TV review: Bitter Lake, iPlayer

Adam Curtis' new documentary is a BBC iPlayer exclusive focussing on the West's role in Afghanistan

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TV review: Bitter Lake, iPlayer

There’s a certain type of audience out there for whom Adam Curtis’ familiar, destabilising form of documentary narrative is like crack, and they await Bitter Lake eagerly. Made up of grainy found footage, much of it utilising recording formats which have long since passed from existence, combined with the disorientating collision of humour and horror.

There's a ‘look at the way we were’ quality to old adverts and fashions dredged up onscreen coupled with an uncomfortable truth that the characters and situations don't chime with the history we were taught in school, in many cases because they were so important that they had to stay clear of the public eye. Backed by a fearsome electronic soundtrack as the crunching gears of secret history stir into life.

Above it all rides a voice which is as avuncular as a fireside storyteller and as dry as a university lecturer, the compelling personal intervention of Curtis in a film which resonates with his own filmmaking personality. Across classics like The Century of the Self (about the pervasive psychological power of public relations), The Power of Nightmares (examining the benefits to the Western power complex of fabricating enemies), he’s exposed the power structures and political and psychological theories which have shaped the Western world in the late 20th century to the present day.

His films are hypnotic, controversial and immersively illuminating, although there are those who criticise his impartiality. The 59-year-old Oxford graduate and former filmmaker for 1980s consumer affairs show That’s Life has been chastised for his avowed left-wing politics. Bitter Lake promises to remain in the vicinity of controversy, although never for its own sake.

Compiled from archive footage of the country shot by the BBC, it tells the recent history of Afghanistan as a battleground for Western political ideals and foreign policy. The trailer is hypnotic, although it gives little away: ‘Once upon a time politicians told confident stories that made sense of the world, but then everything became chaotic and unpredictable,’ reads the simple motto running through it, and the hope is that Curtis might once more make some order of this chaos by the time the credits roll.

Adam Curtis’ new film Bitter Lake will be available on the BBC iPlayer from 9pm on Sun 25 Jan.

Bitter Lake | Teaser

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