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Bitter Lake Review

Adam Curtis’ latest documentary, Bitter Lake, examines the roles of America, Britain and Saudi Arabia over the past sixty years in Afghanistan. Taking its title from the location of a meeting between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, Curtis traces the failures in Helmand back to this moment in 1945 where US governmental support was pledged in exchange for oil.

Beginning with the American spearheaded dam projects in southern Afghanistan during the 1950s, then the Soviet driven modernisation efforts in the 1980s, Curtis charts the devastating naivety of the last 13 years as arising from oversimplified political narratives of good versus evil in a complex social and economic environment. Curtis frames this thesis as a prominent feature of British military initiatives in Helmand, arguing that this approach only fuelled further problems based on misunderstandings of government corruption and ancient tribal wars.

There is a certain palpable feeling of frustration in most of the scenes, from exhausted soldiers engaging local villagers in terse interpreted conversations to Kabul students receiving a bemusing lecture on Duchamp by an earnest British volunteer teacher. Coming in at just over two and a quarter hours, Bitter Lake is a disorientating compilation of BBC archival footage, film clips and home movies all interlaced with a dysphoric soundtrack. However the film itself will not be broadcast as part of the BBC’s television schedule; instead it’ll be available on iPlayer for 30 days from the 25th January.

The choice of constraining this analysis of international relations, greed and conflict to iPlayer has led many to claim that this is only a partial endorsement of Curtis’ conclusions. However, these views fail to acknowledge that this documentary was directly commissioned for BBC’s digital services as part of a new strategy, which has seen improvement in design and technology along with investment in content. Still, one might wonder why this is the case for a project of this scale with a director of long standing association with the BBC. For the most part this can be explained directly by the digital strategy itself which identifies ‘new forms of storytelling’ as one of three creative priorities for the online platform. This type of restructuring allows for the types of commissions that are unhampered by fixed durations and such other scheduling concerns, producing more desirable conditions for acclaimed directors and storytellers such as Curtis. Certainly it is obvious that this approach has worked well in this instance, the reflective atmosphere and complex multi-layered narrative in Bitter Lake is more reminiscent of independent filming than anything commissioned for general broadcast.

At the same time, the existence of these conditions seems to imply that a shift towards different approaches to content development has already happened. In the past few years we’ve seen internet broadcasting such as Netflix or Vice produce a richer, more interesting variety  of material which challenges the status quo of traditional broadcasting.

The possibility of this move seems to hinge on the savvier digital generation who not only want a more convenient viewing platform, but are also open to challenging narratives which don’t just parrot the party line. Finding support for the development of provocative and demanding stories such as this has always been a challenge. However, this move presents a new opportunity in an environment which is already in a state of flux, to change the way in which we consume media and revolutionise visual storytelling.

Bitter Lake is available now to view on BBC iPlayer.

Jack Stockdale

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