip-hop remix aesthetic when it comes to making his films. This is a masterclass in how to edit archival footage together in a way that makes it something more than just an infodump. There's a poetry to it. The film itself was intended for the Internet, but it plays fine as cinema. It's inevitable that Curtis must turn to online distribution to disseminate his ideas. He's not a filmmaker who tells comfortable stories. The world hates Cassandras after all, but we ignore him at our peril.
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