Artists' Television Access

Bitter Lake

Thursday, March 26, 2015, 8:00 pm

bitterlakePoliticians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events. But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis – leaving us bewildered and disorientated. Bitter Lake is a new, adventurous and epic film by Adam Curtis that explains why the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we can’t really see the world any longer. The narrative goes all over the world, America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia – but the country at the heart of it is Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan is the place that has confronted our politicians with the terrible truth – that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. The film reveals the forces that over the past thirty years rose up and undermined the confidence of politics to understand the world. And it shows the strange, dark role that Saudi Arabia has played in this.

Curtis has dedicated much of his career to testing the limits of experiential forms of art and media, best exemplified by his 2010 documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, which examines 20th-century politics through an intellectual montage of pop-cultural moments and texts, often wildly mixing high and low to impressionistic effect. However, Curtis isn’t merely a collage filmmaker and his new documentary, Bitter Lake, is a profound testament to harnessing newly formulated ambitions beyond merely proffering archival footage employed in new contexts.

Effectively, Curtis attempts to locate an operative binary for late-20th-century grand narratives as they pertain to the Western mythologies undergirding international diplomacy. Curtis arrives at the conclusion that leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair constructed a simplistic narrative of good and evil to reconcile complex and unknowable forces beyond domestic lines (feels like there’s a word, or words, missing here), such that nations like Afghanistan became locations to be pummeled and eradicated, given that the rhetoric being offered rendered their peoples as sub-human. Curtis makes these points very clearly in a voiceover that guides the film’s larger themes, and though he prefers to put these points very succinctly, the 138 minutes of footage and material surrounding them achieve much finer articulations, approaching a revisionist history of Western decadence that positions imperial rule as synonymous with cultural dominance. (c. Dillard)

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