The War on Democracy

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(315)

Director: John Pilger

John Pilger has made more than 55 documentaries for television over a period of almost 40 years. They have taken viewers to people and places that are often far away, connecting them to British audiences, often via critical scrutiny of British foreign policy or that of its allies, especially the US and Israel. However, these are changing times for British television, as Pilger well knows.

"I am the beneficiary of what used to be called 'public service broadcasting'," he told me. "That was not meant to be 'worthy', rather to give the public a genuine diversity of programmes, from light entertainment to documentaries."

Today Pilger's connection with ITV represents one of the last residual traces of a public service agenda that has been eroded from commercial television by years of intensifying competition and deregulation. Where once there was World in Action now there is Tonight with Trevor McDonald. It's a steep decline and a real shift.

"ITV was a pioneer in this field and it was more open to a range of ideas that challenged establishments than the BBC. It was adventurous. It wasn't aloof like the BBC. It felt it had a people's mandate. Thus we got World in Action, for which I made my first TV programme in 1970 - The Quiet Mutiny - which disclosed the soldiers' rebellion within the US army in Vietnam.

"It's not to say there weren't obstacles in the past to making hard-hitting documentaries. The regulatory authority patrolled my scripts and films in a way that the more establishment filmmakers never knew. The difference today is that most of the great ITV strands have gone and the network sees itself as under deadly attack from rivals. But an effective way of restoring audiences is to give the public the powerful variety of original programming they were once used to."

The War on Democracy is Pilger's first major documentary film to be released in cinemas. It has Pilger's trademark characteristics of lucid investigation coupled with an understanding of the broader dynamics. But it also has a bigger storytelling canvas than Pilger's usual work.

It takes as its subject matter the foreign policy of the US state as it has been carried out in Latin America since the end of the Second World War. The crimes against humanity which this foreign policy has caused have gone either unreported by most Western media, celebrated as victories by the conservative press or criticised by the liberal media as the excesses of particular administrations.

Pilger's film shows that these crimes are systematic, ongoing and flow inexorably from US imperial designs and the shared class interests between elites in North and South America. "Latin America has a proud history of popular democratic movements and the events in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and other countries spring from that tradition," he says.

"It comes down to a rejection of poverty and of the imposition of outside power, especially that of Washington. We in Britain have much to learn from this. In Britain, people no longer believe that 'politics' are for them. Little more than a fifth of eligible voters voted for Blair at the last election. They see a convergence between the two main parties and the major decisions shared among elites."

The film opens with a long introduction into what has been happening in Venezuela since the 1998 election of President Chavez. It then looks at the story of progressive change and repression in such countries as Guatemala, Bolivia, El Salvador and Chile over the last 50 years.

"In Latin America, regardless of the charisma of leaders like Hugo Chavez, democracy is demonstrated as a grassroots movement," said Pilger. "That's why it's so important. Countries like Venezuela are misrepresented as a threat - the threat of a good example."

In Venezuela, Pilger adopts a comical mock interest in and sympathy for the plight of the elites as they bemoan their relative loss of political power. But as he looks back to the past, where the elites have been successful in crushing the forces of progressive change, the tone darkens considerably.

The rich, the powerful and the agents of repression who Pilger interviews display an almost psychotic "disconnect" between the political and economic forces they support and the torture, murder, poverty, misery and injustice which result from those forces. Long-term alignment with the interests of capital seems to be bad for your mental health.

Perhaps a warning to this effect ought to be put on commodities, just as in Venezuela articles of the new constitution are put on the packaging of basic foodstuffs as a sign of the entry of the masses into political life.

The film spans the gulf between people like Duane Clarridge, chief of the CIA's Latin American bureau in the 1980s, and ordinary people struggling for justice. Clarridge, now retired, shorn of his media minders and the need to be diplomatic, speaks the real language of imperial power.

Against that, ordinary people, in moving testimony, recall the torture and murder which they endured or witnessed as repression kicked in. And just as remorselessly, resistance returns. This resistance, Pilger concludes, as Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come plays us out, is "unbeatable".