Review of 'John Pilger - Documentaries That Changed The World', Network Films £29.99
Whether or not Michael Moore was responsible for the resurgence of interest in political documentary, the resurgence has happened. Perhaps as a result of this, Network Films decided to release 12 of John Pilger's films in a collection entitled Documentaries That Changed The World.
Network explains that the selection of films in the collection is Pilger's own, so although the title is unfortunately questionable - insofar as little change resulted from any of them - we can judge Pilger's best work from this collection.
In his book Tell Me No Lies, Pilger explains his conception of journalism by quoting US journalist T.D. Allman. Allman says that good journalism "not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right". As such the good journalist's role is "rescuing 'objectivity' from its common abuse as a cover for official lies".
Pilger's work on subjects that range from cola wars to international arms dealing, and from the Nicaraguan civil war to the military junta in Burma, has brought the plight of the oppressed of the world to the attention of the viewing public. His films leave the viewer feeling disgusted, dismayed and furious with the capitalist system and those in power.
Some of the films are more intense and disturbing than others, but all are thought-provoking. The film on the battle for global supremacy between Coca-Cola and Pepsi is perhaps the least impressive, depending as it does on drawing ties between corporate executives and US politicians.
Crucially, Pilger's films are notable for treating their subject matter as things and events that cannot be comprehended as discrete occurrences without cause and without a history. Consequently the "meaning of events" is rescued from the "cover for official lies".
Another characteristic of his films is the style of presentation. Official lies are juxtaposed to concrete evidence that contradicts it, and myths are exploded as the dirty underbelly of power is exposed. In Welcome to Australia the glitzy celebrations after being awarded the Olympics are contrasted with the cruelty with which the Aboriginals are treated.
Pilger is certainly not one to jump on bandwagons. He was in a minority when he made Paying the Price - in which he exposed the immorality of sanctions against Iraq. He was certainly cutting against the grain when, in Breaking the Silence, he uncovered the lies being told about the successes of the invasion of Afghanistan long before the resistance to the occupation escalated.
The only criticism of this collection is the sense of paralysis Pilger instils in the viewer. By contrast, Robert Greenwald's film Outfoxed, and Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's adaptation of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent to documentary form offer advice on how to get involved and take action.
Understandably, Pilger would be reluctant to give such advice, because it would damage the "due impartiality" his documentaries need in order to be shown on British television. Nevertheless, more pointers to alternatives would be welcome.