On Sunday the BBC released the first film commissioned for its on-demand iPlayer: a feature-length documentary about Afghanistan, called Bitter Lake, by experimental British filmmaker Adam Curtis. (If you live in the U.K. you can watch it here for the next 29 days.)
This follows a strategy update, last March, when the U.K.’s public service broadcaster signaled that more iPlayer-exclusive content would be part of its on-demand mix going forward. The BBC overhauled the tech with this in mind — improving search and responsive design, and, on the content side, identified ‘new forms of storytelling‘ as one of three creative priorities for the platform.
Curtis certainly fits the bill on the latter point, even though he has a long-standing association with the BBC, with several of his past films being broadcast on BBC channels — including The Century of The Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011). The switch to iPlayer-only film-making is Curtis’ latest experiment on what is otherwise the establishment’s digital platform. So this is contained disruption, but an interesting development nonetheless.
Analysts characterize the iPlayer refresh as the BBC realigning itself along Netflix-esque lines — with on-demand content presenting both risk and opportunity for the Corporation as binge-viewing and content consumption on mobile devices grows. Yet at the same time the BBC is still associated with its established broadcast channels. So there’s a balancing act here. (The BBC is considering making its BBC3 channel iPlayer-only. And has more original programming incoming for iPlayer this year.)
“Over the last year, we’ve commissioned more new and different shaped content, exclusive to BBC iPlayer,” said Victoria Jaye, head of TV content for iPlayer, last week. “The intention is not to compete with our own broadcast channels and programmes, but to complement them — find the gaps, explore what’s missing, experiment
“Unlike broadcast, our starting point for innovation is the ‘on demand’ need states of our audience, rather than the requirements of the TV schedule. These ‘need states’ are essentially mood based and interest led – ‘cheer me up’, ‘help me escape’, ‘give me something thought provoking’.”
On Bitter Lake specifically, Jaye said the aim was to make space for a more emotional type of storytelling. “Adam’s approach to the iPlayer creative opportunity was to build a very different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan and its legacy today. He has taken the unedited rushes of almost everything that the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan and used them in new and radical ways to push the boundaries of the documentary form and unveil the extraordinary stories that lie behind events in a powerful and experiential way,” she said.
If you haven’t watched any of Curtis’ films before, Bitter Lake will feel different to more conventional documentary film formats. It has a patchwork, YouTube quality, with deliberately unpolished reels of footage allowed to meander over a landscape that’s more often glimpsed as staccato bursts of violence in mainstream news bulletins.
Curtis lingers on the natural landscape, and on human moments outside formally choreographed events — when kids goof around, when adults dance or bodies bleed unattended, showing the unchecked aftermath of violence without form or structure, or reflecting on the systematic horror of a riot when the camera does not cut away. The effect is curious and startling, and above all disorientingly unfamiliar.
Curtis told the London Evening Standard that his aim with allowing so much ‘marginalia’ footage to play out was to create an “immersive, dream-like mood”. “It was everything that had happened there over the past 13 years,” he says of his source material for Bitter Lake. “Some of what the camera shot was incredibly beautiful but generally only 10-second snippets of it had ever been used.”
Vast tracts of the film simply deliver visuals, sometimes set to music — lacking voiceover to anchor your viewing, or text captioning which Curtis also sporadically uses to move the narrative along. The result is a piece of filmmaking that feels reflective and multi-faceted, although he is also simultaneously imposing his own narrative on top of this — by arguing that the West’s geopolitical dealings with radical Islam have been hypocritical and disastrous for everyone involved except for those with extremist views.
This logic links the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the crude, regional brush strokes of Western politicians — failing to grasp the nuanced, complex realities of cultural difference even when they think they are trying to help, and being undone by their own historical self-interest (the name ‘Bitter Lake’ refers to the location of a face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to broker American access to Saudi oil).
A new story
At the end of Bitter Lake, Curtis asserts that what is needed is a “new story. And one that we can believe in”. In one sense here he’s referring to the need for a new geopolitical narrative that avoids the Manichean simplicity of good vs evil (or The West vs The Rest) — a narrative that attempts to engage with complex geopolitical realities in a meaningful way, rather than simplifying to the point of distortion. A simplification that he shows as implicated in the disastrous decisions and policymaking that have played out in Afghanistan for decades.
But what’s he’s also calling for is a new, more pluralist format for storytelling — one that supports the transmitting of multiple perspectives. And is not allergic to complexity simply because the narrative has to fit an edited time slot. The platform he believes will enable this new storytelling to emerge is evidently the web.
Curtis’ thesis is that linear broadcast news as a format has itself moulded and shaped geopolitical naivety by curtailing what the public perceives, and by leaving so many perspectives unseen — layers that we see glimpsed here in Bitter Lake, in the unwatched footage from decades of Western military and political involvement in Afghanistan, now being lifted online where we can see it. (So this is also a bite-the-hand-that-feeds critique of the BBC’s traditional, establishment news values and legacy structure as a media organization.)
The documentary attempts to redress the distortion by giving space to these lesser seen layers. The film itself runs to 136 minutes, inculcating a reflective atmosphere as the off-centre camera work is deliberately left to run on and on, illustrating just how much has been left on the cutting room floor. How many gaps there have been in our mainstream news narratives.
“The experience of Afghanistan has made us begin to realize that there is something else out there — we just don’t have the apparatus to see it,” Curtis says at the conclusion of Bitter Lake.
But the film itself implies the apparatus for resetting the media lens is already out there (as the likes of Vice Media might well argue). That linear broadcasting — and its over-simple stories — are already being unpicked online, and the decentralized perspectives that the Internet is broadcasting are both richer and more confusing, more complex and more true.
Finding effective, acceptable and intelligible ways to tell such multifaceted stories — whether you’re a creative, a reporter, or a politician — is the big challenge of an increasingly fragmented, on-demand, multi-screen age. But it’s also a huge opportunity to re-set the record, by lifting the media needle out of the well-worn grooves of stereotype.