Adam Cur­tis on how the West fooled it­self

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Television & Radio -

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.

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