There are many questions raised by Adam Curtis’ film Bitter Lake, perhaps too many. This post will not attempt to comment on the political, which might seem strange given the film is constructed as a documentary about oil, war and political power; it has a linear narrative from the mid 1940’s until the present day and focuses on the issues that have beset Afghanistan in the last sixty or seventy years.
The film though has variously been described as an ‘Epic’ and a ‘Masterpiece’ but I wanted to concentrate on the editing that Curtis has employed, how he has sequenced the imagery and sound to support his overall polemic. Of the many layers that Curtis utilised in this piece I was particularly interested how dance was used as one of the metaphorical devices and as a means by which the viewer is encouraged to consider the sequencing of scenes on screen. We see the formalized group dancing on a crowded western dance floor and the drunken old soldiers (Russian I think) in the Ukraine, the balletic background music underscoring the military video of a helicopter (contrast that with the brutality of Wagner in Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’) and the stately, more formal dance music, that accompanies LBJ as he inspects the troops with Mohammed Daoud who later became the first President of Afghanistan. Curtis allows the viewer to construct those connections for themselves and to attempt to make the ends meet, to try and make sense of it all. This sequencing is sometimes silent, ‘open’ in order to allow the viewer to connect and conject freely with the narrative, yet ‘anchored’ by the regular use of text, either provided as words on the screen or narrated by the director himself.
Of the many scenes that could be described as poetic there are a couple that particularly stand out for me: The first depicts a soldier, in full battle dress, who is seen with a bird perched on his fingers. This extended narrative shot shows us the wonder of the soldier as the bird is seen perfectly at ease even when he brings the bird closer to his face. The bird is we suspect, a local, perhaps representing the people Afghanistan and placing all its trust in this soldier from a country far away; it is an extended moment of poetic beauty, gesturing to an innate dystopia that might exist in that land – why, we ask, has this bird yielded to the soldier? This extended edit is typical of Curtis’ style and courage; there are many long shots of people and places that would normally be found on the cutting room floor in the modern fast paced newsroom. Curtis allows the viewer to consider what might be going on and also deliberately includes the whole film cuts including rebate and mal-development.
The other scene, perhaps especially interesting for students, is one that nearly defied imagination; it is the sight of an English tutor attempting to teach ‘Conceptual Art’ to a classroom of Afghan students with a slide and explanation of Duchamp’s Urinal. The tutor claiming that Duchamp’s piece was as much about his anger at the (Art) political system to an incredulous class beggared belief. Curtis though generously permits us to have an extended take of some of the students attempting to comprehend this lesson in Art History, allowing us to see a student very slowly shaking her head from side to side. We don’t know if she doesn’t understand either the tutor, or is bewildered by the concept; but Curtis provides us the opportunity to consider what that might be. Just as telling perhaps is the almost equally long shot of the tutor and by doing so he is echoing a trope that continued throughout this work, that of the near total miscomprehension of those different worlds colliding.
Perhaps only Curtis could link President Karzai, Carry on up the Khyber and a Afghan captive being blindfolded and led away by American troops, for goodness only knows, what to a soundtrack of David Bowie singing The Bewlay Brothers. Layers upon layers. I was reminded of this post – Palimpsest – by Russell Squires, as I considered the absence of the basic foundations of communication, all illuminated by Curtis’ masterful editing.
And a couple of last questions: Why was this not aired on a mainstream channel? Why was it felt appropriate to channel it on a ‘free-to-air’ medium which will no longer be available after 23 February? [Update 9/2/15: The BBC have now changed the availability so Bitter Lake will be available to view until 24 December 2015]
[John Umney is a photography student and President of the OCA Students’ Association]