Sangin, Afghanistan, 2006. It is more than four years since coalition forces invaded the country, overthrew the Taliban, and orchestrated elections for a new, ostensibly democratic regime. Western attention has turned to Iraq, confident that victory has been achieved in Afghanistan. There is not a single satellite observing Helmand province, home of Sangin, when the first sparks of conflict reignite. These sparks will eventually engulf the nation, and undo whatever mirage of stability Western governments spent trillions of dollars—and thousands of lives—maintaining.
When forces of the Afghan government fall under attack in the town, Royal Marines are sent in to pacify the area and reestablish government control. They march in with little appreciation for the situation’s nuances, confident in their capacity to sort Good Guys from Bad Guys, and cleanly eliminate the latter. Their assumptions entirely miss the conflict’s true causes, however. The locals are frustrated by the abuses of the local government, which is composed of former warlords and up-jumped gangsters with little interest beyond pillage. Shortly after the Marines arrive, local elders try to explain to them that this corruption is the root of the violence. But the Marines are too busy trying to set up a DVD player to impress the locals with a screening of the nature documentary Blue Planet. The explanation goes unheard.
Not that the Western understanding of Afghanistan contains much room for the idea that the violence is a symptom of the rotten state apparatus in the first place. As far as the Marines are concerned, the governor and his cronies are the legitimate representatives of a democratic state established by the coalition’s blood and sacrifice, and any who oppose them must be Taliban. Unaware, or unwilling to understand, that the rump of the Taliban that survived the invasion has for years had no real support or influence outside of Pakistan, the Marines try to overawe the supposed insurgents by bombing the town center. In home video footage of the bombings, Marines whoop and holler as the village is leveled.
Rather than discouraging violence, this drives many of the townspeople into the arms of the long-dormant Taliban, which sees its opportunity for revival in the ever-more-disgruntled populace. The very soldiers sent to contain the conflict thusly end up as its accelerants, inadvertently resurrecting the Taliban in the process. The violence worsens, the gyre widens, fueling the madness of a hopeless, pointless, unwinnable quagmire that would spin wider and faster until it finally and mercilessly came to a devastating end, 15 long years later.
The Sangin incident comes late in the runtime of Bitter Lake, the epic, unflinching, kaleidoscopic, and ultimately poetic documentary from English filmmaker Adam Curtis. It’s just one anecdote in a film whose historical gaze extends from 19th-century Great Game imperialism all the way up to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, but feels like the kernel from which the whole film sprung. It is the central, horrific mystery the rest of the film’s 135-minute runtime is compelled to answer for: how did we possibly come to this? From what origin does this madness trace? And where will it lead us next?
These are questions that we, as a culture, have struggled to ask, much less answer. In our collective imagination, the story of Afghanistan remains a muddled one. It began with 9/11, as far as most are concerned, and ended in ignominy on a Kabul tarmac. The cinematic portrayal of the war has reflected that lack of settled understanding. There has been nothing to compare to the wave of cynical post-Vietnam film and literature, nor the triumphalist war flicks that boomed after World War II. Nearly every notable World War II film, from Casablanca to Saving Private Ryan, tells a story of noble sacrifice, and thereby carries forward in microcosm the torch of that grand mytho-historic narrative. Likewise, every Vietnam film—save something like a mid-war quasi-propaganda flick such as The Green Berets, which awkwardly shoehorns John Wayne values into a story of guerilla warfare—must reckon with its mad folly.
These were wars with clear ends and lessons, already familiar thanks to mass participation both domestically and at the front. But popular culture still strove to make legible the meaning of recent history to its survivors. The war in Afghanistan, like all our meandering post-Cold War expeditions, is murkier, more distant, experienced only by a select few. It is still freshly felt, and therefore in even greater need of a clarification that has not arrived. If we accept that we give meaning to our world through the stories we tell, then, as a culture, we have not agreed on any understanding of the last 20 years of international blundering-about.
There have been plenty of films about Afghanistan, some successful, many not, but no unifying narrative emerges from them. There are ooh-rah tales of military heroism (Lone Survivor, 12 Strong); this-isn’t-who-we-are bleeding heart apologias (Lions for Lambs, Taxi to the Dark Side); exoticized tales of Afghanistan as a land for white liberal self-discovery (Rock the Kasbah, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot); you-are-there combat documentaries (Restrepo, Korengal, Hell and Back Again); and slice-of-life examinations of the Afghan people (Afghan Star, The Breadwinner). Depending on the telling, Afghanistan is either a place to be saved, or survived, or enlightened in, or mastered by force; how we got there, or to what end, are questions beyond most of them. They are fragments that refuse to cohere into a whole.
Beyond that, though, most have very little to say. It would be asking too much of any one film to resolve the meaning of the war, but not to engage with it, to approach it with something like a point of view. What passes for insight is often either mealy-mouthed to the point of meaninglessness—many Afghans are nice; America is often nice; if we are nice again, then surely nice things will happen. Or, they are jingoistic to the point of monstrousness; Lone Survivor implies that not only should the military be more cavalier about civilian casualties, but that any Afghans worthy of trust would be grateful for it.
