The War On Democracy

Guest review by Christiaan Harden

War-on-democracy.jpgDescribed by John Pilger as probably the most positive film he has ever made, The War on Democracy provides both a timely exposé of Washington’s disregard for democracy in post-war Latin America and an affectionate portrait of the continent’s nascent social movements. And it’s a tribute to Pilger’s first cinematic release that you’ll come away feeling angry, inspired, informed and thoroughly entertained.

Some six years ago, Pilger – one of the most celebrated documentary makers in the world – had wanted to make a film on Venezuela. But Latin America back then simply wasn’t ‘interesting enough’. How things have changed. A continent wide lurch to the left, the emergence of unique social movements, and particularly the rise of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia have captured the world’s attention, thrusting America’s ‘backyard’ towards what could be a seminal moment in a fascinating, turbulent history.

Two years in the making, The War on Democracy chronicles, with Pilger’s trademark gravitas, the United States’ hugely controversial relationship with their Latin American neighbours, revealing a consistent disregard for democracy whenever it happened to produce the ‘wrong’ result. Starting in 1954 with America’s overthrow of Jacabo Arbenz, a moderate reformer in Guatemala, the documentary goes on to explore Washington’s complicity in the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile, and finally the current Administration’s role in a 2002 coup to oust Hugo Chavez, a man who has won 11 elections in 10 years and is probably the most popular head of state in the world.

Although the finer details of these events are covered in greater depth elsewhere, the strength of Pilger’s absorbing and emotive film lies both in the broader context it provides and the dots it skilfully connects. Shot on location in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Miami and Washington, the film combines moving personal testimonies from victims of U.S. backed torture and those who have suffered in the name of democracy, revealing interviews with renegade CIA agents, an exclusive interview with Chavez himself and fascinating archive courtesy of Carl Deal, chief archivist on both Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine.

Duane Clarridge, former head of CIA operations in South America, provides perhaps the most illuminating interview, and by far the most entertaining. Not only does the combative Clarridge openly celebrate America’s right to do whatever, to whoever it wants, as long as it is in their ‘national interests’, he tells Pilger aggressively that if he doesn’t like it, he can ‘lump it’.

Having spent several months travelling around Venezuela with the country’s flamboyant leader, it is the former paratrooper’s Bolivarian Revolution that receives the lions share of the filmmaker’s attention. Interviews are conducted with supporters and detractors alike, and the advances in Venezuela’s new social democracy, including its unique participatory nature, are also explored. The West, as Pilger asserts, certainly has a great deal to learn from Latin American democracy. The interview with Chavez is, if you’ll excuse the pun, something of a coup and although the Australian born filmmaker questions the Venezuelan leader on why there are still poor people in such a oil-rich country, uncharacteristically, Pilger fails to pick the avuncular president up on his somewhat evasive response. Disappointingly, he also fails to satisfactorily explore Chavez’s authoritarian and some would argue undemocratic lurch of late, consigning the issue to a throwaway comment. He also neglects to mention that Chavez’s reforms and social programs – the basis of his position as arguably the most popular head of state in the world – are funded by an oil boom that won’t last forever.

What Pilger also does, and does very well, is highlight with great irony the absurdities of much of the anti-Chavez propaganda. He demonstrates that in a country increasingly known to the West as ‘another Cuba’, capitalism is thriving, reminding us all to think just that little bit more critically about the world around us and the information we receive. The War on Democracy also asks the viewer not to only view the world through the eyes of the powerful, but through the powerless, often hidden majority. The great struggle on the Latin American continent of the last 500 years is largely unknown in the West, it is an ongoing story of control, empire and resistance that Pilger has successfully captured at what could be a pivotal moment. What’s more, his first cinematic release does everything that a good documentary feature should – it entertains, it informs and it touches.

Thank goodness Latin America is ‘interesting’ again.

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