8.2/10
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25 user 7 critic

Bitter Lake (2015)

An experimental documentary that explores Saudi Arabia's relationship with the U.S. and the role this has played in the war in Afghanistan.

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Politicians 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. But Bitter Lake is also experimental. Curtis has taken the unedited rushes of...

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25 January 2015 (UK)  »

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Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake  »

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Slow and somewhat murky, but definitely worthwhile
1 February 2015 | by (Canada) – See all my reviews

Bitter Lake is a complex, intriguing yet at times confused history of UK and US interference in Afghanistan over the past several decades.

The basic premise is that Western errors in the Middle East stem largely from an early accord struck by FDR with Saudi Arabia at the eponymous Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal, just after World War II. This support of Saudi Arabia, Curtis contends, indirectly led to the promotion of fundamentalist factions that have subsequently generated much of the violence in the Middle East, culminating in the ISIS movement today.

It's an interesting point of view, and Curtis supports it with plenty of detail. The pay off comes when he uses this perspective to explain more recent events. For example, he shows why the 9/11 attackers, as well as Osama Bin Laden, all had a Saudi background. It's a connection that's been largely forgotten in Western media, and which I had never seen properly explained.

Curtis succeeds even better at depicting the endless conflicts in Afghanistan as they must appear from the Afghan point of view. He argues convincingly that Western troops have been fighting a shadow war, engaging in the wrong battles, with the wrong foes, based on misguided objectives and a total lack of understanding of the fractured Afghan social structure. "There is something else out there, but we just don't have the apparatus to see it," says Curtis.

Less effective is Curtis' tendency to frame all this in terms of good intentions that have almost certainly never existed at the highest levels of US or UK power. It may be that the troops and functionaries sent in to Afghanistan believed they were "creating democracy," but it's highly implausible that the White House or the Pentagon - or Downing Street - ever believed anything so naive and altruistic.

The film is also weakened structurally by its needlessly slow pace, and by the inclusion of long stretches of video footage with no narration, which add little to our understanding. It's often not clear exactly what we're watching. Some segments - such as several minutes of a soldier playing with a tame bird - serve no purpose whatsoever, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Nonetheless, Bitter Lake is well worth seeing, for the alternative, worm's-eye view it gives us of the endless conflict in Afghanistan. It's as if the film had been made by Afghans, to help us understand the unwarranted and wantonly destructive interventions that have been conducted by our governments in this distant and very alien country.


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