Bitter Lake (2015)


And I think the same is true of a new kind of journalism that’s emerging, which is not saying, ‘Oh I don’t know anything.’ It’s saying, ‘Well I’m trying and I’m doing my best in this chaotic world.’
– Adam Curtis


 When I was working as an engineer in a big manufacturing company, I learned one thing. Senior managers, directors and all the other important people prefer “conciseness”. They want to know problems at hand in short sentences. 3-minute presentations. 1-sheet status reports. 2-line messages. Most of all, they love this one word.

 “Everything is Okay.”

 I know, that’s three words.

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 On the other hand, many of them love to hear stories. Funny stories. Invigorating success stories. How-our-nasty-competitor-is-losing-its-business stories. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if it is true or not. A simple story makes the chaos around us digestible. You know, making a decision requires clear understanding of the situation. So I was told. But more often than not, a decision is made, with their impressions from stories they hear and a 2-line message they read in the morning. But there are tens of problems piled up in the factory work area, hundreds of data files are still lying untouched in the data server. But still, it is just a business. In manufacturing, engineers will “fix” or “work around” problems eventually.

 “Bitter Lake“, a documentary written and directed by Adam Curtis, reminds me of these people. People who loves a “concise” story.

Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.
-“Bitter Lake”


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 In fact, these stories we have been told during the past decade are not designed to explain the complexity of reality. They are just stories. And I don’t think “those in power” ever understood the complexity of reality and oversimplified it. They just heard what they wanted to hear and told it as they heard.

 Curtis tells us how U.S., Soviet, Saudi Arabia, U.K. and other nations have created the ongoing chaos known as ‘Afghanistan’. The film opens with the archival footage of the meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in 1945. The deal they made in this meeting – Saudi oil for U.S. in exchange for U.S. leaving the Saudi religion alone – had a profound consequences. Since the Cold War, many webs of political, cultural, economical and religious complexities were layered upon Afghanistan and the Middle East in general. It had became too much to be understood. So the politicians began telling us a simple story of good vs. evil. Democracy Good. Islam fanatics Bad. You know, we are like that monster in “Bride of Frankenstein”.

 Many pointed out Curtis contradicting himself, relying on the oversimplification to tell this story while criticizing the oversimplification of the situation and the history by those in power. Jon Boone, writing for Spectator, pointed out “(Curtis) barely mentions Pakistan, the single most important driver of the decades’ old conflict.” I don’t disagree. And I think there are more. Iran, India, Russia, … But as you can easily imagine, it is impossible to encompass whole spectrum of the matter. All we have is a large pile of fragments.

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 Brilliance of “Bitter Lake” lies within these fragments. Curtis assembled a large array of unused footage from the BBC archive and mushed them up without any reference. They are video snippets from fighting grounds, streets, deserts, or just ‘places’, shot by unidentified cameramen. We don’t know where and when these events took place. We don’t even know what we are looking at. What year is this? Are these boys from Kabul? Is that an NATO helicopter? We don’t know. And moreover, it doesn’t make any difference even if we are told what they are. If the narration or the text informs us the bloody body we are looking at is a dead Taliban soldier, are we to believe it? How does anyone know it for sure? Didn’t the narration inform us U.K. soldiers couldn’t tell their allies from Taliban? Curtis may tell us another simplified story, but these mushed-up videos make us realize there are numerous decontextualized fragments. Trying to make any coherent ‘story’ out of them is just impossible. However, it is essential for us to understand how chaotic this world is.

“The whole universe would be irrational.”
Dr. Stone said, “Compared with what?”
– “Valis”, P. K. Dick


 Maybe, just maybe, in this world of information overload, we are over-contextualizing everything. Because we can. And probably we feel more comfortable.

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  • The ultimate irony is Curtis utilising raw footage of the vast gathering resources of the UK’s state broadcasting corporation (£300m-per-year budget) to disassemble and contradict propaganda (an ‘impolite’ but accurate term!) narratives that were constructed from that very same material.

    As you highlight in this piece, what’s great about Curtis the Editor is his technique that finds/constructs these moments of grace from incongruous footage, and acknowledges a chaos of imagery and semiotics. For me this is the end of the road, it’s goes beyond simple revelation and cynicism of mass media – it’s an abstraction. Past this we encounter the abyss of nihilism and despair, and must move in to arming ourselves with the knowledge we’ve gained and forging new narratives (for the alternatives are unthinkable).

    You might also be interested to know that despite accelerating domestic distrust of BBC News (still an influential daily presence in British life), ‘Bitter Lake’ was funded and released as an iPlayer exclusive, and it has been hosted on the main BBC streaming site for over a year now. This fact alone gives me slight hope that the BBC is reclaimable for the good of the public who ‘own’ it, and that its ‘impartiality’ doctrine still has purchase.

    What about Japan? How do people feel about NHK? Are there any political documentaries that have reached a modest amount of viewers in recent years? – (I ask this because despite ‘Bitter Lake’ being embedded on the main ‘Film’ page of BBC iPlayer for a year, his films are still marginal and most people remain apathetic, incurious, confused or angry at scapegoats)

    • I’ve been thinking about “over-contextualization” of recent Japanese media and culture in general while watching “Bitter Lake”. Almost all countries, regions, and ethnic groups have their own context to express or communicate ideas, but the feel of cul-de-suc of recent Japanese media (literature, art, music, visual or whatever) is very jarring. For example, we have tons of Anime, each of which is only intended toward a very small segment of population. To understand and enjoy them, you probably need to have some knowledge and feel of each territory. Fandoms are over-segmented and very closed. Sure, every fandom is like that. But because of language barrier, Japanese media market is practically closed to the outside world. Some of them are exported but there is little discourse between overseas fans and domestic fans, because they don’t share the same world.

      This is also true in journalism. Japanese news media is practically “sold” to the current administration. You may say, BBC has been constructing propaganda (impolite?) narrative and U.S. media and others around the world may have poor track record in terms of “impartial” journalism. Well, BBC would be Solzhenitsyn in Stalin’s era, if NHK were considered practicing ‘journalism’. NHK recently fired Hiroko Kuniya (, one of the most intelligent news presenters in the long history of Japanese TV, because she asked the “wrong question” to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during the interview. Abe Administration pressured NHK to fire her and NHK management was glad to oblige. NHK recently announced they only broadcast what the government announced officially. This announcement was made during the aftermath of Kumamoto earthquake.

      This kind of atmosphere creates a very peculiar narraive to understand the world, suspended in the complete vaccum, lacking ‘external’ input, and perpetually running on feedback loop. Many people are conditoined to listen to the narratives of ‘digetible’ world-view, and once conditioned, they love to be fed the variation on the same theme. And, again, because of language barrier, very few reads, listens to and watches non-Japanese news, let alone discusses about it.

      I used to think, even though there was some closedness in Japanese society, that won’t be much of a problem. We share lots of things over internet or otherwise. But recently I’m not sure.

      So, yes, the film like “Bitter Lake” and its presentation through iPlayer was a total shock to me. There is a desparately wide gap from what we have here.