The War on Democracy
John Pilger has been a war correspondent, author, filmmaker and champion of human rights for over forty years. He is on a journey to find truth and justice through his investigations.
John grew up in Sydney, Australia, where he dreamt about faraway places and becoming a “newspaperman”. John’s career began in 1958 at the age of seventeen, “I became a lowly ‘copy boy’ on an afternoon paper. It was straight out of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page. Sub-editors wearing nightshades and red braces and with sweat stains and roll-your-owns stuck to their bottom lips shouted ‘copy boy’ and pity me if I wasn’t there in a flash, to literally run the copy to the printer and re-fill their stewed cup of coffee on the return journey. I swear I heard one of them shout, ‘hold the front page!’ That did it for me. The day I became a cadet journalist was one of happiest of my life.” John did a four-year journalism apprenticeship with the Australian Consolidated Press in Sydney.
John’s latest film, The War on Democracy (2007), focuses on Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile. It explores the grassroots movements, which are occurring in South America, and contrasts this with the corrupt and military regimes engineered by the CIA and where democratically elected governments were forced out. This is exemplified by Chile, where the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, was ousted by a CIA-backed military coup in 1973 led by General Pinochet. This led to a massacre of thousands of Chilean citizens.
Pilger’s filmmaking began in 1969 when he was working at the Daily Mirror. The lawyer, showbiz manager and actor David Swift approached him, “David told me that a group of documentary makers, BBC renegades actually wanted to meet me; they had an idea. The idea was that together we would make hard-hitting documentaries. The others were illustrious names: Paul Watson, the inventor of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and Charles Denton and Richard Marquand, young directors who had steered the great James Cameron into television.” John continues, “I was then a foreign correspondent on a very different Mirror from what it is today. I had just returned from Vietnam with what I regarded as ‘hot’ story with first-hand evidence of the growing rebellion inside the US army. This became a film for Granada’s World in Action, directed by Charles Denton. Called The Quiet Mutiny, it raised the roof, with the US ambassador, Walter Annenberg, a crony of President Nixon, demanding ‘something be done’ about me. Fortunately, the founder of Granada, Sydney Bernstein, publicly defended the film, none of its facts were challenged and within six months the mutiny was no longer quiet and the army’s collapse was obvious.” The Quiet Mutiny became the first of more than 55 documentaries for ITV.
John’s films and writing often expose shocking and uncomfortable truths about our world. Palestine Is Still The Issue (2002), is an assessment of the problems endemic in the West Bank and Gaza. While Welcome to Australia (1999), is an examination of the exclusion of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal population. “I’ve always regarded journalism not as a crusade but as a craft with unusually close ties and responsibilities to ordinary people. It’s the job of a journalist to be their agents, not the agents of those in authority over them, which is usually the case. It’s also a journalist’s duty to push back the screen that separate facts from the official or accredited version, from propaganda. If you manage to do all that, you have no choice but to confront injustice and try to put together the pieces of the puzzle known as truth.” John’s search for the truth can be found in his latest book Freedom Next Time (2006) and has earned him numerous awards worldwide including; the United Nations Association Peace Prize and Gold Medal, The Sophie Prize for Human Rights, a BAFTA and he has won British Reporter of the Year twice, amongst many others.
Pilger’s passion for the truth has taken him to places where many journalists do not dare to venture. In The War On Democracy, John interviews inhabitants of the Barrios of Caracas in Venezuela. “It’s a privilege, always, to be allowed into people’s homes and lives and to hear their stories, then to connect their stories with readers or viewers a long way away. Media has this positive power; it also has the power to make us feel as if there is nothing we can do, to separate and isolate us.” The War on Democracy shows an unreported side to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president. “With all my interviews, I try to draw out information that might not have been disclosed previously and I try to break down a stereotype. Chavez is relentlessly smeared and slandered in the western media, in much the same way Allende was and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were, and I had no intention of joining the pack. I think the interview gives a glimpse of Chavez, the man: his grace and humour, his unabashed self-education and his zeal; he sees himself as on a mission, and that came through.” Yet, as with all John’s documentaries it explores every angle of the situation from Chavez to the CIA, to Venezuelan citizens from the rich to the poor. “I don’t see how any conclusion can be made, or point of view put forward, unless the evidence is drawn from as many sources as possible. For me, the gold standard of evidence is eye-witness reporting.”
John Pilger is continuing to bring often-unreported injustices to a new generation, but how do we shape a better, more just future together? “By never throwing our arms in the air in despair, or wringing our hands and remaining silent: in other words, by never ‘giving up’. Every freedom we enjoy today is the result of a previous generation’s struggle; nothing was ever handed us.” John is an extraordinary journalist and filmmaker who dares to challenge the traditional notions of power, The War On Democracy illustrates the hopes and dreams of ordinary people and is a hopeful and thought provoking film.
What are Pilger’s future plans? “I have another film brewing: something quite different. I also have in mind a work of fiction; I’ve been reading Albert Camus lately and he inspires me to try my hand. I begin a different chapter in my head as I swim those long, anonymous laps at the Olympic pool at Crystal Palace, or in Sydney, or favourite pools elsewhere.”
For more information on John please see: www.johnpilger.com Freedom Next Time (2006) is available now and published by Bantam Press. The War on Democracy is distributed by Lionsgate Films.