Why the Documentary Must Not be Allowed to Die – John Pilger
I first understood the power of the documentary during the editing of my first film, The Quiet Mutiny. In the commentary, I make reference to a chicken, which my crew and I encountered while on patrol with American soldiers in Vietnam.
“It must be a Vietcong chicken – a communist chicken,” said the sergeant. He wrote in his report: “enemy sighted”.
The chicken moment seemed to underline the farce of the war – so I included it in the film. That may have been unwise. The regulator of commercial television in Britain – then the Independent Television Authority or ITA – had demanded to see my script. What was my source for the political affiliation of the chicken? I was asked. Was it really a communist chicken, or could it have been a pro-American chicken?
Of course, this nonsense had a serious purpose; when The Quiet Mutiny was broadcast by ITV in 1970, the US ambassador to Britain, Walter Annenberg, a personal friend of President Richard Nixon, complained to the ITA. He complained not about the chicken but about the whole film. “I intend to inform the White House,” the ambassador wrote. Gosh.
The Quiet Mutiny had revealed that the US army in Vietnam was tearing itself apart. There was open rebellion: drafted men were refusing orders and shooting their officers in the back or “fragging” them with grenades as they slept.
None of this had been news. What it meant was that the war was lost; and the messenger was not appreciated.
The Director-General of the ITA was Sir Robert Fraser. He summoned Denis Foreman, then Director of Programmes at Granada TV, and went into a state of apoplexy. Spraying expletives, Sir Robert described me as a “dangerous subversive”.
What concerned the regulator and the ambassador was the power of a single documentary film: the power of its facts and witnesses: especially young soldiers speaking the truth and treated sympathetically by the film-maker.
I was a newspaper journalist. I had never made a film before and I was indebted to Charles Denton, a renegade producer from the BBC, who taught me that facts and evidence told straight to the camera and to the audience could indeed be subversive.
This subversion of official lies is the power of documentary. I have now made 60 films and I believe there is nothing like this power in any other medium.
In the 1960s, a brilliant young film-maker, Peter Watkins, made The War Game for the BBC. Watkins reconstructed the aftermath of a nuclear attack on London.
The War Game was banned. “The effect of this film,” said the BBC, “has been judged to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” The then chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors was Lord Normanbrook, who had been Secretary to the Cabinet. He wrote to his successor in the Cabinet, Sir Burke Trend: “The War Game is not designed as propaganda: it is intended as a purely factual statement and is based on careful research into official material … but the subject is alarming, and the showing of the film on television might have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”
In other words, the power of this documentary was such that it might alert people to the true horrors of nuclear war and cause them to question the very existence of nuclear weapons.
The Cabinet papers show that the BBC secretly colluded with the government to ban Watkins’ film. The cover story was that the BBC had a responsibility to protect “the elderly living alone and people of limited mental intelligence”.
Most of the press swallowed this. The ban on The War Game ended the career of Peter Watkins in British television at the age of 30. This remarkable film-maker left the BBC and Britain, and angrily launched a worldwide campaign against censorship.
Telling the truth, and dissenting from the official truth, can be hazardous for a documentary film-maker.
In 1988, Thames Television broadcast Death on the Rock, a documentary about the war in Northern Ireland. It was a risky and courageous venture. Censorship of the reporting of the so-called Irish Troubles was rife, and many of us in documentaries were actively discouraged from making films north of the border. If we tried, we were drawn into a quagmire of compliance.
The journalist Liz Curtis calculated that the BBC had banned, doctored or delayed some 50 major TV programmes on Ireland. There were, of course, honourable exceptions, such as John Ware. Roger Bolton, the producer of Death on the Rock, was another. Death on the Rock revealed that the British Government deployed SAS death squads overseas against the IRA, murdering four unarmed people in Gibraltar.
A vicious smear campaign was mounted against the film, led by the government of Margaret Thatcher and the Murdoch press, notably the Sunday Times, edited by Andrew Neil.
It was the only documentary ever subjected to an official inquiry — and its facts were vindicated. Murdoch had to pay up for the defamation of one of the film’s principal witnesses.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Thames Television, one of the most innovative broadcasters in the world, was eventually stripped of its franchise in the United Kingdom.
Did the prime minister exact her revenge on ITV and the film-makers, as she had done to the miners? We don’t know. What we do know is that the power of this one documentary stood by the truth and, like The War Game, marked a high point in filmed journalism.
