Review of Bitter Lake (2015)

Moving picture, 136 minutes

Adam Curtis (writer-director).

Seen in 2017.

The modern history of Afghanistan and, secondarily, of Saudi Arabia. The main thread of the narrative is a sequence of events from the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, where Afghans defeated the British. Lingering resentment and mistrust of the colonizers led to the rise of Wahhabism, which came to prop up the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which the Bedouins created in the 1920s. When Roosevelt was preparing to export his domestic politics in 1945, King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia demanded, in negotiations on Great Bitter Lake, that the faith would be untouched in an agreement around military assistance and Saudi oil.

In the years that followed, the US Morrison-Knudsen company dammed the River Helmand and its tributaries in Afghanistan. The last of the dams, Kajaki, is 97 m tall, only slightly smaller than Egypt’s Aswan, the complicated consequences of which are the most memorable subject of McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun (2000). Here, too, there are unintended consequences. Poppies thrive in the saltier irrigated soil. The relative value of land in different areas changed with the dams, serving tribal agendas.

Saudi Arabia ended the Yom Kippur War of 1973 by raising the price of oil, lifting US support for Israel’s counter-offensive. Abrahamic religious tension continued with Saudi wealth and prestige empowering both Wahhabism and Western banks, which stepped in to replace shrinking Western governments in the 1970s. Religion became the force that toppled the state-atheist Afghan PDPA, simultaneously perpetuated and beheaded by the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country.

The US armed the Mujahideen to combat the Soviets, while Afghan tribes and families feuded over the communist redistribution of the changed land. It was because they were Saudis that the perpetrators of the 2001 WTC bombing could so easily enter the US. After that Wahhabist terror attack, British troops went back into the now “Islamic State of” Afghanistan with their own equally simplistic Abrahamic moralism that opened them up to be manipulated by the local powers: Rival tribes and opium-producing warlords. Siding with the corrupt and hated post-Soviet police, the Western coalition unwittingly ran errands for old factions, and the country blew up. Jonathan Idema and more official uses of torture didn’t help. ISIS comes as a logical consequence.

A prelude to HyperNormalisation (2016), driving precisely the same thesis with a narrower “prism”, as Curtis calls Afghanistan in the introduction.

Extensive cuts from Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) for comedy and, centrally, Solaris (1972). In Curtis’s analogy, the X-rays of the scientists and the supernatural power of the alien world correspond to Western and Middle Eastern influences, respectively, upon the other party.

Curtis’s extensive use of uncommented documentary material between these cuts of fiction and the chapters of his narration, including BBC rushes, illustrates everyday life and humanity in Afghistan quite well, but should have been trimmed by another couple of minutes. Perhaps the most memorable clip is of a little girl at the princess age (about 6), with a plastic gold diadem and heart print on her socks, newly one-eyed and one-armed, but still alive. I also like Whitehall’s “permanent defence equipment exhibition” for selling weapons to foreign powers, with Thatcher describing herself as a “saleswoman” for multi-role aircraft manufacturers, and the lecturer on art history bringing up Duchamp’s Fountain (art being “what I think it is”) to a room full of Afghan men and women primed to expect Western decadence.

References here: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (2018).

moving picture non-fiction