Sierra Pettengill is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Her directorial debut, Town Hall, was broadcast on PBS in 2014. She produced the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer, which premiered at Sundance in 2013, and is currently producing The Reagan Years, an all-archival film directed by Pacho Velez.
It’s late January and I’m having a coffee with British documentarian Adam Curtis at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where his most recent film, Bitter Lake, is having what we’d typically refer to as its “world premiere” — except Curtis’ films don’t really “premiere” anywhere. Instead, they are released on the BBC’s online platform, iPlayer, and then tend to seep through the Internet, emerging in varying degrees of video quality from scattered corners. And anyway, Curtis is not likely to refer to them as “films” — he’s very insistent that he makes television, with all the populism that the term implies.
Curtis makes conspiracy movies for the art-house crowd, documentaries known for their grand, sweeping narratives in which a dizzying array of disparate characters, historical epochs and ideological threads are knitted into a complex and often overwhelming thesis. In the first part of 2011’s trilogy All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, for example, he traces the path of Ayn Rand’s objectivism to the rise of Silicon Valley and our reliance on computers, through Alan Greenspan’s relationship with Rand, Monica Lewinsky and eventually the 2008 global market collapse. Curtis’ films are constructed from re-appropriated archival footage and anachronistic pop music, overlaid with Voice of God — Voice of Curtis — narration. While it’s currently de rigueur in documentary circles to eschew music that is overtly manipulative, Curtis embraces a form of editing that is often led by emotional choices. “You’ve got to have a bit of soppiness,” he tells me. “I put a song over [a sequence] because then you want to cry.”
I tell Curtis that I supplement my filmmaking by working as an archival researcher, which segues into a brief conversation about the increasing corporate consolidation of archival footage, held by institutions with Orwellian names like “Thought Equity.” He’s sympathetic, but from a slight distance — he makes his heavily archivally-based films from within the infrastructure of the BBC, where he has unfettered access to its complete 70-year back catalogue — an archivist’s (this archivist’s) dream. He recently came into possession of some 26 terabytes of raw footage spanning more than 60 years from the BBC’s Kabul bureau, footage which served as both the inspiration for and the backbone of Bitter Lake.
Released on BBC iPlayer the same day it screened in Rotterdam, Bitter Lake traces the history of Afghanistan through the impact of Western intervention, starting in 1946 with an engineering project embarked upon by American firm Morrison-Knudsen, one of the companies that made the Hoover Dam. The film tacks back and forth between Curtis’ re-telling of a half-century of Afghanistan’s history — Saudis, Soviets, September 11th — and something new: long, often elegiac, unedited passages culled from the Kabul bureau archives. It doesn’t always hang together for me — these two different modes of filmmaking sometimes make odd bedfellows — but this approach to archival material allows the Afghan people to play an equal part in the story. For a film that takes as one of its core subjects the destructive impact of Western meddling in Afghan history, it’s a crucial choice.
These passages are rarely presented with any context, quietly drifting on-screen in episodes that range from the farcical (British soldiers frustratedly failing to rent a photocopier) to the poetic (a silently awed crowd of children and adults watching a gyrating hulu-girl toy, her neon-green, acrylic yarn skirt rustling) to the tragic (a very badly burned young girl waiting in the hospital with her father, wearing a tiara and staring down the TV camera). Whereas before, his experimentation was found in a wild, dramatic crash of images and sound, Curtis is now stepping back and allowing the material to breathe, adopting some of the tools of slow cinema and embracing the real power of the material he’s found by just letting it play itself out, for uninterrupted minutes at a time.
“I don’t think people actually look at stuff these days,” he tells me. “What’s probably going to emerge, I’m sensing, is a different way of editing films which will make people engage with images again, by slowing down stuff.” Curtis is unabashed about stealing from the avant-garde, noting how “in the further reaches of video art, [artists] now run shots for two hours. And even though they are boring, chilly and rather nasty people who work in those avant-garde areas, their techniques are interesting because they’re onto something.”
Bitter Lake’s opening narration declares: “Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.” Broadly speaking, all of Curtis’ films work to counter simplified historical and political narratives with messier, far more complicated stories. They are films about Big Ideas, and the resultant troubles that arise from those ideas, spiraling out in infinite and unpredictable directions. And so while on some level Curtis is always addressing what it means to believe in stories, in this film it feels like he is reckoning with nothing less than the very idea of “storytelling” itself, its strengths and weaknesses, with these ideas playing out formally. In Bitter Lake, that old voice, that very male one of trusted authority, is fighting for space with a different form of storytelling, one that happens within the frame itself.
“I think that just as much as I’m saying in Bitter Lake that politically the stories have become rigid and simplified, the same is true with television,” Curtis explains. “You know exactly what’s going to happen when you turn on the television. You just know it. You know. So why watch? What has to happen is that a new language is going to come up. And it will.”