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iffr: bitter lake

Adam Curtis' new documentary got a world cinema premiere at IFFR as part of the Signals: Everyday Propaganda program. In his trademark style, narrated as a history of ideas and illustrated with seldom-seen footage from the BBC archives, 'Bitter Lake' again digs at the roots of our current political discontent. But this time, in what amounts to an upping the ante response to his critics and parodians, Curtis subverts his own format, forcing viewers to rethink their regular spoonfed media diet.

Ironically, this experimental form has meant 'Bitter Lake' was launched on the web, on BBC's iplayer, rather than on TV.

Bitter Lake - 1

The doc focuses on the recent invasion of Afghanistan, and traces the pattern of how world powers from the British to the Soviets to the Americans have all bitten the dust in this remote, inhospitable country where nothing is what it seems. With this historical reality already too nuanced for most news coverage (and/or propaganda spin), it's not surprising that Curtis treats Afghanistan as symbolic for how Western powers increasingly project their own simplified narratives onto complex realities.

As he writes in an introduction on his weblog:

The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds. They couldn't see the complex reality that was in front of them - because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer.

One scene shows an American soldier taking a saliva swab and retina scan from an Afghan man, creating cringingly colonial echoes of Europeans measuring Africans' skulls a century or two ago. The discomfort is compounded by the soldier's smug reliance on the tiny screen through which he views this local, in the same way that we (where is Afghanistan again?) view the entire country through the pastel-colored simplification of a map on our screen.

Indeed it's striking, and rather scary, to see the extent to which modern warfare is conducted on screens, from remote-controlled drones to night-vision equipped troops... to the televised war for us jaded Westerners at home.

This motif of mediated and thus sanitized war leads to the most interesting aspect of 'Bitter Lake', the meta-narrative Curtis tells by breaking open the conventional documentary format. With access to the thousands of hours of raw BBC news footage shot in Afghanistan in recent years, he is able to show unedited, 'unusable' news images - reality as it went on after the "Back to the studio, here is the weather" cut.

Bitter Lake - 2

In a harrowing instance of frontline filming, the camera lens gets splattered with a thick drop of blood, which the camera operator tries to wipe off while running for cover. The chaos of this moment - not the carefully orchestrated thick of things in Hollywood war movies but real, red-blurry mess - jolts us out of TV complacency to show the absurdity of 'covering' a war in thirty second items.

Curtis explains:

These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them i have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan. A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.

It means 'Bitter Lake' contains long stretches of raw, uncontextualized imagery - without a neatly explaining voice-over - that sabotage our story bias and make us watch these moments in a more tentative, questioning mode. Which template can we apply to these images - good vs. evil, generous vs. needy, technological vs. primitive - or do we need to accept that they don't fit, that things might be more complicated than that?

It has the strange, unfamiliar effect of watching the news for grown-ups.

And it provides yet another argument for avoiding news, at least in the form of journalists and politicians telling us simple stories in cozy collusion.

timbuktu renaissance

A hopeful companion to Abderrahmane Sissako's 'Timbuktu' (2014), currently showing at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is a small exhibition at Brussels' Bozar called Timbuktu Renaissance, featuring historic documents from the city's fabled libraries. Both testify to the barbarism of islamic fundamentalists, but the very survival of these manuscripts also proves the futility of their violence.

On the southern edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu has long been a crossroads of cultures, trade and learning, and in the medieval Songhai Empire it was a meeting place of Sub-Saharan African, Touareg, Moorish, Arabic and European ideas. In the West the name Timbuktu became proverbial for a far-away place at the end of the world, which goes to show how far its fame traveled.

11th century Quran written on fish skin, from Haidara library, Timbuktu

In 2012, when the city was invaded by jihadist groups, the contents of its many private libraries were saved from the vandals by hiding and moving them to Bamako, in a rescue operation of over 300,000 manuscripts that would itself deserve to be the subject of a film. Sixteen of these manuscripts are now on display at Bozar, giving a glimpse of the cultural wealth of Timbuktu in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In delicate calligraphy, in various languages and scripts, and covering subjects of religion, astronomy, law and poetry, the intellectual curiosity and tolerant attitude speaking from these works are striking. According to one translated excerpt:

Tragedies are caused by differences and by a lack of tolerance. Glory be to Him who creates greatness out of difference and lets peace and reconciliation reign.

'Timbuktu', meanwhile, portrays daily life in the city under the islamists' rule. Slow-paced like the desert and beautifully shot in panoramic widescreen, the film starts out as mild satire - showing the jihadis to be as hypocritical as they are incompetent. But it turns more grim when sickening sharia punishments are meted out to the local population. Lashing and stoning for offenses like singing and playing football stifle a city that was devoutly religious to begin with.

The film's main storyline concerns an unfortunate conflict over a wayward cow called GPS - aptly symbolizing the disorientation resulting from the clash between local tradition and global modernity. Malian filmmaker Sissako refrains from delving into the complex context of the fundamentalists' rise in his country and their alliance with disenfranchized Touaregs, beyond suggesting they are foreigners with little regard for the local language and culture.

It calls to mind another recent African film about islamic fundamentalism, 'Les chevaux de Dieu' (2012), which took a more sociological approach to show how the poison of jihad was injected into the slums of Casablanca, as well as generously funded, from the Arabic peninsula. In 'Timbuktu', too, the jihadis appear to be puppets (or "hapless clowns" as one review put it) in globalized power struggles.

But as Sissako shows, human impulses like playing and singing cannot be eradicated, however many armed patrols search the city for clandestine music. In a memorable scene local kids play football without a ball - a small display of resistance in a film that ends on a particularly tragic note.

Timbuktu Renaissance offers more hope in the face of rabid intolerance, exhibiting the resilience of a centuries-old culture.

(Illustration of an 11th century Quran written on fish skin, from Haidara library, Timbuktu. In the center a gold teardrop.)