Review by Ashley Chapman
‘Those in power tell stories to make sense of the complexity of reality,’ begins the avuncular voice of the commentator in Bitter Lake, edited and directed by Adam Curtis, and currently on the BBC’s iPlayer.
“‘This is a film about why those stories have stopped making sense, and how that led us in the West to become a dangerous and destructive force in the world.’”
Using dozens of often mesmerising video and film footage clips, Bitter Lake takes its audience right into the heart of the violent forces unleashed in Afghanistan. It begins, according to its premise, at the end of World War II when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking a secure source of oil to power his global industrial vision, struck a deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud, who unbeknown to Roosevelt, was harbouring sinister ambitions of his own. The footage, taken from BBC archives and mostly filmed in Afghanistan by cameraman Phil Goodwin, build into a cohesive story, focused on successive political and military interventions in Afghanistan by the British, Russians and the USA-led coalition.
The narrative is riveting, explaining how various elements interact with each other: crude politicians, despotic monarchs, arrogant banks, the disconnected soldiers on the ground, the hapless people of Afghanistan, but most of all, the self-deluding fictions, the deliberate myth-making of the power brokers themselves such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher or, more recently, George Bush and Tony Blair. For their own political ends, they turn complex cultural and economic issues into black and white narratives to serve their own political ends.
‘The dying Roosevelt struck a deal with the King of Saud that would unleash the very forces that would undermine his vision: Wahhabism, a “radical, violent and extremely puritanical form of Islam.”‘
The film starts with a sunrise in reverse. It’s an unpromising take on the rise of the sun, as the cameraman zooms in and back unsteadily; this is juxtaposed in another clip, with a beautiful child, all white with golden locks, dancing in red dungarees. A caption mysteriously reads, ‘Afghanistan 1953’. This eventually brings us back to Lashkar Gah airstrip, 1946. Morrison Knudsen, the largest construction company of its kind in the world, has arrived in Afghanistan bringing with it ‘little America’: American engineers and their families, the dancing girl with the golden lock’s family, invited by King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan to transform his kingdom into a modern-day progressive country. To do this, the American engineers ‘harness’ the power of Helmand River, and try to turn the country into a mini USA dotted with dams and power stations. But what had previously taken America out of depression, under the stewardship of Roosevelt, would in Afghanistan lead first to revolution and then exile for its King and the arrival of the Soviets, followed by everyone else.
The documentary has fascinating footage of a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Azis, Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arbia’s current dynasty. It takes place on Bitter Lake in the middle of the Suez Canal on a battle ship after World War II. Roosevelt had ‘transformed the world’ by winning the war and by bringing employment to millions through electrical power, we are told. In his pursuit of this ideal, Curtis argues, the dying Roosevelt struck a deal with the King of Saud that would unleash the very forces that would undermine his vision. America would receive its oil, but Saudi Arabia would get wealth and security in return. But King Abdul Aziz made one thing absolutely clear: that while the Saudis would take technology and money in return for the oil, their faith would remain unchanged. There could be no concessions, ideological or otherwise, in this regard.
‘Like Isis these fierce Bedouin warriors wanted Jihad (holy war) but were instead betrayed in 1929, machine gunned to-a-man under the blazing Saudi desert sun.’
Without pulling any punches, the documentary explains that this faith was Wahhabism, a ‘radical, violent and extremely puritanical form of Islam.’ The Bedouins who followed it, loathed the West, as their extremely conservative version of Islamic faith had emerged as a counter-reaction to what they saw as European Imperialism. To them, Western technology corrupted the ‘true nature of Islam’. When Roosevelt agreed the deal, America got its oil in exchange for protecting King Abdul Aziz. What they were unwittingly protecting, the documentary claims, were Wahhabi global ambitions to unite the Arab world in a unified single Caliphate. These fundamentalist goals were very different from Roosevelt’s, but the die had been cast, so the USA has protected its ideologically opposing ally ever since, fearful of losing its grip on black gold.
And the Saudis, unable to spend their acquired wealth, have flooded our banks with cash, giving them the financial muscle to lend those petro dollars back to consumers, fuelling financial and consumer credit bubbles. This has led, along with other contributing factors, such as weak regulations, to the banks becoming supreme, their coffers swelled with petro dollars, able to lend to governments, and finally becoming steadily more unregulated.