I believe great documentaries exude an artistic heresy. They are difficult to categorise. They are not like great fiction. They are not like great feature movies. Yet, they can combine the sheer power of both.
The Battle of Chile: the fight of an unarmed people, is an epic documentary by Patricio Guzman. It is an extraordinary film: actually a trilogy of films. When it was released in the 1970s, the New Yorker asked: “How could a team of five people, some with no previous film experience, working with one Éclair camera, one Nagra sound-recorder, and a package of black and white film, produce a work of this magnitude?”
Guzman’s documentary is about the overthrow of democracy in Chile in 1973 by fascists led by General Pinochet and directed by the CIA. Almost everything is filmed hand-held, on the shoulder. And remember this is a film camera, not video. You have to change the magazine every ten minutes, or the camera stops; and the slightest movement and change of light affects the image.
In the Battle of Chile, there is a scene at the funeral of a naval officer, loyal to President Salvador Allende, who was murdered by those plotting to destroy Allende’s reformist government. The camera moves among the military faces: human totems with their medals and ribbons, their coiffed hair and opaque eyes. The sheer menace of the faces says you are watching the funeral of a whole society: of democracy itself.
There is a price to pay for filming so bravely. The cameraman, Jorge Muller, was arrested and taken to a torture camp, where he “disappeared” until his grave was found many years later. He was 27. I salute his memory.
In Britain, the pioneering work of John Grierson, Denis Mitchell, Norman Swallow, Richard Cawston and other film-makers in the early 20th century crossed the great divide of class and presented another country. They dared put cameras and microphones in front of ordinary Britons and allowed them to talk in their own language.
John Grierson is said by some to have coined the term “documentary”. “The drama is on your doorstep,” he said in the 1920s, “wherever the slums are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty.”
These early British film-makers believed that the documentary should speak from below, not from above: it should be the medium of people, not authority. In other words, it was the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people that gave us the documentary.
Denis Mitchell was famous for his portraits of a working-class street. “Throughout my career,” he said, “I have been absolutely astonished at the quality of people’s strength and dignity”. When I read those words, I think of the survivors of Grenfell Tower, most of them still waiting to be re-housed, all of them still waiting for justice, as the cameras move on to the repetitive circus of a royal wedding.
The late David Munro and I made Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia in 1979. This film broke a silence about a country subjected to more than a decade of bombing and genocide, and its power involved millions of ordinary men, women and children in the rescue of a society on the other side of the world. Even now, Year Zero puts the lie to the myth that the public doesn’t care, or that those who do care eventually fall victim to something called “compassion fatigue”.
Year Zero was watched by an audience greater than the audience of the current, immensely popular British “reality” programme Bake Off. It was shown on mainstream TV in more than 30 countries, but not in the United States, where PBS rejected it outright, fearful, according to an executive, of the reaction of the new Reagan administration. In Britain and Australia, it was broadcast without advertising – the only time, to my knowledge, this has happened on commercial television.
Following the British broadcast, more than 40 sacks of post arrived at ATV’s offices in Birmingham, 26,000 first-class letters in the first post alone. Remember this was a time before email and Facebook. In the letters was £1 million – most of it in small amounts from those who could least afford to give. “This is for Cambodia,” wrote a bus driver, enclosing his week’s wages. Pensioners sent their pension. A single mother sent her savings of £50. People came to my home with toys and cash, and petitions for Thatcher and poems of indignation for Pol Pot and for his collaborator, President Richard Nixon, whose bombs had accelerated the fanatic’s rise.
For the first time, the BBC supported an ITV film. The Blue Peter programme asked children to “bring and buy” toys at Oxfam shops throughout the country. By Christmas, the children had raised the astonishing amount of £3,500,000. Across the world, Year Zero raised more than $55 million, mostly unsolicited, and which brought help directly to Cambodia: medicines, vaccines and the installation of an entire clothing factory that allowed people to throw away the black uniforms they had been forced to wear by Pol Pot. It was as if the audience had ceased to be onlookers and had become participants.
Something similar happened in the United States when CBS Television broadcast Edward R. Murrow’s film, Harvest of Shame, in 1960. This was the first time that many middle-class Americans glimpsed the scale of poverty in their midst.
Harvest of Shame is the story of migrant agricultural workers who were treated little better than slaves. Today, their struggle has such resonance as migrants and refugees fight for work and safety in foreign places. What seems extraordinary is that the children and grandchildren of some of the people in this film will be bearing the brunt of the abuse and strictures of President Trump.
