Adam Curtis’ latest documentary, Bitter Lake, which is still available on BBC iPlayer, is another hypnotic, if overlong, meditation on the current epidemic of Wahhabism and how it came to sink its claws into every facet of Islam from the badlands of Afghanistan to the bedrooms of an extremely perfidious Albion.
That’s the easy part. The way we get there is wonderfully opaque as Curtis lays on his trademark flourishes with archive footage, musical detours and gorgeous images that create a ‘sense’ that we should know what’s going on but actually deepen the mystery of the West’s flirtation with the House of Saud over the last 80 years.
There are even clips of Carry on up the Khyber and Solaris to keep us entertained. Curtis makes his point that the whole Afghanistan debacle has really been nothing to do with the people of that country at all – but rather a combination of cold war posturing and Wahhabi opportunism as the superpowers of America and Russia slugged it out for chest-beating supremacy.
Some of this can be meandering but most of it is effective and daring because it allows us time to see the ruins and ravages of a war-torn nation and how it’s identity has been shredded until its soul can bear no more.
But its spirit lingers – and this is where Curtis comes into his own. His long takes of daily Afghan life – from foreign soldiers to orphans – are mesmerising and haunting. One magnificent sequence shows a soldier with a bird in his hand with nothing other than the background of Afghan pop music to accompany us. It’s moving and intimate but also impossible to explain why.
And that’s the beauty of Adam Curtis’ films. His politics have a way of getting you to nod your head (most of the time) but it’s his constant use of movement, motion and rhythm that draw people into his work. He’s like a western mystic in that sense – because of his trance-like, whirling images – and his message seems just as stark: why have you greedy, powerful people ruined this beautiful land?
The mystics and Adam Curtis may not have an answer – but they know their way into our cultural, rhythm-hungry hearts.