Bittersweet symphony: on Adam Curtis’ latest documentary

The latest documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake, takes its title from a meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. On 14 February 1945 the two men met on the American heavy cruiser USS Quincy, anchored in the Suez Canal’s Great Bitter Lake, and made a deal the obscurity of which belies its historical importance. In return for US money and military support, Abdulaziz granted the Americans control of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Remarkably, Roosevelt also accepted the King’s condition that the US not back Jewish settlement in the future Israel, a position that survived only as long as Roosevelt’s presidency. But, the money for oil deal was a crucial moment in an emerging narrative: the decline of European, chiefly British, influence in the Middle East and the growth of US global hegemony post-World War II.

Curtis’s documentary is rife with eye-popping archival footage. The Quincy Agreement, as it has become known, is illustrated by colour film that gives us a glowing, sanguine King and a President who looks pallid and frail even in the bright sunshine (he would be dead less than two months later). It’s curious that this film is not instantly recognisable in the way that, say, footage of the Yalta Conference is. The importance of the two events in determining the course of the second half of the 20th century seems eminently comparable: Yalta effectively reshaped Europe and handed much of it to Stalin while Quincy laid the groundwork for the contemporary Middle East and the flows of money, arms and oil between the US and Saudi Arabia that continue to both define and destabilise the geo-political climate.

It’s possible to draw all sorts of connecting lines between Quincy and the modern era. Curtis reminds us that most of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens, a fact that remains stubbornly submerged under the official narrative that was constructed to justify the US and its allies going to war not in the streets of Riyadh but those of Baghdad and Kabul. It is with the war in Afghanistan that Curtis is most concerned. It is, for him, a prism that reflects not only the disastrousness of the US’s ongoing Middle East interventions but a broader paradigm in which the stories our leaders tell us have stopped making sense. ‘Events come and go like waves of a fever,’ Curtis intones in his cut-glass accent in the documentary’s opening narration, ‘leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.’

Curtis’s characteristic tropes – aural and visual dissonance, abrupt sound editing, ironic juxtaposition, opaque insertions of rarely seen footage uncovered through hours spent trawling the archives of the BBC – create a fractured, unstable narrative that marries form impeccably with content. The style’s distinctiveness and postmodern license make it an easy target for parody but Curtis, who both edits and directs Bitter Lake, has an artist’s rather than documentarian’s eye for the ebb and flow of meaning and spectacle. Some of the footage has a metaphorical quality – such as when a discussion about the chaos engendered by the presence of the British Army in Helmand Province in Afghanistan is punctured by vision of a camera crew failing to capture a spectacular explosion that occurs out of frame – but much of it is more oblique. One of the film’s most memorable images is that of a coalition soldier befriending a small bird that has alighted on his rifle. The bird climbs onto his hand and eventually makes its way up onto his helmet. The soldier grins self-consciously in the direction of the camera and in an instant all the clichés and certainties of the ‘War on Terror’ seem to dissolve.

There are also, unavoidably, moments that do no more than lay bare the special combination of absurdity and hellishness that is modern warfare: a cameraperson at a scene of indeterminate carnage trying in vain to wipe spots of blood from the lens, a father fussing over his maimed, tiara-wearing daughter in a grim hospital ward. A scene in which a British Council representative attempts to explain conceptual art via Duchamp’s Fountain to a group of Afghans is pure ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ gold –  one can only wonder what the audience made of the claim that the placing of a urinal in an art gallery amounted to a ‘huge revolution’.

Curtis’s verdict on foreign military intervention in Afghanistan adheres to one of the few received narratives he is happy to go along with, namely that such interventions, dating back to the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42), inevitably end in bloody defeat for the occupiers. Curtis illustrates this, ingeniously, with scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in which the crew of a space station bombard the titular planet with heavy radiation only to discover that it is they, not the planet, who are changed. British Army captain Mike Martin, one of the documentary’s few interview subjects, sums up the chaos of life as a coalition soldier on the ground as a ‘shifting mosaic’ in the face of which preconceived divisions between friend and foe, government and Taliban simply didn’t hold. What is indisputable is that the US-led war in Afghanistan has failed according to at least three metrics: civilian casualties (2014 saw the most deaths in one year since the start of the invasion), opium production (now at record levels) and strength of the Taliban (increasing rather than diminishing).

‘We’ve been fighting a war in Afghanistan for 13 years,’ Curtis recently told the Guardian, ‘and yet we haven’t done a history on the BBC.’ Bitter Lake will not be shown on television but is available only on the BBC’s iPlayer service (it has also, inevitably, made its way to Youtube) . The blogosphere has been awash with speculation that the documentary is ‘too dangerous for TV’ but the claim comes with the sure whiff of a conspiracy theory. The film was commissioned by the powers that be at iPlayer, not the mainstream BBC, and at an unwieldy two and a quarter hours there seems no question that its natural home is the internet, not television with its constraining schedules and programming imperatives. Embracing an internet-only platform also, no doubt, appealed to Curtis’s contrarianism and instinct for pushing the envelope (how many other documentary makers have collaborated with Massive Attack and pioneering immersive theatre company Punchdrunk?).

Curtis’s fans shouldn’t waste time looking for a conspiracy where none exists but they do, I think, have a right to lament that Bitter Lake’s limited release means it won’t be seen by more people. Its restoration of the Quincy Agreement is worth the price of admission alone but it is Curtis’s artful exposure of the simplicities and obfuscations that inhere in so many political narratives that most makes it feel like a documentary for our times. You can be sure that if Curtis ever makes a film about Syria that Tony Abbott will be in there, telling us that ‘it’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies versus baddies’.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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