In the United States today, there is no equivalent of Edward R. Murrow. His eloquent, unflinching kind of American journalism has been abolished in the so-called mainstream and has taken refuge in the internet.
Britain remains one of the few countries where documentaries are still shown on mainstream television in the hours when most people are still awake. But documentaries that go against the received wisdom are becoming an endangered species, at the very time we need them perhaps more than ever.
In survey after survey, when people are asked what they would like more of on television, they say documentaries. I don’t believe they mean a type of current affairs programme that is a platform for politicians and “experts” who affect a specious balance between great power and its victims.
Observational documentaries are popular; but films about airports and motorway police do not make sense of the world. They entertain.
David Attenborough’s brilliant programmes on the natural world are making sense of climate change – belatedly.
The BBC’s Panorama is making sense of Britain’s secret support of jihadism in Syria – belatedly.
But why is Trump setting fire to the Middle East? Why is the West edging closer to war with Russia and China?
Mark the words of the narrator in Peter Watkins’ The War Game: “On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, there is now practically total silence in the press, and on TV. There is hope in any unresolved or unpredictable situation. But is there real hope to be found in this silence?”
In 2017, that silence has returned.
It is not news that the safeguards on nuclear weapons have been quietly removed and that the United States is now spending $46 million per hour on nuclear weapons: that’s $4.6 million every hour, 24 hours a day, every day. Who knows that?
The Coming War on China, which I completed last year, has been broadcast in the UK but not in the United States – where 90 per cent of the population cannot name or locate the capital of North Korea or explain why Trump wants to destroy it. China is next door to North Korea.
According to one “progressive” film distributor in the US, the American people are interested only in what she calls “character-driven” documentaries. This is code for a “look at me” consumerist cult that now consumes and intimidates and exploits so much of our popular culture, while turning away film-makers from a subject as urgent as any in modern times.
“When the truth is replaced by silence,” wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.”
Whenever young documentary film-makers ask me how they can “make a difference”, I reply that it is really quite simple. They need to break the silence.
This is an edited version of an address John Pilger gave at the British Library on 9 December 2017 as part of a retrospective festival, ‘The Power of the Documentary’,held to mark the Library’s acquisition of Pilger’s written archive.
List of documentary links I created in the article above : –
I’ve been meaning to add something I found in the article that is horrific in its scope.
John Pilger Wrote: –
It is not news that the safeguards on nuclear weapons have been quietly removed and that the United States is now spending $4.6 million per hour on nuclear weapons: that’s $4.6 million every hour, 24 hours a day, every day. Who knows that?
Well, I didn’t know that, and I used both Google and Peak Prosperity search engines as extensively as I could, going back through to the beginning of October, finding that nobody had raised the issue. This is what I found : –
October 31st 2017
Los Alamos Study Group
Congressional Budget Office: US Nuclear Forces To Cost $1.2 Trillion over 30 Years
Albuquerque – Today the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its 73-page estimate of the future costs of maintaining and modernizing US nuclear weapons, entitled “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046.”
The total cost estimated by CBO was $1.242 trillion (T), of which $800 billion (B) is estimated as necessary to maintain and operate planned forces. The remainder ($400 B) is CBO’s estimate of the cost to modernize these forces. According to CBO, it will cost $4.6 million (M) per hour, 24/7, to keep US nuclear forces for the next 30 years.
As the title suggests, CBO looked at alternatives (nine in all) to Obama Administration nuclear weapon plans. The nine alternatives differ only slightly in their assumptions and therefore also in estimated total cost, providing savings that range from 2% to 11%, much less than the margin of error in CBO’s overall estimates.
CBO’s estimates are based on Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DOE) cost projections and, where available, CBO’s estimates of cost growth based on prior experience, rules of thumb, and some necessary guesswork to account for multi-decadal lapses in weapon system development.
In a significant departure from prior CBO estimates, the entire cost of the proposed B-21 heavy bomber is attributed to its nuclear mission (up from the previous 25%), which raises the 30-year cost of this delivery system from an estimated $127 B to $245 B, accounting for $118 B in total cost (p. 17). Without this change the total cost figure would be $1.1 T.
In an even more significant departure from past estimates, CBO now discounts future costs by an unstated inflation estimate (p. 52). Using current-year dollars under a 2% inflation scenario over the coming 30 years would increase the total cost figure from $1.2 T to the $1.5 T range.
