Commissioned for the BBC, and quite radically for a major filmmaker's work, it premiered on and will only be available through their online iPlayer service.
While the Sundance Film Festival and various awards ceremonies were dominating media coverage of filmmaking, Curtis may have just released one of the year's best films to laptops quietly in January. More radical than all of this is the film itself, a haunting portrait of war that may fundamentally alter your conception of news and how we consume it. As legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris puts it:
I want to be Adam Curtis when I grow up. (Watching "Bitter Lake," available on YouTube. The perfect antidote for "American Sniper.")
— errolmorris (@errolmorris) January 27, 2015
BITTER LAKE is an epic documentary about the history of the West's involvement in Afghanistan, mostly assembled from a 26 terabyte archive of unused footage shot for BBC News. Previously sitting on videotapes in cupboards in foreign outposts, it was assiduously collected by a BBC camera operator working in Afghanistan and passed along to Curtis.
Curtis repurposes this footage with editorial techniques that deconstruct and reframe how we shoot, watch, and edit news footage. Large sections are comprised of a wordless, unseen record of an Afghanistan at war that was filmed but never broadcast. And most unusually Curtis lets these moments unspool in time contrary to accepted editing techniques, capturing moments of accidental grace, fumbling mistakes, and raw human behavior.
A new type of understanding emerges as a result of the form itself, an emotional, existential sensation of being present in the effects of the West's foreign affairs. There are also jokes, and audacious music choices, history underscored by Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, Burial, and droning synth film scores by Clint Mansell. The implications are astonishing, the effect verges on the surreal: vivid, banal, beautiful, and constantly giving rise to elusive new connections in your mind between sound and image. Although any history book can give you some of the same information that's not the point. What I came away with watching the film was a haunted sensation, a novelistic reality, one in which I couldn't forget its images, in which suddenly I saw an aspect to war that is often obscured in news; an emotional dimension.
We do little examination of the filmmaking techniques and formalism that constitutes television news, one of the dominant global experiences for nearly a century. Media examination of how news is made tends to focus on institutions and individuals, as the Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly scandals demonstrate. The focus of analysis is personality, celebrity, and memory; which isn't all that different from a network anchor's stated role.
But this means we never engage in discourse about the expectations of the aesthetics and form taken of how we watch news. The editing techniques embraced by news corporations are themselves a kind of power structure that prioritizes inattention. We prioritize the celebrity of Williams or O'Reilly instead of the collective failures of corporate news media, whose compliance with lies planted by the Bush administration contributed to our involvement in Iraq.
While it's common knowledge that television news prioritizes soundbites, this same editorial process also reduces footage into optical bites. An image must be watched at length to be understood, but the very form of TV news requires it's cut down to its most reductive. As a result, the montage that dominates the cliched, internationally adopted television news format maximalizes the most shocking images of conflict and drama. It's the geopolitical equivalent of reality tv producers getting their performers drunk and letting the cameras roll, more Real World: Road Rules than The March of Time.
What ends up on the cutting room floor (or at least deleted from the digital bin) is understanding and narrative. Explaining in this great interview, Curtis offers the idea that "…television is really one long construction of a giant story out of fragments of recorded reality from all over the world that is constantly added to every day."
And in that failure to tell stories and give meaning and emotion to the news, under the veneer of objectivity, a deep nihilism has emerged that saturates our entire culture. Our view of war zones is little more than tourism. Again, don't take my word for it, take instead this brilliantly damning short film Curtis made for BLACK MIRROR creator Charlton Brooker's Wipe series.
It's a funny thing that Curtis would prioritize abandoned footage. His first widely acclaimed film was The Power of Nightmares, a three part history of how radical Islamism in many ways paralleled the rise of Neo-Conservatism. The series was lauded with awards at film festivals such as Cannes, yet no distributor in the US would broadcast it. It found a life here mainly as an Internet bootleg, hosted with Curtis' blessing at The Internet Archive. And that has been the case for the rest of his work, still funded by the BBC: highly regarded globally, with many devoted viewers in North America who have only ever seen his work as video streams on laptops.
Some assumed before the release of BITTER LAKE that its online only release must have been due to censorship or content issues with the BBC. Curtis flatly refutes this. He says it was highly intentional a commission he was granted after a lecture he gave internally at the BBC on the new opportunities afforded by an online only video medium. Less bureaucrats, more freedom of form… For now.
The irony is that the BBC's current implementation of an online only service willfully shuts out the rest of the globe, pointlessly sending viewers outside the UK to ephemeral Youtube embeds and digital bootlegs.
Curtis' work is often criticized on the basis of how reductive his history is or how he's retreading conspiracy theories. As can be seen in the interactions on his exceptional blog, conspiracy theorists comprise a segment of his viewership, but tend to be infatuated with correcting his histories and informing him of what he left out.
But conspiracies do not govern his theses. If anything Curtis' work is about how unreckoned our relationship with power is. It's an overarching history of the 20th century giving birth to new systems to disseminate and control power. Since we have no working narrative or politics to concede with power, unintended consequences prevail. The stories of his films are almost always a history of how those in power create plans to change the world, and those plans go completely awry.
At the forefront of this are the narrators of our times, the advance scouts for history, a vast and disjointed rubric: the media. I saw Curtis give a lecture in New York City once, after the staging of an experimental live show he created with Massive Attack at the colossal Park Ave Armory.
I'm recalling from memory but Curtis' directly aimed it at media workers. He urged us to reject the fashionable artistic embrace of ambiguity, that we must rebel simply by telling stories.
For an unreckoned relationship with power has given rise to a lack of narrative, where we are aware that the global financial crisis meant something, but we have been given no real idea of what it means, and how it happened. Curtis sincerely believes we can defeat this, and all it will take is the hard work of diligence, good journalism, and storytelling. Despite his dryly funny and acerbic way, I found this argument compelling and impossible to ignore.
Curtis' work may not be infallible, but it often asks why we have become stagnant and regressive, why we are running out of visions for the future. At the very least, his films have provided a new vision: of how we still have work to do in the form of filmmaking that will help us understand our world. I hope BITTER LAKE most of all raises questions of how news organizations appropriate the imagery that is shot, often at great cost to the lives of journalists, in a way that has narrowed the possible dimensionality of its truth. Even more troublesome, the exploitation of footage created by terrorists has resulted in a horrifying feedback loop where corporate news entities earn profits off of their existence.
In the far future, the real impact of BITTER LAKE will most likely be the filmmakers inspired by it. They may not need to wait for a collection of discarded videotapes, for lurking out there on the Internet is a nearly infinite archive of footage. Over 100,000 hours are uploaded to YouTube each day. It is just out there waiting for artists, journalists and storytellers to help us make sense of it all.
BITTER LAKE is available to watch now on the BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK or have access to a VPN. It frequently appears and disappears on Youtube and other streaming video services, and I suggest you watch it in as high definition as you can.
Many of his other films are available from time to time on The Internet Archive and other services. No official DVD release has been sanctioned in over a decade.
Curtis' blog is another repository of fascinating stories and footage.