The film shows us insightfully how glib politicians, kick-started these interventions in Afghanistan, using the black and white language of the Bible, with disastrous results, soothing and cajoling the public, in equal measure, to sanction warmongering. The ground campaigns into Afghanistan were so far removed from their over-simplistic language, hawked at their inset by the political establishment, as to have passed beyond surreal rhetoric, and brought us close enough to stare into the wild-eyed bewilderment of those caught for real in the effects of such oversimplifications. For instance, as the film shows, a wheelchair-bound Russian vet raving about having returned with the ghosts of the Mujahedeen. Afghani tribal elders, right at the start of Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan, walk out of a meeting hosted by the British army in a village, when they realise the British army has sided with their blood-enemy in Kabul, the corrupt and hated warlord, Karsai, soon-to-be, President Karsai. Or hilariously, ‘No idea,’ responds a soldier laughing when asked why a beacon in honour of the Queen, on a remote rural hilltop of Helmand Province, is being lit.
British soldiers in Helmand Province finally fight everyone as local people turn against them convinced they have sided with their enemies. Of course, the Taliban take advantage. The country plunges into utter chaos, as President Karsai takes control of its wealth. His minions profiteering from the heroin trade ironically fed on the raised high-salt water table of the dam. British soldiers, in the meantime, go about wrongly shooting those accused by grudge-bearing local Afghanis of siding with the Taliban. In all of this, the USA pours millions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan, which is then syphoned off by the President’s cronies. Ten million dollars’ worth a day of loot in suitcases head for Dubai where Karsai’s corrupt clan are buying luxury flats. The same bail-out strategy used to the save the corrupt banking system in the West.
This disparity between the West’s aims and Saudi Arabia’s has inevitably led to a veritable blood-bath in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The film has plenty of footage to show the consequences of this fundamental clash of cultures. The video footage starts off innocuously enough, a blood smudged camera lens, quickly escalating into the ambush of a convoy where, outside the gates of a palace, a man is seen dying in a hail of bullets. ‘We’re all born killers,’ says a soldier gleefully into the night air, which is later contrasted with the mighty Mujahedeen vowing passionately to rid Afghanistan of its hated invader, Britain. Or, paid American sociopath, Jack Idema, who claimed he could track down Osama Bin Laden, but was unmasked torturing innocent suspects in a Kabul basement, tried, and promptly sent down for ten years, until pardoned by President Karsai. Even better, the heavily-armed confident CIA-recruited Abu Al-Zarqawi, and Isis founder, saying on camera that ‘If God is willing, within the next three months, I will rule the Islamic World.’ In the next sequence, a USA bomb dropped on target, puts paid to his Jihadi fantasy.
Britain, we learn, provided Saudi Arabia with billions of pounds worth of arms in 1985 –- the biggest arms deal in British history — despite Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, and their steadfast arming of extremist backward-looking Jihadists. But when Sadam Hussein threatened Saudi Arabia in the early 90s, it emerged that the Saudis were only playing at war. They didn’t have the expertise to manage their own war systems. So Bin Laden felt compelled to offer his Mujahedeen but was declined. Instead, half a million US boots were invited onto Saudi soil, with inevitable consequences. Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden felt, had been violated and 9/11 followed.
Bitter Lake explains very eloquently that Saudi Arabia is deeply conflicted between its need for Western technology, to extract its oil and guard its sovereignty, and its need to stay true to Wahhabism. Its traditional clergy allow the House of Saud to rule as long as the dynastic succession soothes them with aggressive foreign expansionist policies, which would see Wahhabism unite the Arab world in the dream of that all-elusive single Caliphate. Al Qaeda and, more recently Islamic State, are nothing more than the fusion of Wahhabism with modern Islamist radicalisation. They are the descendants of the fierce Bedouin warriors that placed Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud on the throne in the 1920s, brutally exterminating his rivals. Like Isis these fierce Bedouin warriors wanted Jihad (holy war) but were instead betrayed in 1929, machine gunned to-a-man under the blazing Saudi desert sun.
The violent and tragic fomented consequences of such violence and military ambitions in faraway settings are skilfully parodied in Bitter Lake by comparing our relation with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia to the themes of alienation explored in Andrei Tarkosvky’s film Solaris (1972), in which a distant planet, of the same name, is discovered covered in a huge conscious Zen-like soup. To probe this ocean of aware organic matter, the cosmonauts fire radiation at the planet, which retaliates by reflecting back at the astronauts their own store of memories, effectively, filling their minds with doubt: an unsettling psychic and emotional attack on their rationality that takes them beyond their sense of self towards paranoid delusions and despair.
The parallel in Bitter Lake’s theme is the failure of the West, and previously Russia, to consciously find anything useful in its own culture, with which to engage with the Middle East, apart from oil-extraction technology, arms trade and mountains of cash. This lack of a true commonality has had devastating consequences. For, closer to home in the USA and UK, each successive retreat and failure has led to consumer insecurity and instability in our financial markets. Like the crew in Solaris, the West and its greedy self-serving allies, are found empty, to be soulless, peddling the same simplistic Biblical narratives until insanity finally catches up with them.