Perhaps most tellingly, the most successful film about the conflict, Zero Dark Thirty, is so slavishly devoted to its spook’s-eye-view proceduralism that it functions as something of an ideological magic-eye poster, appearing to some coastal critics as a tacit indictment of War on Terror excess while being marketed as a red-meat revenge flick in flyover country. That it was the most ballyhooed of all these films indicates how the only accepted narrative around Afghanistan is one of ambiguity. We know what happened, mostly, but not why. The signal is noise. Meaning fades; there can be no resolution. All we can recognize from it was a grim determination to march on towards the end, knowing somewhere deep down that said end was predetermined, but needing to continue regardless for reasons not easily expressed. As British soldiers sang, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” in the trenches of World War I: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”
With Bitter Lake, Curtis dares to do what few others have, and not only documents but explains the chaos of Afghanistan. Part-essay, part-collage, part-apocalyptic tone poem, the film captures better than any other, both factually and aesthetically, the chaotic quagmire of the war, while situating it within a historical context that gives some clarity to the madness. It is centered in conflict’s ambiguity, dissonance, and chaos, but it neither accepts that as the whole story—suggesting that it is an easily remedied aberration from our true and just selves—nor insists that it could have been mastered with enough unshackled valor. Instead, it locates that quagmire as the logical endpoint of a series of historical decisions that will have to be accounted for if they are to be avoided by our future selves. It gives sense to senselessness.
Curtis has been making documentaries for the BBC for 30-plus years, tackling subjects as diverse as the Freudian origins of public relations, the rise of technocracy, and the intertwined history of neoconservatism and militant Islamism. Each is endlessly digressive, drawing in threads from across continents and centuries into one massive tapestry. Bitter Lake alone touches on the Tennessee Valley Authority, Soviet science fiction, the rising dominance of economic policy by Wall Street in the 1970s and 80s, and Margaret Thatcher’s theories of ladies’ fashion—far from an exhaustive list.
This hyperlink thinking gives the sense that to put the current moment in its proper context, one would need to examine all of history, a goal Curtis seems well set on chasing. His oeuvre could be read as one long film, played out over dozens of hours, that seemingly attempts to explain all the modern world. Bitter Lake recaps, in CliffsNotes form, The Power of Nightmare’s contention that our yen for overseas adventurism is a kind of foul outgrowth of end-of-history thinking. If we insist that there are no more dragons to slay at home, Curtis argues, we must find some abroad. Otherwise, we would have to confront the fact that we no longer have any vision for remaking the world for the better. In turn, Bitter Lake contends that the failure of those grand plans for nation-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere has led to widespread disillusionment with official narratives. This idea is sharpened in his follow-up, HyperNormalisation, into part of an explanation for Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump.
The grand scope of Curtis’ arguments—communicated via all-seeing-eye narration supplied by the filmmaker himself—necessarily simplifies history through the lens of a quasi-Marxist class analysis. The vast forces of the cultural, intellectual, political, scientific, and business classes are flattened into the technocrats, the planners, the elite, or simply the ominous them, who stand in opposition to and exploit the people, individuals, or us. Individual stories are woven throughout his films, but always as evidence of grand world-historical trends; the trees are always in service of the forest.
Bitter Lake trains that ultra-wide-angle lens on Afghanistan, and finds the war there both a culmination and symptom of a much older and deeper sickness. The story is not about terrorism—at least, not exclusively, or even primarily. It is a decades-long tale involving all aspects of the West’s relationship to the Middle East: colonialism, decolonization, post-colonialism, arms-for-oil deals with despots, Cold War gamesmanship, and the short-sighted belief that any fundamentalist radicals could simply be exported to martyr themselves on some backwater battlefield without turning their ire back towards the West and their clients. On and on, each momentarily logical strategic choice knocking over the next domino in a chain that leads to catastrophe.
Throughout the course of the film, Curtis toggles between this wide-angle story of how we arrived in Afghanistan, and a tighter examination of how our nation-building efforts went disastrously astray once we did. The effort was poisoned from the start, when the West prioritized pliability over competency, and elevated the clique of warlords who had backed the NATO invasion as the leaders of the new Afghanistan. This led directly to the gangsterism that set the fuse of violence at Sangin; in neighboring Kandahar, the governor was estimated to be personally making a million dollars a week from the opium trade.
In the ensuing environment of rampant abuse, the police were simply a jumped-up militia with little ambition beyond extortion and score-settling—vindicated with a badge. The citizens of Afghanistan quickly came to see the bantling state as just another in a long line of oppressors, and insurgent violence soon followed. As in Sangin, NATO was all-too-eager to wade into this morass without any capacity to navigate it, inevitably fanning the flames rather than dousing them. In many places, locals learned that anyone with a conflict against a neighbor could simply seek out NATO forces and inform them their rival is Taliban. The soldiers, desperate to report any news of progress, would happily eliminate said rival and chalk it up as a victory. NATO may have been able to dominate any battlefield of its choosing, but it was battling a hydra, and with every step forward the situation worsened.
