Bitter Lake: Adam Curtis is both self-indulgent and fascinating

Curtis is one of few BBC film-makers given great artistic freedom. Steve Rhodes, CC BY-SA

Most broadcasters – especially those who work at the BBC – must produce their programmes to conform to strict guidelines. They must be within five seconds of the required length, they must comply with a rigid format and they must meet the approval of layers of executives.

There are a handful of prominent programme makers who are allowed to set their own guidelines. Alan Yentob (Imagine) is his own executive producer and allows himself the freedom to make his programmes as long as he thinks they should be.

Free hand: Stephen Poliakoff. Ian West/PA

Stephen Poliakoff has spent much of his career not bothered by the constraints placed on other writer/directors at the BBC. When casting Radio 4’s In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg probably doesn’t have to run his guest list of obscure academics past any “higher ups”.

Many will argue that is how it should be, that these people are the very essence of the BBC. As a teenager, I was certainly grateful that John Peel didn’t comply with a rigid playlist, even if I didn’t always want to listen to his selection of Bulgarian throat music.

Adam Curtis is in this select group of BBC programme makers. His made-for-TV documentaries have been ground-breaking and innovative. They are visual and audio interpretations of his thoughts and analyses of the world, unfiltered by executive producers or the demands of focus groups. They’re often beautiful, frequently compelling, always thought provoking.

Bitter Lake

With his latest programme Bitter Lake he has given himself even more freedom by making it solely for the BBC iPlayer. The film is nearly two and a half hours long. It is experimental and uses footage, in ways that at first appear random, to construct a narrative that attempts to explain the complexities of the modern world.

“Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes sense any more,” states Curtis in his first piece of narration over a shot of the moon appearing from behind a mountain as the shot is constantly reframed. Thus begins a feature-length process of explaining the uncertainties of the world through the prism of Afghanistan.

It starts with a 1945 meeting at Bitter Lake in Egypt between Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, in which the US pledges support for the Saudi state in exchange for oil; and it ends with the withdrawals of troops from Afghanistan in late 2014 (though some are still there).

Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud at their fateful Bitter Lake meeting in 1945. US National Archives, CC BY-SA

Dual-track approach

The story is told by mixing between two distinct streams. The first is an archive-rich retelling of political history since the Bitter Lake meeting. The footage is familiar Curtis style – shots given a new beauty and meaning by the way they are juxtaposed, linked by his usual clear, concise doubt-free voiceover. This is the trademark Curtis style that we are familiar with from films like The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

The second stream is a seemingly randomly constructed montage of unedited footage from the Afghanistan war. Scenes of extreme violence and missile attacks are cut with, for example, long quiet scenes of a soldier befriending a wild bird. There is no sense to be made of this but its rawness is shocking and memorable. It’s as though Curtis is suggesting we can begin to make some sense of the events from past decades but more recent events are too fresh to be processed.

Both streams illuminate the argument but also to distract from it. Period archive often tells two stories. During a shocking section in which the Mujahideen talked of regularly stoning Russians to death, I found myself wondering if that was the voice of a young Jeremy Paxman asking the questions. I was focusing on a very 80s collar and tie combo when I should have been concentrating on the arms fair that the presenter was touring.

Equally, Valerie Singleton’s ankle-length, fur-trimmed leather coat is surely enough to distract anyone from the 1971 visit of the king of Afghanistan that she is covering for Blue Peter.

The uncut, recent war footage has real power in places – building a true sense of the disorganisation and lack of strategic focus of the mission. We see people dead, dying and murdered on screen. There’s a section of an interview of a father and daughter. The young girl is maybe six, wears a toy crown and is recovering from horrific injuries, including an amputated hand.

There’s a sequence in which two British Army Officers negotiate the hire of a photocopier. What does it all mean? You’d have to ask Adam Curtis, though I’m not sure he would be able to tell you either. Which may be part of the point.

The problem with artistic freedom

As a practice-based academic with a background in TV production, I am intrigued and slightly disapproving of the freedom Curtis has given himself by producing this film for iPlayer. The television schedule is divided into rigid time slots. Masterchef must finish in time for Silent Witness that must finish in time for the news that absolutely must start at 10 o’clock. There is no room for a programme as long as Bitter Lake – nor one that is an untidy two hours 17 minutes.

Is the discipline that comes from the editing demands of TV schedules a good thing? Maradonna 8888

On the whole, I would argue that the strict TV schedule is a good thing and benefits the programme maker. There are very few films that wouldn’t be better if they were shorter. Admittedly, slightly less than two and a half hours isn’t very long to explain the events that created the confusions and complexities of the modern world. Curtis probably thinks Bitter Lake is as long as it needs to be. But I think it’s longer than that. I think he has made a long film because he didn’t have time to make a short one.

I once made a documentary for TV that had five executive producers. Which is four too many – but not five too many. One good executive producer will be able to help even the best programme makers to make better programmes. They’ll ask what the photocopier scene is saying and suggest that if we could just get the film under two hours then many more people will watch it.

Adam Curtis is one of the BBC’s greatest documentary makers. His programmes are an event – this one no less so for being shown on the iPlayer. But it will be interesting to see how many people watch Bitter Lake compared to a typical TV audience. The risk is that by removing himself from the discipline and strictures of TV production, he has removed himself from too many viewers.