Australia’s geopolitical reality ensures that the despots and coups of Central and South America rarely impact on our consciousness. Not so, of course, the US, which has systematically meddled in what it sees as its backyard.
It’s Washington’s relationship with the dictators that’s inspired John Pilger’s latest documentary offering The War on Democracy now on limited release in Australian cinemas - more than three months after being released in the UK. It mainly recounts the horrors inflicted on the non-ruling classes in Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and Guatemala via CIA backed despots and torturers.
In recent years, we’ve seen a return to the big screen of feature length documentaries (e.g. Al Gore, Michael Moore). Pilger’s well researched effort is an odd mix of gut-wrenching sadness, horror and one-too-many rhetorical performances from the man himself.
Pilger is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Still sporting those long golden locks and with a 50-year career in journalism behind him, his often ponderous presentation style actually distracts from the film’s core message.
A good documentary should help us make sense of the complicated, multilayered issues of our time. In this sense, Pilger and his team only partly succeed. One of the dangers for a journalist who controls the writing, directing, editing, as well as being the reporter presenter, is that verbosity can reign and clarity suffer. Such is the case with The War on Democracy. It also sits uncomfortably with me when the reporter is not so much the eyewitness, but also prosecutor and judge.
The film’s eyewitness accounts of dictatorship and CIA horrors are haunting, particularly one from an American nun who had been tortured and gang raped because she defended the poor.
Pilger’s interview with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is a gem. Another with a retired CIA operative is masterful and you’re left wondering what Langley PR slip-up put this larger than life character in front of a camera.
If, as terrorists would have us believe, that the age of democracy is nearing an end - then Pilger’s film firmly rebuts that premise. As he points out, each failed US-backed right wing regime in Central America is being replaced with a democratically elected government. Ironically, the very concept that the US purports to promote i.e. democracy, is actually thriving in countries which now see Washington as their nemesis. Yes, geopolitics is endlessly contradictory!
But, it was over the previous 30-years according to Pilger, when these countries struggled via blood, sweat and tears to plant democracy, only to be themselves brutally crushed by CIA-backed regimes. We’re left with a deeply unsettling suspicion that the US is assuming some characteristics of the very evil it purports to oppose.
It’s a story that needed to be told, yet due to its over-the-top anti-Americanism, it won’t reach the audiences it should, for example, mainstream USA - which collectively is now asking itself why the world is increasingly hostile to so-called American values. A more objective and incisive film could have proffered some answers - and perhaps more importantly, instilled a better understanding in American eyes of other people’s aspirations.
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