On the weekend my housemates and I went to see an advance screening of John Pilger’sThe War on Democracy. I haven’t read or seen much of Pilger’s work before, so I came to it without much of an idea of what to expect.
It wasn’t a perfect documentary. In fact, in places it really made me cringe. Pilger’s onscreen presence often leaves much to be desired – his questions often come across as leading, and at times it was almost painful watching him try to comfort distressed interviewees. The narrative also jumped around a lot, trying to cover decades and a whole continent without a coherent framework. The soundtrack left a lot to be desired.
The worst part, though, was the documentary’s tendency to devolve into blatant propaganda. Pilger briefly raised important issues, but then shut down the debate immediately. For example, he mentioned concerns over media censorship in Venezuela and then followed it up with four or five interviewees ridiculing the notion and several clips of antagonistic coverage of Chavez. There were no updates mentioning the closure of several TV stations earlier this year.* There’s a lot to celebrate in Venezuela and other South American countries right now, but at times this seemed like a cross between a propaganda piece and a tourist video for South American ‘people’s power’.
That said, it was also a fascinating look at a part of the world that often receives little (and biased) coverage here. I don’t know much about the history of the US in South America, just the general outline: that the US has supported dictators, death squads, basically any groups that have been willing to serve their interests and follow their line, and that this has come at the expense of democracy and human rights.
Pilger’s travels through Bolivia and Chile add a few details to that outline. Interviews with survivors of torture and old newsreel footage give more of an understanding of what the US policy in those areas actually meant to people on the ground. The interviews with ex-CIA and other US operatives were enthralling. The openness with which some of them spoke about US policy was enlightening – one interviewee made it clear that he strongly believed that the US hadn’t cared at all about democracy, and still didn’t. Others refused to acknowledge doing any wrong – one (current?) member of the CIA said that he doubted Pilger could find more than 200 victims of Pinochet’s regime, and said that Amnesty and other organisations were lying about genocide, torture, and other human rights abuses. He also made it quite clear that the US has not changed and should not change its policy in South America from what it was during that period.
That seemed to be supported by Pilger’s coverage of Venezuela, which was the most interesting section of the documentary for me. Pilger went through the evidence that the US supported the 2002 coup, giving significant financial support to Chavez’s opponents and backing up their story about what had led to the coup. The section on the coup was gripping – Pilger covered the elite-level story, but also the responses of Venezuelans who supported Chavez.
I would have like to see more of Pilger’s exploration of post-coup Venezuela. Some of the initiatives looked interesting (and perhaps problematic) – I’m looking forward to finding time to read more about the barrio-level organisations set up to bypass the bureaucracy, the corner stores run on oil proceeds, the health clinics, the changes to education, and so on. My favourite initiative: they’ve been putting sections of the constitution on packets of price-controlled rice and beans, to ensure that everyone knows what their rights are.
As long as you can grit your teeth and bear a bit of propaganda and clumsiness, I think this is well worth watching.
* I think there’s a good argument for closing these stations, given their support for the 2002 coup, but it’s an argument that should be entered into, not glossed over.