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Bitter Lake

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]

Posted by author: John Umney
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12 thoughts on “Bitter Lake

  • Pace the documentary narrative content, what particularly enthused me was the deployment of recent contemporary fine art strategies, for example longeurs, audio and visual dissonances, the style of the camera work; used here to powerfully expand the context of the spoken narrative through visual metaphor rather than take the subordinate role of supporting visual evidence.
    It’s a sophisticated use of the syntax of visual language. Students should be aiming to become equally sophisticated in the production and appreciation of their own work. This is greatly aided by casting one’s net as widely as possible and engaging with cultural outputs of all kinds as fuel for one’s own creative development.

  • Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and timely blog post. I was thinking of writing one on this myself. As many of you know, I am researching a PhD in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam and I was at a regular forum of Fine Art students who discussed Curtis’ work (though based only on the trailer for the and the short film that was part of Charlie Brooker 20i4 Wipe, which I recommend).
    Aside from the subject matter, which is extremely contentious (a review of it in the Spectator criticised him for basically airbrushing the role of Pakistan in all these shenanigans), Curtis is a masterful editor and storyteller. I believe that most of the footage is ‘found’ which makes the achievement all the more profound in my opinion. But we shouldn’t confuse the work with a conventional idea of journalism or documentary film-making. He’s a polemicist who uses the rhetoric of other forms to make his point. I recommend finding Renzo Martens’ 2008 ‘Enjoy Poverty’ for an artist’s take on the form. I’ve put a link at the bottom of this reply to his webpage.
    So why should people studying Drawing, Painting and so on watch this sort of stuff? What has it got to do with ‘using blocks of tone to describe form’?
    A good question.
    To indulge in a polemic of my own:
    – Contemporary art is not about decorating the world; it’s about asking questions, causing trouble. Good artists are interesting and aren’t afraid to break their entire modus operandii in order to find out something else. See Philip Guston’s return to figurative painting, for example and contrast it with the way other artists play safe.
    – It’s not, mainly, about providing therapy for the artist. Once upon a time it might have been, but not anymore. Artists talk about how they’re enquiring, asking, and so on, not what they’re emotions are. Of course if an artist is angry at injustice the emotion is used, but it’s not the focus of the work.
    – Having some facility and skill (like Curtis’ editing ability) helps the artist say or do more effectively the thing they want to do. So learning how to manage colour and shape is important, but it’s acquired (hopefully) for a purposes that is other than simply displaying itself.
    – Most artists are left-wing and see the world through that lens. There. I said it.

  • Your mention of the Palimpsest is quite correct John and as I watched Bitter Lake I was reminded of Curtis’ other projects, in particular ‘The Power of Nightmares’ and the way in which history and Curtis’ mind merge and overlap through imagery, sound and commentary.
    As I come out of a Curtis journey I always feel like I have been ignorant towards the deep history of the conflicts that effect our times. In response to your question why did Curtis air this on the Iplayer only, I would say that as a film of over 2 hours he has no restriction on this format, therefore I do feel that in order for the subversive nature of the documentary to be fully realised it should be made freely available for ever, on say Youtube or Vimeo, in order to play its full part in undermining the political structure that dogmatically exerts itself at any one particular moment in time.

    • You’re not the only one Doug. I kept saying to myself ‘why didn’t I know that?’ all the way through Bitter Lake.
      I do wonder if by restricting the film to the iPlayer the BBC effectively control where the film can be seen (that is, in which countries).

      • Me too, Gareth. The “everything is related” aspect of it is fascinating. There is some wonderful editing here – I particularly liked the two afghan dogs fighting – and soundtrack/effects. While I wondered if all the footage was directly relevant (and I’m not talking about Sid James et al) another part of me thought does it matter in terms of what Curtis was trying to say.
        I can sort of understand, in terms of the length, nature and message of the film why it wouldn’t be on BBC1 or BBC2 but not its other channels, but you may be right as to the reasons it’s iplayer only.

    • I don’t get the sense that this film has gone viral – maybe i’m just not that connected – so I hope that it stays available in some shape or another. Also I wonder what a big screen version might look like; epic?

  • I wonder if the BBC simply think that it’s too hot to put on TV in the six months before a General Election.

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