The War On Democracy

The War On Democracy


Reviewed by: Chris

John Pilger has won high accolades for journalism (Journalist of the Year, twice) and award-winning television documentaries. But some people will still ignore him because he is too New Statesman. He utters unpopular views. He backs them up with evidence. But that can leave you feeling uncomfortable. His new film does that in spades. Over South America.

This new documentary is his first major film for the cinema.

Copy picture

When I personally have travelled in South America, I've marvelled at how basic facts about Western foreign policy's role in destabilising 'unfriendly' governments is common knowledge. From shop workers to academics. Far more than in Britain. Here, most people are now probably aware that the CIA toppled the democratically elected President Allende of Chile. That they were responsible for the succession of the tyrant Pinochet. Those with slightly longer memories probably recall the scandal over Nicaragua when the USA backed the wrong side. Again, against a democratically elected government. To live with ourselves (and our governments) we tend to think these were just mistakes of the past. The reality is that the truth, in those cases, couldn't be suppressed easily. The reality is that similar events are continuing. As policy.

Suppressing truth is always a sensitive issue. Many years ago, when I came out of the Singapore War Museum, there were Japanese visitors with tears in their eyes. It was the first time they had been confronted with the horrors that their government had committed during WWII. Other countries frequently feel angry that Japan does not retell more of its war crimes in standard school books. It is simply easier, in most cases, not to. Pilger's film is about crimes against democracy that it is easier to ignore. The culprit being a country that almost invented the word. The United States of America.

Interviews are conducted with renegade CIA agents like Philip Agee, but also with Duane Clarridge, former head of CIA operations in South America. Clarridge openly defends America's right to do what it wants anywhere in the world and to anyone, regardless of their innocence - as long as it's in America's national interest. "Like it or lump it," he says. A harrowing interview features an American nun, Dianna Ortiz. Ortiz reveals how she was tortured and gang raped in the late Eighties by a group led by a fellow American clearly in league with a US-backed regime. Ortiz asks whether the American people are aware of the role their country plays in subverting innocent nations under the guise of a 'war on terror'. CIA man and Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt describes how he and others overthrew a previously democratically elected government. Hunt even mentions how he organised "a little harmless bombing".

More controversially, Pilger features extensive footage with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. This is a man demonised by President Bush, but one about whom the facts are harder to determine. That he has used much of his country's vast oil wealth to benefit the poor is largely accepted, give or take some details. But that he has taken steps to concentrate power in himself arouses sterner debate. War on Democracy, uniquely, shows us the country from the inside. Many of the conditions are reminiscent of Allende's Chile. The power of the media seems unabated and is fiercely anti-government. But we see how it is owned by the rich half of the class divide. When the military try to unseat Chavez, thousands of people come out of the slums to protest until he is returned to power. These are people who had no voice before Chavez and they are devoted to him. Just as the wealthy classes are opposed to him. Given the forces he is up against, the assumption of power (and from a democratically elected base) seems more understandable. We recall how Allende, even with popular support, was brought down. Chavez looks like a tougher nut.

Pilger's attitude towards Chavez is friendly, although he does ask him about the poverty that remains, in spite of the vast oil wealth. Could his interview have been more balanced without playing into the hands of those fabricating the lies he is trying to expose?

Pilger also travels to America and uses undercover filming. The School of Americas in Georgia is where Pinochet's torture squads were trained, together with death squads in other Latin American countries. The wide-ranging testimony is unsettling.

Pilger's extensive travels in Latin America, in depth interviews, documentation and film archives obtained under US freedom of information, evidence corroborated by people in opposing camps, his own calm sincerity - they all paint a cohesive portrait of US attacks on democracy.

The main fault I found with the War on Democracy was not any lack of balance. Pilger argues his case quite methodically and convincingly and gives critics ample right of reply. He is not a soundbite merchant, parading flashy quotes in Michael Moore fashion. But the difficulty - and one Moore did overcome - is that Pilger's years of experience on the small screen have not translated effectively to cinema. The timing is probably right - what with the re-examinations of 9/11 and criticisms of US policy now being acceptable topics of discussion. The horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib quickly come to mind. But it still feels like a television programme, even if it is many notches above Panorama or Dispatches. My other concern (as a British citizen) is that, while it encourages me to castigate the US in my own mind, no mention is made of the UK - which has worked hand-in-hand with the US in many such atrocities.

Overall, The War on Democracy is an excellent primer on US destabilisation and anti-democracy measures in Latin America. To civil rights enthusiasts and Amnesty International supporters, much of it will be nothing new. But it is told with piercing insight and no sense of personal axes-to-grind. Previous films by John Pilger have done much good. $40 million was raised unsolicited by his film on Cambodia (Cambodia Year Zero) which went to help the thousands of orphaned children there. The aim of this film is simply to increase awareness.

Reviewed on: 18 Sep 2007
Share this with others on...
The War On Democracy packshot
Journalist John Pilger investigates political corruption in South America.
Amazon link

Director: Christopher Martin, John Pilger

Writer: John Pilger

Year: 2007

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, Australia


Search database: