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The Story of Good and Evil

and the East & West

We all love to think in stereotypes of good and evil.

It makes the world seem so straightforward and decisions so easy. Leaders of the political Right in particular show a penchant for selling stories of military interventionism to their constituencies as tales of our ‘good’ boys setting things right against ‘evil’ forces abroad. Thankfully, Adam Curtis’ documentary ‘Bitter Lake’ provides a necessary corrective to this unilateral viewpoint on geopolitics. In a telling example toward the end of the film, a British major explains the strange dynamics his troops were subjected to in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, unwittingly becoming intertwined in tribal rivalries that led to a downward spiral of distrust and violence.

In a world, let’s call it postmodern, one single narrative doesn’t seem capable of grasping contemporary reality. Things blur. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ become relative concepts, prompting questions like ‘good for whom?’ and ‘evil, aren’t we all?’ The attempt to weaving a more complex fabric of reality is mirrored in Curtis’ style of filmmaking, loosely interpolating different strands of footage that jump back and forth in time and place.

In the collection, the relation of the West with the Orient should be reflected upon.

There are the ghosts of the great ancient military leaders, knitted in armour, who already posed a threat to western civilisation in the first century BC. There are the dreamy Orientalist pieces that evoke a place that only exists in imagination, free from the intricacies of militant Western politics, a refuge that has resisted modernisation, where the spirit still roams freely in the traditional ways. A place for thought, precious, unaltered, a locus amoenus, embodied by the One Hotel that the artist Alighiero Boetti ran in Afghanistan from 1971 – until reality bites kicked in with the Soviet invasion in 1979.

The relationship of the Orient with the west needs an update. More than a generation has passed since Boetti’s voluntary exile, since Edward Said’s seminal book on the topic. ‘Bitter Lake’ is a good account of the present dilemma of a proxy war in Afghanistan, an impossible situation that has already haunted the Soviets back in the 80s. The collection includes a suit, made of a tartan with holes, as if shot through, the symbol of classy dress appears in tatters, symbolic for a region that had to endure one foreign intervention too many.