Bitter Lake

23/10/2021 19:30.
Cert 18

Bitter Lake and Waves of a Fever: Adam Curtis on chaos, complexity and  crisis – Undisciplined EnvironmentsWith certain recent events likely still fresh in many members’ minds this month’s film, from BAFTA-winning documentarian, Adam Curtis, is a rigorous, challenging excoriation of the Western world’s involvement in the Afghanistan war and the narrative it has constructed to justify our presence there.

Curtis, in his signature style, explores the crisis in Afghanistan through a mixture of narrative history, high and ‘low’ art in an attempt to alter attitudes towards and ultimately debunk those myths passed down about the conflict from on high. Between layers of sometimes action-packed, sometimes devastating and sometimes even banal archival footage selected from the thousands of hours of footage uncovered through research, snippets of Solaris (a spoiler warning should be observed for this one), Carry On Up The Khyber and even Blue Peter are interwoven, painting a tapestry of not just the surface of the war but the underlying truths and motion of it.

Dir: Adam Curtis, UK, 140 minutes, 2015.

Programme Notes

Within the film, Curtis uncovers a great many terrible truths about those involved: from the short-sightedness of America’s funding of insurgents to push back against Soviet influence during the Cold War to the overly simple lens the UK used to face the issues. Ultimately, Bitter Lake paints the war as a tragedy built atop widespread incompetence, arrogance and conniving.

This documentary was always intended to be a BBC iPlayer release – a fact made most apparent by its surprisingly long runtime. In an appearance on comedian Adam Buxton’s podcast, Curtis praised the platform as not being beholden to the strict schedules and pigeonholing imposed by traditional network TV releases. Curtis has returned to this mode of release time and again, and most recently did so with his documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, itself a widely-praised interrogation of the modern condition of the world, its peoples and their governments.


A tour de force – powerfully impressionistic, with hard-hitting truths about the decades of catastrophic Western (and Soviet) intervention in Afghanistan. Historically and factually dense (one had to concentrate hard!), compassionate and even witty! Apposite and eerily relevant to the contemporary turmoil in that troubled country despite having been made six years ago.

With its scope and content dealing with nearly seven decades of world history, Bitter Lake had a lot to offer. Whilst the juxtaposition of archive and contemporary footage may have perplexed general viewers, experienced fans of Adam Curtis’ work would appreciate his edited structure. This exceptional documentary may have encouraged you to watch Solaris but it also attempted to address the ongoing patchwork of influences in Afghanistan and tried to make sense of its tangled history. Not as ‘black & white’ as some conventional documentaries, the film was well worth viewing co-incidentally with the recent ongoing and catastrophic saga the country is experiencing.

Having not seen any other Adam Curtis documentaries, I found this one an amazing experience. The idea of a film and sound collage worked wonderfully for me as a means of exploring the power relationships that have now resulted in the Taliban now becoming dominant in Afghanistan. Although made six years ago, the film was very relevant in helping to explain the Taliban success in ousting the USA from the country. Co-incidentally, I had been watching 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (USA, 2021, Adam Wishart) and found strong connections with Bitter Lake. Tracing George W Bush’s movements in the 12 hours following the 9/11 attacks, Wishart showed his one certainty to be that “[…] the Americans were the the good guys and they were going to get the bad guys”. By contrast Bitter Lake suggested there were no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ in the events surrounding 9/11 but instead a tangled web of duplicitous behaviour in which the USA became involved. The film provided a credible narrative from the initial Bitter Lake meeting in Egypt between the Saudi royal family and top representatives of the USA government, which led to the vast Saudi oil reserves becoming reliably available to the USA in return for the supply of cutting-edge military equipment and access to (Western) money markets. The Saudis used their new wealth to support fanatical Sunni Muslim groups dedicated to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam. (That the Taliban were also beneficiaries of this support is nothing short of bitter irony!) I’m convinced that film is the only medium able to offer such a credible narrative of these complex events as they unfolded over the past half century.

The film was historically very educational – it was not about the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks in 2001 but placed that event in its correct context of the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. It was notable that much of the progress in the emancipation of women in the country was made during the Soviet occupation era. The overall conclusion drawn by the film (6 years ago) was that the West/USA never understood Afghanistan and its people – a position that was substantially responsible for the rapid contemporary take-over by the (now re-surgent) Taliban.