In a recent interview, the English filmmaker Adam Curtis described finding “hidden levels in the BBC archive” where a vast collection of extraneous footage has been accumulating over the last 70 years. They include everything from eccentric films to the off-cuts of rushes used for news reports and the glitchy recordings of daily satellite feeds. Despite their obscurity, though, these archives are openly available, and if there is a lingering sense of the occult in Curtis’s choice of phrase, it belies the fact that the footage is only hidden insofar as it is merely obsolete. The vast majority of it will undoubtedly be tedious, anathema to either entertainment or the news. An aerial view of shadows drifting over a desert wasteland. The interminable monotony of another barren horizon. Traffic passing down some city street where life simply goes on, forcing the news to construct itself elsewhere.
Curtis explains that despite their banality, these “hundreds of thousands of hours of moments” capture “something so completely different from the simple stories we are told both by TV journalists and politicians.” It’s no wonder, then, that this fathomless archive would appeal to Curtis. In the three decades he’s spent making documentaries, it is exactly this process of simplification that he has sought to undermine. Films such as The Century of the Self and All Watched Over constantly link disparate or seemingly antithetical themes, from Freud with neoliberalism to Ayn Rand with hippie communes. The guiding dynamic has always been his search for the hidden theoretical connection between ideologies that are posed as simple opposites. It is, however, only with his latest film, Bitter Lake, put together from the riches of these archives, that Curtis has finally gone beyond his own narrative reductions.
One of the main criticisms of Curtis’s work is that his narrative maneuverings amount to little more than academic conspiracy theories for smug liberals. This is a crude oversimplification in its own right, but recently a more nuanced critique of his style has emerged. The Loving Trap, a searing parody, has become a cult YouTube hit, featuring the devastating line accusing Curtis of creating “the televisual equivalent of a late night drunken Wikipedia binge with pretensions for narrative coherence,” while Dan Hancox’s piece for openDemocracy argues that the filmmaker’s political ideas are built on the kind of suspect generalisations that make his entire output seem like “a series of grandiloquent homages to the art of the non-sequitur.” What’s interesting about these criticisms is that they attack Curtis for enacting the same process of oversimplification that he himself sees in the mainstream media.
Perhaps this odd circularity is a sign of the times. The Loving Trap is such a sharp piece of satire because it is able to inhabit the object of its ridicule so entirely. This, on a purely technical level, would not have been possible in 1992 when Curtis’s first major documentary came out because amateur filmmakers would not have had access to the technology, let alone the platform, to execute such a production. Also, it seems that as it’s become easier to manipulate media in the digital era, our skepticism of the media itself has become far more rapacious as its various forms have proliferated. The English comedian Charlie Brooker (who often works with Curtis) encapsulates this sense of ironic detachment in shows like Screenwipe that routinely dismantle the mainstream media’s propensity for hysterical sensationalism, otherwise known as simplification’s showbiz twin. What’s essentially changed here, though, is that the eviscerating cynicism of modern comedy has usurped the subversive power of certain documentary forms. Although Curtis is clearly in on the joke, he doesn’t necessarily dodge its punch-line, but this is ultimately why Bitter Lake marks such a departure for him.
Most of Curtis’s films are split into hour-long episodes suitable for TV, but Bitter Lake runs in its entirety for 140 minutes, and, as such, it was initially released only through the BBC’s streaming service. It’s interesting that if the advent of digital media has made Curtis’s style seem suspect, it has also allowed it to evolve. Bitter Lake is by far his most complex and ambitious film yet. The thesis is essentially that, throughout the twentieth century, Afghanistan became a place where various rival forces constantly arrived to impose themselves, while in reality, all the invading and insurgent powers eventually came to realise that they were stranded in an unwinnable battle that would only corrupt and undermine the ideologies that led them there. All Curtis’s interests in power and history’s ironies are here, but it is the way in which he presents these ideas that has shifted.
The most apparent change is in Curtis’s absence. The monologues that usually facilitate his narrative leaps are kept to a minimum. The vast majority of the film is made up of scenes taken from archival footage that are simply allowed to flow from one scene to the next without any voice-over. We’re shown footage of US soldiers having their nails done at Bagram airbase while Europop blasts in the background. Then we see Afghan soldiers dancing in a circle, flirting with the camera as another cut takes us to children staring at a plastic blonde doll and swaying to the stuttering music of a CD player before a man is killed in an attack on President Karzai’s motorcade. In the constant shifting of the film’s tone we find subtle connections where violence exists seamlessly alongside the mundane. Curtis the narrator leaves the montage to run and, for the most part, the viewer to think for herself.
Bitter Lake offers us a view of Afghanistan that is as jarring as it is compelling because it is able to present its complexity without reducing it in explanation. Ultimately, the power of the montage is rooted in its refusal to resist ambiguity. This feels like a radical departure for a filmmaker who is often dismissed for being overbearing, but it is also remarkable for another reason as it allows Curtis to deconstruct the way media itself is assembled and consumed. We’re constantly given the bizarre off-cuts of news items, like when we see a bird perched on a bemused soldier’s helmet, or the slapstick moment we see of a cameraman filming in the wrong direction as the dust and debris of the explosion he’s supposed to be recording billows up behind him. While besides these more candid scenes we also have the corrosive footage of journalists stage-managing rallying insurgents or asking a child who’s lost both her legs to pose with a flower. What this bewildering flow of images gives us is not just a more complex view of life in Afghanistan, but one that gathers itself from all the “hundreds of thousands of hours of moments” that render the television news a strange and alienating reduction of experience.