Adam Curtis’s long dive into the troubled and troubling history of Afghanistan is a brilliant summary of a lesson drummed into me over four years living in Kabul – how devastating naivety and good intentions can be when untempered by humility, knowledge or at least a desire to learn. Bitter Lake, which is available on iPlayer, begins with the dam projects of the 1950s that sought to remake southern Afghanistan in America’s image, looks at ill-fated Soviet efforts to transform the country, then returns to castigate Washington’s second attempt at social and economic engineering.
The earliest footage seems to be mostly a mixture of propaganda films and home videos from Afghanistan. The surprising images from a country normally framed as violent or exotic capture poignantly the wilful blindness of engineers, doctors and their families; children tumble into a swimming pool as the political storm grows outside. They are cut through with short moments of violence, which convey the cost of all this optimistic meddling more powerfully than lengthy battle scenes or lists of casualties. In one brief scene, a battered young girl who has lost her eye shies away from a hospital interview, psychological pain piling on her physical wounds. In another, a gaping wound in the thigh of a cameraman seen only from behind pumps fresh, red blood into the street for what seems like an eternity, before his body is suddenly and ignominiously dragged out of shot.
It’s a story full of violence, bloodshed, and bitter ironies, mainly about how the west, through misunderstanding and oversimplification, repeatedly achieved pretty much the opposite of what it was trying to achieve. America protected Wahhabism through its thirst for Saudi oil, and in doing so helped sow the seeds of radical Islam today. In Afghanistan they built dams to irrigate the Helmand valley, making it perfect to sow actual seeds, opium poppy seeds. The past is strewn with patterns, and warnings, if only anyone had bothered looking and tried to understand. But history is a bit too complicated for today’s politicians. Curtis gets up to his usual tricks. Archive film, of course; he must have scoured virtually everything that’s ever been filmed in Afghanistan, and spliced in Solaris (the Russian sci-fi movie), Blue Peter, dogs, Carry On (up the Khyber), the Afghan version of The Thick of It (looks promising). Then cherry-picked his vast record collection to lay on top … unless he does that first, then finds the pictures and stories to go with it, because music is not incidental, it’s very much part of this.
Then there is Curtis’s narration, schoolmasterly in tone, apocalyptic in message: dark forces at work, everyone hates everyone else, it becomes frightening and unstable … Only Simon Schama can demand, so loudly, to be parodied. Charlie Brooker must be rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation, again.But that’s because it is distinctive, genuinely different. It’s also worrying, beautiful, funny (really), ambitious, serious, gripping and very possibly important. I’m not saying everything now makes sense; there’s still confusion and uncertainty aplenty in this bitter lake up here. But Adam Curtis is at least taking a step back, to look at the modern world, then take it on. And make television like no one else does.
“Bitter Lake” proceeds through unnarrated sections that showcase the violent spectacles, subtle ironies, and intimate acts of cruelty from the most recent Afghan war. We see G.I.s angrily conducting retinal scans of tribesmen, getting manicures, bragging about murdering innocents, and barely listening when tribal councils tell them that they’re killing the wrong people. In one bravura section, an assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai unfolds in a manner that recalls the final shot from Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie.” These scenes are intercut with more traditional archival sections, narrated by Curtis, that pin the roots of the current discord in Afghanistan, and perhaps the crisis of political authority in the West, on a meeting that took place between F.D.R. and King Abdul Aziz, of Saudi Arabia. The two leaders met aboard a U.S. naval ship near the end of the Second World War—on the “bitter lake” of the film’s title.
The film deftly shows how Wahhabism, a particularly conservative and nostalgia-tinged form of Islam that grew out of the Saudi’s distaste for the European imperialism, has transformed much of the Arab world. In “Bitter Lake” ’s telling, organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS are unimaginable without it. The rise of Wahhabism is directly tied to U.S. petrol dollars that began to flow to Saudi Arabia after the F.D.R./Aziz pact; these payments made subsequent Saudi kings rich and gave them the capital to set up schools throughout the Arab world that preached the increasingly militant and intolerant form of Islam that, in turn, helped them to overcome the British. Why did the U.S. let this happen? The kings saw Wahhabism as a means of fighting a growing Communist threat, and so the schools were erected with tacit U.S. support. The rise of the Afghan drug trade is explained in the film in a similarly counterintuitive way: Afghanistan’s poppy plants thrived in the heightened and salty water table created by U.S.-built dams in Helmand Province. By the time that the European and American banks are overrun with Saudi petrol dollars that were secured through oil-price hikes, the very same hikes that the Saudis used to exert Western pressure to end Israel’s defeat of the Arab powers in the 1967 war, some viewers may feel pretty certain that “Bitter Lake” is suggesting not just that an old order is coming apart, but that it has been for a long time—and that every world historical move has a feedback loop.
Curtis’s films often use the very same agitprop techniques—bold, seemingly authoritative text and voiceover, editing tuned for maximum dialectic juxtaposition—that he ostensibly critiques. This open contradiction doesn’t bother him. “I’m still saying what I think,” he said. “I’m using all the tricks and the propaganda to get it over with.” Before joining the BBC, Curtis worked as a “hack in the newsroom” then moved on to “trash television” for much of the nineteen-eighties. “I filmed lots of talking dogs and things like this, which I really enjoyed,” he recalled over a beer in Rotterdam. “I literally took what I learned in trash television in the eighties as a journalist and fused it with pretentious theories and storytelling.” This mix of highbrow subjects and sophisticated, if lowbrow, technique anchors his sensibility. Curtis claims the “cinema doesn’t interest him at all” and he’s happy the film is available only on the Internet. He wants people to consume “Bitter Lake” casually, stopping and starting it as they wish. When pressed, he admits that his favorite films are the American comedy “Anchorman” and the Russian art-house classic “Stalker.” While the madcap energy and deadpan irony that Curtis’s films often achieve could come straight out of the collaborations between Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, “Solaris,” an earlier film by Andrei Tarkovsky, the director of “Stalker,” provides “Bitter Lake” with a key metaphor for both Russian and American involvement in Afghanistan. Like the cosmonauts who are sent to an untamed planet to study and control it, both countries sought to change Afghan society for the good, and in their own image, and instead it changed them, revealing the cracks in both Russian Communism and American technocratic democracy.