Adam Curtis on how the West fooled itself
Bitter Lake is not a normal kind of television film. Which is why it is not on the normal television channels (it is available only on iPlayer from 9pm tonight). It is made in a very different kind of way from what you would expect from a political documentary on TV. At its heart is the story of Afghanistan and what has happened there over the past 60 years. The film has a strong narrative and argument – but it combines that with another kind of film-making. I have used the unedited raw material that the BBC has shot over the past 30 years in Afghanistan. These are the “rushes”, from which tiny snippets of 10 and 20 seconds have been taken for news reports – and then the rest, thousands of hours, have been left unseen. I have taken that material and used it in a different way – often running shots very long, sometimes with music or noise, to try to create a picture of the incredible layers of complexity there are in Afghanistan. A complexity that those in power in the West could not see when they invaded the country. My aim is to try to get people to look at those fragments of recorded moments from Afghanistan in a new and fresh way. I do feel that the way many factual programmes on TV are edited and constructed has become so rigid and formulaic – that the audiences don’t really look at them any more. The template is so familiar. I am using these techniques to both amplify and express the wider argument of Bitter Lake. It is that those in power in our society have so simplified the stories they tell themselves, and us, about the world that they have in effect lost touch with reality. That they have reduced the world to an almost childlike vision of a battle between good and evil. This was the story that those who invaded Afghanistan carried with them and tried to impose there – Goodies and Baddies: ‘Bitter Lake’ argues that ignoring the complexity of Afghanistan has led to disaster and the rise of ISIS and as a result they really could not see what was staring them in the face: a complex society where different groups had been involved in a bloody civil war for over 30 years. A world where no one was simply good or bad. But those in charge ignored all that – and out of it came a military and political disaster. But the film also tries to show why Western politicians have so simplified the world. Because Afghanistan’s recent past is also a key that unlocks an epic hidden history of the postwar world. Bitter Lake shows how – from the 1970s on – Western politicians faced with growing economic chaos gave much of their power away to the banks and the financial system. Both Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan turned to financial technocrats who promised they could manage the new economic complexities. And abroad those same politicians, above all Reagan, simplified the world into a series of reassuring moral fables. Complex conflicts that previously would have been seen as political struggles became instead battles against dark, demonic forces – that threatened innocent people. This is the simplified vision of the world that over the next 20 years rose up to possess all of us – both Left and Right. It said that the role of we of the West, the good people, was to intervene abroad to save those innocents. It was the vision that drove Tony Blair in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film also reveals the strange and destructive role Saudi Arabia has played in this, through its violent and intolerant version of Islam – Wahhabism. It emerged in the 18th century as a reaction to the European empires. It hated the modern world and wanted to return to what its followers imagined was the purer form of Islam back in the 7th century. But most other branches of Islam were extremely suspicious of it. There was even a book published called The Memoirs of Mr Hempher which was said to be the confession of a British secret agent who invented Wahhabism to bring down the Islamic world. In 1929, the King of Saudi Arabia, machine-gunned many of the Wahhabist radicals in the bleak sand dunes of Arabia because they wanted to go on and create a caliphate across the Islamic world. Ever since then the Saudi royal family have tried to deal with this unstable force by exporting it beyond their borders. Bitter Lake shows how, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis encouraged its young radicals to go and fight in Afghanistan. They brought Wahhabist ideas with them to the camps in the mountains. To begin with those ideas lay dormant – but when Afghanistan collapsed into chaos in the 1990s, Wahhabism became more and more influential. It powerfully influenced bin Laden’s thinking – and then spread further, through the chaos of Iraq after 2003. As it did so it reverted to the dream of creating a caliphate based on an imagined vision of the past. Out of this has come ISIS and the horrors in northern Syria. And ISIS, with its stark simplification of the world into black and white is just the enemy that fits with the Western political vision. The jihadists and our leaders are locked together into a bubble that divides the world into Goodies and Baddies. What Bitter Lake argues is that the map we and our leaders have been following for the past 15 years or more is worse than useless. And in its use of the undedited rushes the film is revisiting the territory. But it does not follow that it is pointless to attempt to see patterns in this swirling complexity – and to weave stories that give it shape and meaning. What is needed is a new map – one that does make true sense of the modern world.