The threads Curtis follows within and beyond Afghanistan are numerous, but they tie together nicely. They cohere into a tapestry of Western greed and self-satisfied do-gooderism convinced that it could shape the world by force—in other woods, imperialism—but completely incapable of foreseeing the consequences of the power it wields so capriciously.
In short, the quagmire of Afghanistan is explicable. There is a logic to how it was arrived at—a deranged logic, but a traceable one. Watching Curtis perform this complex historical arithmetic is one of the great pleasures of his work. There is satisfaction in the revelation of cause—say, that, in the 1940s, the Americans attempted to prop up a failing Kabul regime through the electrification of the countryside. That necessitated the building of massive hydroelectric dams, which in turn raised the water table in the surrounding valleys, increasing the salinity of the soil until little could grow there and opium was left as the only viable crop. The endpoint remains horrific, but the Afghan opium trade is suddenly less maddeningly random. The world may not be safer, but it is clearer.
The fight against the sense that the world is not just a fraught place but an inexplicable one—chaos we cannot hope to understand, much less change—is the project of Curtis’ career.
As the opening narration of Bitter Lake argues, “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.” Curtis’ films supply a counter-narrative, albeit one that has more to say about how we got here than where to go next. He is a critic, not an advocate.
Or, perhaps, a propagandist, as he himself has admitted. If his goal is to supply a framework through which to understand the world, that framework is emotional as much as intellectual. Curtis has been vocally critical of modern journalism, arguing that it leaves most audiences in a kind of stasis: the material is simultaneously too dry and too distant.
His films, on the other hand, are vital, powered by a style halfway between avant-garde video collage and Pitchfork-approved music video. He works almost entirely with archival footage scrounged from various dusty corners of the BBC’s massive film archive, scored alternately to electronica pulsing with narcotized dread and ironically deployed period pop music. He is known to spend days sitting at monitors fast-forwarding through hours of rushes, in search of some alchemical counterpoint to the topic at hand: an unguarded split-second when some world leader, oblivious to the camera, seems to reveal whole unknown continents of personality; a few stray frames of visual noise that vibrate with portent; a cameraman swearing to himself as he pans to find the plume of an explosion he missed. His films are made of visual tangents drawn across decades and continents, dreamily cresting and colliding against one another in a kind of cinematic pointillism.
These images feel haunted, weighted by the past. They are drawn from forgotten and poorly-maintained archives—much of the footage for Bitter Lake was found literally gathering dust at the back of a shelf in the BBC Kabul bureau. They are composed largely of ephemera: home videos, unedited B-roll, industrial footage, odd bits scraped from forgotten B-pictures. The images are frequently poorly maintained, damaged, disinterested in aesthetics, or simply amateurish. They are outcasts from the official record, suggestive of some stillborn and secret history none in power cared to nurture. The total effect is to make Curtis’ films feel like the insurgent transmission that briefly takes over mainstream broadcasts in They Live: a fuzzy, imperative signal that can just barely make itself seen. Thanks to copyright issues, his films are primarily accessible outside of the United Kingdom via somewhat degraded pirate YouTube rips, which only heightens this feeling.
In Bitter Lake, more than any of Curtis’ films, these scraps of orphaned footage are the star. He frequently steps back, allowing them to play out—sometimes for minutes at a time—without narration or score. We simply experience them: Afghan villagers waiting warily for soldiers to take DNA and retinal scans in a strange meeting of the pastoral and the sci-fi; a rare moment of unguarded wartime serenity as a smiling GI coaxes a bird over to him during a combat patrol; the strange lost-in-translation disorientation of unsubtitled footage from the Afghan version of The Thick of It; Marines bragging to one another about firing against the rules of engagement; children, their playtime interrupted, pointing finger-guns at the intruding camera; seemingly unprovoked gunshots ringing out after a crowd approaches an official’s motorcade, leaving bodies in the street for reasons unknown.
As well as any other film, these images capture the knotty snarl of the conflict—shifting from moment to moment between utter incomprehensibility, strange transcendence, and horrific bloodshed. Bitter Lake is built from the raw ore of unvarnished camcorder combat footage that would later be refined down for blockbuster purposes in every shaky-cam post-9/11 thriller looking to adopt a pose of vérité immediacy. Curtis’ work contains truths most Hollywood filmmakers shy from: that we may have had absolutely no idea what our purpose was in Afghanistan; that the Afghan people may not have wanted us there in the first place; that our military may not have always been capable of, or even primarily interested in, helping them. On and on, through all the unanswered questions posed by two decades of fruitless bloodshed.
Bitter Lake never gets too lost in the quagmire, however. Curtis’ narration is always waiting around the corner to contextualize the chaos and remind us that, above all else, it is a quagmire the West chose—a trap it built, bit by bit, and then threw itself upon. This is a hard truth, but a necessary one. Without understanding our mistakes, we will be doomed to repeat them. Bitter Lake is a brutal, enraging, dispiriting film, but a necessary one. It does not ennoble, it does not pander, it does not excuse. It is the rare film to look tragedy in the face without blinking.