DOE’s estimated 30-year costs account for $352 B, or 28% of total nuclear costs, of which $261 B are for DOE’s nuclear “weapons laboratories and supporting activities.” None of the nine scenarios involve any cuts in expenditures at DOE’s complex of nuclear laboratories and production plants or for nuclear command and control.
Study Group director Mello: “This tremendous financial commitment, amounting to $3,715 for every US man, woman, and child alive today, comes at a time of exploding fiscal requirements for Social Security, Medicare, and debt service, all mandatory expenses. Climate protection, the reconstruction of infrastructure, and the education of our children, are all being underserved at present. This is a doomsday budgetary commitment. It is unnecessary and it is counterproductive for US security.
“If wisely invested in leveraging deployment of sustainable energy and transportation instead of nuclear weapons, this huge sum would go a long way to building resilience and energy independence, and would provide hundreds of thousands of new, fulfilling careers. Continuing to forgo this golden opportunity is a national security blunder of the first magnitude, which will quickly become impossible to correct, creating existential dangers for US survival.
“’Nuclear deterrence,’ so-called, could be achieved by a submarine-based nuclear monad on a smaller scale, which would also allow Columbia-class program delays. This would allow ample time for negotiating Russian arsenals down. Russia is the only nuclear peer competitor of the US. The US, with its 10-fold higher military expenditures, its more accurate strategic nuclear forces, and its phalanx of bases surrounding Russia, must lead the way in nuclear disarmament. At any arsenal level, nuclear weapons are irrelevant for defense. They are offensive weapons of mass destruction only.
“Such a plan would slash planned nuclear expenditures, which would increase US security almost no matter how the resulting savings were spent, or saved.
“Nuclear weapons, including nuclear deterrence, have now been banned, and rightly so. Not just deterrence but “extended deterrence,” which involves the fanciful belief that a US president would sacrifice US cities to retaliate against an attack on any of 29 US allies (currently), must be gradually set aside in favor new security structures.
“Most planned nuclear expenditures can be traced to the vain attempt to achieve escalatory dominance in nuclear wars – wars which, as Ronald Reagan said, “cannot be won and must never be fought.”
“We are confident that this planned modernization of nuclear weapons will not, in its entirely, occur. CBO, to be credible within the Washington, DC echo-chamber, must assume the opposite – that these programs are practical and realizable. Experience tells us otherwise. To take one example, the first Interoperable Warhead (IW-1), is now fading away like the Cheshire Cat.
“In another and closely-related example, DOE is now uncertain when, where, and how to produce new plutonium warhead cores (“pits”), which are needed in quantity only for IW-1, and then only to produce enough warheads to provide an “upload hedge” which would violate the limits set by New START.
“Thus the Obama modernization plan, which this study costs out, was always a bet on a new arms race and a new Cold War. Thanks to actions taken by that administration and by others, which are being continued if not expanded today, we have that new Cold War. The nuclear weapons laboratories and military contractors feeding well at the expanding trough, as the risk of nuclear war rises.
“CBO’s estimates can be questioned in significant cases such as replacing the current ICBM force. Estimates provided by the Air Force for capital cost, which are the basis for CBO’s estimate, are roughly half the mid-range figure from DoD’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) group.”
I’ve just watched the latest Chris Martenson Peak Prosperity News Update, dated 1-26-2018 embeded below : –
I have a take from this thread that interconnects what Chris was saying about an impending/ongoing resource war with China, that can be best understood with one American military base map surrounding China, from John Pilgers latest documentary, The Coming War On China : –
John Pilger, who in a career that has spanned over 55 years, and 58 multi award winning documentaries, deserves, I believe, an urgent viewing of his latest documentary here at Peak Prosperity. The link below is to Thought Maybe, a mature and trusted streaming library of documentaries that can be watched on line like Netflix, or safely downloaded : –
Really no one cares
The Henry Ford quote un the weekly report is bogus
my thoughts : –
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empre, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Democratic governments will be able to become violent and even cruel in certain moments of great agitation and great dangers; but these crises will be rare and passing.
When I think about the petty passions of the men of our times, about the softness of their mores, about the extent of their enlightenment, about the purity of their religion, about the mildness of their morality, about their painstaking and steady habits, about the restraint that they nearly all maintain in vice as in virtue, I am not afraid that they will find in their leaders tyrants, but rather tutors.
So I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; the old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.
I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species;g as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.
Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?
This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.