The War on Democracy

Movies, Documentary
4 out of 5 stars
The War on Democracy
John Pilger, the celebrated veteran film-maker and human-rights campaigner, introduced the press screening of his first documentary made for the cinema as ‘possibly the most optimistic film’ he’s ever made and one which represents ‘the voices of the ordinary people’. Written and co-directed with Christopher Martin, it’s a dynamic and emotionally effective diatribe against global capitalism’s role in undermining popular second or third-world democracies in general and those of Latin America in particular.

The more interesting first half introduces most of the film’s newly recorded interview material, conducted in Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela and including a fortuitously timed and approving extended chat with its embattled president Hugo Chavez.

We hear the opinions of some ordinary Venezualans but the most impressive footage is that which captures, at the time of the attempted coup against Chavez, the charged descent in defence of their leader from the capital’s poor hilltop barrios by his newly enfranchised supporters. Judging by the rousing rock accompaniment, this uprising is clearly the source of Pilger’s optimism.

The director returns to that same event in the second, more problematic half, which uses more archive footage and newsreel to widen his argument to include all the Central and South American countries that constitute the so-called ‘backyard’ of the US. It’s in this section that Pilger aims his quiver of poisoned arrows more directly at the US and its policy of using secretly funded surrogates, covert actions, secret diplomacy, disinformation and subversive propaganda – not to mention alleged torture and murder – in pursuit of its ‘so-called self-interest’.

If this development into a more overtly political work is problematic, it’s not because Pilger is not entitled to his views. Rather, it’s that his very ability to expose hidden agendas and the mechanics of propaganda in others inevitably invites the viewer to cast a sterner eye on his own clever use of editing, montage, soundtrack, context and evidence. For instance, in an initially revelatory passage, where Pilger seeks to show the falseness of putative footage of Chavez supporters shooting indiscriminately into a crowd from a bridge – used by the opposition to justify his arrest following its broadcast by the private Venezuelan TV station whose licence Chavez has recently withdrawn – he relies on counter-footage that seems, in itself, far from conclusive. On a more trivial level, Pilger’s suggestive mugging for the camera when interviewing businessmen, opposition politicians or CIA representatives can be tiresome and counter-productive, unsympathetic, obtuse or mendacious as they might be. That said, the passion and integrity of the polemic is never in doubt; many of the interviews – notably with a Pinochet survivor – are very moving, and Pilger’s assertions about the true nature of organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy – a US front for channelling deniable funding – are urgent and lucid.

By: Wally Hammond

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Release details

Cast and crew

Director: John Pilger, Christopher Martin