Latin America: Pilger goes Latino

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda

27 September 2007

In his first feature film The War on Democracy, journalist John Pilger aims to expose Washington's foreign policy in Latin America, and does not pull any punches.

Through a series of interviews with activists, scholars and incumbent and retired Washington officials, and not the least with the “ordinary” people of Latin America, Pilger seeks to illustrate some of the current changes taking place in the region following the coming to power of current Left-wing governments.

For example: Mariela Machado - a poor Afro-Venezuelan who is a strong supporter of Chávez - reveals why the current political shifts are important. Referring to the notorious barrios, before Chávez she tells Pilger, "On the maps all these hills and houses did not figure, they were shown as green spaces" - showing how previous governments never bothered to document the pitiful slums of Caracas.

When Pilger meets the flamboyant president Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader describes how he went to school barefoot and was strongly influenced by his grandmother who taught him the values of solidarity with others - even when one has little to share.

Chávez tells Pilger his administration is aiming to create a society "where people are included and are equal, where there is no exclusion, there is no poverty, where human values reign".

Considering how much money the Chávez administration has invested into essential services like public health and education, and is acting as the engine for the economic integration of Latin American countries - to negotiate with the United States on more equal terms - the singing President's ambitions seem mostly sensible. Pilger highlights these issues well, although a more critical take on the Venezuelan President would have been healthy.

Much of Chávez's political rhetoric towards the Bush administration, for example, is tongue-in-cheek - a point understood by Pilger though missed by most non-Spanish speakers - but he undoubtedly goes too far on occasion. Within Latin America, Chávez's words have caused unnecessary political entanglements, while his praise for almost everyone anti-US foreign policy - Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, for example - are distasteful to many who would otherwise be supportive.

The War on Democracy has many classic Pilger moments. When a Venezuelan businessman tells the Australian that the current political situation is comparable to "Russia in 1914" - he meant to say 1917 - Pilger laughs and points out that no one is exactly bashing the door down to expropriate his business.

When another businessman shows Pilger his affluent home and gloats how Venezuelan elites built Miami because they had so much money and didn't know what to do with it, Pilger can barely contain his rage, and his sarcasm in the exchange is undiluted.

But there are moments that are beyond humour. Pilger talks to Bolivian priest Juan Delfin Mamani about the political struggles of his constituency, and Roberto Navarrete walks Pilger through Chile's notorious national football stadium where people were tortured during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. These scenes are simply stated and deeply moving.

The cinematography of the film is also impressive and enhances the work's message. The frightening slums of the hills of Caracas should allow people to ponder how humans can live in such miserable conditions - or such opulence, as highlighted by the lives of Venezuelan elites.

One of Pilger's greatest strengths though is his ability to get interviews with current or ex-government officials, who often get an uncomfortable grilling.

Pilger's encounter with Duane R Clarridge - head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Latin American division in the early 1980s and author of A Spy for All Seasons: My Life in the CIA - is highly insightful, not to mention frightening.

When Pilger questions Clarridge on the human rights record of the Salvadorian death squads which Washington trained in the 1970s and 1980s, Clarridge eloquently responds, "That's all bullshit". Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, are all liars, according to the CIA man; he adds in an agitated voice, that the United States will "intervene whenever we decide it's in our national security interest to intervene. And if you don't like it, lump it. Get used to it, World, we're not going to put up with nonsense."

It's a shame that in the feature-length The War on Democracy Pilger does not venture out of his usual documentary format. The film starts with the journalist telling us what his film will be about - and just in case we might have forgotten by 10 or 15 minutes into it, he keeps reminding us with his running commentary.

Pilger is obviously an intelligent and passionate man, but his documentary work might benefit from providing his audience with less emotive commentary. The archive footage and frank interviews in his film are powerful enough, and leave his audience with ample evidence to draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes, subtlety is a stronger tool.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .