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Bitter Lake

Adam Curtis’ newest BBC documentary is long, diffuse and a little disappointing.

It is essentially a selective, modern history of Afghanistan, told from a Western point of view and through Curtis’ trademark style. The film wanders around a maze of archival footage, with some truly beautiful montages, some unsettling ones, and more than a few indulgent handheld shaky-cam scenes. It is a firmly visual rather than aural film, in that the majority of the footage is without diagetic sound. Instead a range of mostly electronic music plays over the combat, the faces, the dances. Dancing is a recurring motif in the film – traditional Afghan dancing – the viewer sees examples of it at least five times. They are each beautiful moments and ground the film emotionally.

This is where Bitter Lake does best. In its montage, its cinematic truth and concrete realities. Where it fails in my view is the choice of the historical narrative – too simple – and its bookend questions – too vague, too pointless. I agree with the majority of Curtis’ propositions but was frustrated that he did not tease out any of the premises further, nor add anything new. Given this documentary is over two hours long it could have done with more argument, more meat, and less repetition. It could have held a forceful position in debates on religion, secularism, imperialism, geopolitics, international relations, anthropology, any of these things – in addition to being what it is; at its heart merely a mesmerizing curation.

Super broad, but even so: worth watching. There are also a few laughs in there.