April 30, 2015, by criticalmoment

Bitter Lizards Part 1: Truth and Lies in Adam Curtis’s Afghanistan

In the first of two posts, our own Max Bacharach (MA in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies) reflects on Adam Curtis’ latest documentary, Bitter Lake ….

It is uncontentious, I think, to say that today, documentaries are ubiquitous, as too is hunger for the ‘truth(s)’ they apparently waste no time in serving up. Some resonate and captivate, others agitate and irritate; all circulate, part of the interminable dataflow of 21st century wired, and wire-less, technoculture. They are part of how we communicate, how we (self-)educate, how we contemplate, and how, increasingly, we navigate – socially, politically, affectively and symbolically – ‘the world’ (or rather, those of the myriad worlds we tend to group under that name that apply).

What we seek is something like a picture of ‘how things really are’, a kind of ontological bird’s-eye view of/over the thing in question. Like the possessed Lester Freamon of The Wire‘s delirious final season, we want knowledge, access, and (consequently) power, and we pursue it. But what is this vantage point, precisely? And how can we ever really know we’re ‘there’? If a lesson can be learned from the doomed attempts of Baltimore’s finest to get to the epicentre of their homicidal city’s woes, and thereby somehow liberate it, it is that no such site exists, and that when it comes to pinning down reality ‘as it is’, we must be careful not to expect too much. Further, we must consider how preexisting constellations of beliefs and opinions, both individual and collective, conscious and unconscious, structure – before our laptops, iPads, Androids or whatever else we use to view (or snoop) have even powered up – what we are willing to perceive and accept as ‘truth’, and what we aren’t. If what we are has substantially to do with what, constitutively, we are, the problem begins to look complex. And that’s before we bring those very devices, and the accompanying specificities of time, place and the broader social and cultural contexts we/they interface with, into the picture.

Adam Curtis‘s new, iPlayer-only feature doc, Bitter Lake, available to stream until the end of the year, pushes these kinds of questions to the fore, problematising – healthily, I think – a viewing practice that has as much to do with affirmation, confirmation and epistemic orientation as it does the interrogation and complication of existing coordinates. It does so by very directly ‘playing the game’ of the Really True Doc, but only up to a point, and in powerfully heterodox terms. Telling the grisly story of geopolitical intervention in Afghanistan, and concomitant US/Saudi power-play, in the wake of World War II, Curtis contends that the official truths and superficial good/evil narratives of successive US, Soviet and British occupations amount to little more than over-simplified superimpositions by those whose powerful interests they serve(d), in effect giving us an alternative over-simplified – albeit much less so – story and, in so doing, placating those instincts for positioning and ratification I am suggesting are embedded in our most ‘open’ viewing habits. But what he deliberately doesn’t do is ‘prove’ anything: in Bitter Lake, there simply is no empirical verification, recourse to statistical certitude, consultation of ‘experts’ or valorisation of the first-person perspective (barring a single, quick-fire exchange with ex-TA Captain Mike Martin), nor even much by way of purposively direct footage of the Real of war-torn Afghanistan, collaged as the documentary is from a variety of filmic sources, much of it the evocatively wobbly, there-but-out-of-it footage shot and collated by Phil Goodwin. And unlike his retroactively deployed man on the ground, Curtis was never there; like us, he has only fragments – stories, suppositions, imagined memories and machinic representations – to work with.

Now, in contrast to the unconvincingly ‘true’ narratives of the type peddled by the West’s politicians, news corporations and media elites, generally ideologically in line with what’s peddled (and left out) at schools, universities, in movie theatres and across the many for-profit channels of networked interactivity, and in contrast to the equally unconvincingly ‘true’ counter-narratives of seamlessly orchestrated conspiracy, Curtis’s take makes no attempt to present a linear, epistemically unified and ultimately digestible picture of the Middle East and its Asian fringes. Rather, it seeks to draw out and frame folly, contradiction and discontinuity, both in terms of his irregular interventions as narrator (sometimes indignant, often flat, occasionally simply text) and, spectacularly at times, the formal dynamics of shot and sound(track). As with his bestpastinterventions, collage – brash and jolting, but delicate and painterly, too – does the work. We are presented with a broken, panicky, lurching mosaic of scenes, sounds and, at times starkly hallucinatory, spaces, Afghanistan rendered as a vast but restless theatre of power and peoples, invaders and insurgents, and traditions and technologies, a dusty timewarp where the ‘progressive’ narratives of the colonial West and its expansionist rival simply dissolve in the heat. The absurd spectacle of British soldiers, perched on the side of a mountain armed with bagpipes and a Union Jack to celebrate the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, is one such instance, illustrating all too pointedly Slavoj Zizek’s claim that “moments of transparent innocence, of ‘return to basics’, when the gesture of [nationalistic/cultural] identification seems ‘natural’ … are, from the standpoint of the critique of ideology, the most obscure ones, even, in a certain way, obscurity itself“. The sheer contingency of the who- or what- ever it is the soldiers are fighting for, exposed here to the brutally indifferent landscape of the occupied Other, registers, inescapably, as farce.

Bitter Lake lingers on these kinds of details throughout, periodically hypnotised by the uncanny, sometimes unbearable contradictions and discrepancies that Goodwin’s archive throws up. Devastatingly – and in many ways a powerfully critical-theoretical move, I would argue – Curtis shows us that the ontological bird’s-eye view we so badly wanted, that gory ‘(counter-)truth of it all’ we came to his film expecting and anticipating, is an impossibility. A priori inaccessible, such Truth is always-already dispersed in the kind of tapestry of mediations that, sewn together, make up the singular, shattering story Bitter Lake tells. There is no authoritative Master-Writer, no definitive ‘voice’, and the more he tries to ‘say it as it is’, the more we are forced to accept Curtis’s own partial and limited authorial inscriptions for what they are. This is what Jon Boone and others fail to apprehend when they dismiss Curtis for not being True or complex or ‘neutral’ enough – of course fundaments are missing, cracks papered over, biases articulated and approximations proffered – and what’s perhaps most uncomfortable about Bitter Lake in general: the tragedy of Afghanistan is, through its refracting lenses, the tragedy of our spectatorial condition, its deserts and poppy fields and decimated villages the living symbols of the West’s failing stories – of its defunct auto-mythologisation – and, deeper still, of the nihilistic Real of neoliberal globalisation (an ongoing target of critique in Curtis’s work) as it spreads its chopper-dropped missionaries across the planet.

Chosen, perhaps curiously, for its creative open-endedness, iPlayer is an appropriate site for the powerful staging of the disappearance of certitude Bitter Lake enacts, caught as the BBC is between a decaying public broadcast ethic and the solipsistic circuits of the late capitalist entertainment superhighway. For the duration of its timely yet strangely out of time residency there, I would urge anyone interested in the stories we (mis)take for reality, and vice versa, to pay Bitter Lake a visit.


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