As a writer I think often about storytelling and different ways to tell stories. I recently watched Bitter Lake, a BBC documentary by filmmaker Adam Curtis (recommended to me by Ario) and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. The film is something everyone should watch for three reasons.
First is its ambition. Many Americans feel they are betrayed by media and that we are fed oversimplified stories that don’t serve our interests. Yet we do little to seek out alternative kinds of storytelling and storytellers. The opening narration to the film makes clear its ambition to offer something better:
Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever 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. This is a film about why those stories have stopped making sense… it is told through the prism of a country at the center of the world, Afghanistan.
Second is its form. Most documentaries use the same structure of voiceover and interviews with experts to tell a linear, dense story of an event. Curtis is known for more ambitious storytelling where the viewer has to put more of the pieces together themselves. This is the kind of intelligent storytelling we claim to want. It demands an investment from the viewer, but delivers on it. It reveals how the obsession with simple answers betrays the truth we claim to want.
Bitter Lake has much less narration and expert commentary than you’d expect. Instead Curtis sifted through hundreds of hours of rushes, the unused footage recorded by news and television crews, to share moments that are surprisingly real. I say surprising because in watching Bitter Lake you realize how stereotyped all of the footage you’ve ever seen of Afghanistan has been. Here you see children playing, soldiers dancing and people living their lives. And you also see moments of shock, violence and uncategorizable scenes too strange and real to label (vaguely reminiscent of clips from Koyaanisqatsi, but without slow-motion or endless Phillip Glass riffs) . It has as dream like effect and Curtis leaves it to you, the viewer, to decide for yourself what some of the shots he shares mean, or how they fit together if they do at all, just as you might have to do if you were traveling yourself to a foreign country and having a real experience.
Curtis himself offers:
These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them I have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan.
Third is the story of America and Afghanistan, the subject of the film. Some of this story I knew, but there were many surprises here that sent me immediately to the web to research and explore. I didn’t know the U.S. in 1946 invested heavily in developing Afghanistan, (with unexpected and disastrous consequences) which means the massive reconstruction of recent years was a repeat of a failed project of the past, making many of the same mistakes. And I learned how the complex relationships of oil, weapons sales, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its (perhaps unavoidable) hypocrisies fueled so many of the troubles in the middle east for the last 50 years, including 9/11, the rise of radical Islam, and the sad stories that have followed. I left the film understanding the larger stories in a profoundly better way (accepting its complexity), and with new, sharper questions too.