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Category Archives: General Interest
John Pilger is a brilliant documentary filmmaker. This is the powerful and eye-opening statement he made at the British Library on December 9 at a celebration to mark the Library’s acquisition of Pilger’s written archive.
WHY THE DOCUMENTARY MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO DIE
11 December 2017
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 $46 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 as part of a retrospective festival, ‘The Power of the Documentary’,held to mark the Library’s acquisition of Pilger’s written archive.
Follow John Pilger on twitter @johnpilger
This opening scene of HBO’s “The Newsroom” is more than plain entertainment. It’s time we faced up to the facts, put aside petty politics, and started to work together to make America great again
For your entertainment…
This video, Why Are American Health Care Costs So High? goes a long way toward answering that question.
Here are a couple sites that tell about the many uses of borax and its safety.
If you have a problem with ants, here is a formula to deal with it:
1/2 C sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons of Borax
1 1/2 cups warm water
Mix it up, soak cotton balls, and lay the balls out on jar lids or plastic container covers around the area where ants are.
More details at How to Kill Ants Using Borax
This just in from Frances Moore Lappe:
Starting this Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern, for the first time on a mainstream cable network, the History Channel is telling the story of America’s longest and most expensive war in a four-part docu-series entitled “America’s War on Drugs.” My son Anthony is an executive producer, and with absolutely no bias whatsoever (!), I assure you it is amazing. The epic project examines the US government’s involvement in the drug trade and the real origins of five decades of failed laws. It reveals the devastating, selective impact on communities of color. With the Trump administration calling for a return to some of the War on Drugs’ worst policies, it couldn’t be more timely. It will blow your mind.
Former DEA and CIA officials speak directly to camera, along with major drug traffickers and an incredible cast of experts that includes fearless Mexican drug war journalists, iconoclastic academics, and a former pot smuggler.
“America’s War on Drugs” premieres SUNDAY JUNE 18, 9pm EST on HISTORY, with a new episode released the following three nights.
To give you an idea of the series, watch this TRAILER and an EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT exposing the CIA’s involvement in the cocaine trade. If you are so moved, could you spread news about it? We must learn from this horror! Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Watch this RT report:
I don’t know who came up with these suggestions, but I found them amusing.
“Drag and Drop”
“We put the hospital in hospitality”
“Board as a doctor, leave as a patient”
“Our prices can’t be beaten, but our passengers can”
“We have First Class, Business Class and No Class”
“Not enough seating, prepare for a beating”
“We treat you like we treat your luggage”
“We beat the customer. Not the competition”
“And you thought leg room was an issue”
“Where voluntary is mandatory”
“Fight or flight. We decide”
“Now offering one free carry off”
“Beating random customers since 2017”
“If our staff needs a seat, we’ll drag you out by your feet”
“A bloody good airline”
Can the mainstream media be trusted to present a true picture of what is happening in our world? I have serious doubts about that. Much of what we hear on the major networks and read in the major newspapers is slanted to make us believe a particular story. It is, in short, propaganda. We often hear allegations repeated as if they were facts, but without specific evidence. Plus, there are important stories that are simply not reported or relegated to back pages where they are little noticed. Here below is a start on where to look to get more balanced perspectives. –t.h.g.
“Occupy.com has put together a starting list of 20 alternative media outlets (in alphabetical order) that we feel form a solid base for the new media movement that is now emerging. Click on and let’s move.”
Al Jazeera America – After earning a reputation as one of the most globally trusted media channels, the Qatar-owned company recently launched a large and growing operation focused on U.S. coverage.
Alternet – Shows glimpses of mainstream style, but still a great source for a wide array of news with straightforward and honest, factual reporting.
Democracy Now – Home to mainstay truth-telling journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, whose engaging and timely commentary along with video covers a wide spectrum of national and global stories.
DeSmogBlog – Great source for climate-related news, which follows the motto, “Clearing the PR Pollution That Clouds Climate Science.”
Disinfo – Has shocking and oddball articles you won’t find elsewhere.
Mother Jones – As they say it themselves, “smart, fearless journalism” and a mainstay in the alternative media sphere for decades.
Moyers and Company – Brought to us by the long-time investigative journalist and respected thought leader Bill Moyers, combining insightful interviews with strong articles on the leading political and economic subjects of the day.
Popular Resistance – Aggregating alternative news and resistance movements around the country and worldwide.
ProPublica – Journalism, particularly the investigative sort, in the public interest.
Reddit News – Updated continuously, sourced from across the Internet by its users
Russia Today – This outlet is Putin-owned, so be wary of any news concerning Russia, but when it comes to reporting U.S. politics and news, RT offers some of the best.
The Center for Public Integrity – A recent Pulitzer Prize winner, this team produces some of the hardest hitting, most thoroughly investigated reports out there, particularly in relation to tax evasion and the role of money in the electoral process.
The Daily Beast – Independent, intelligent news infused with irreverent tone.
The Hill – Hardly underground, but gives a surprisingly un-biased account of political events and news in the capital.
The Intercept – Probably the hottest development in U.S. media, the site launched earlier this year with renowned journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill following the Edward Snowden leaks, and promises a new brand of fearless, fact-telling journalism.
The Real News Network – With “no advertising, government or corporate funding,” this online video news provider based in Baltimore bridges TV and Internet with strong alternative views and professional newsroom reports.
Think Progress – One of the most impressive, wide-ranging and popular online outlets providing short, insightful news reports across the political, economic, social and environmental spectrum.
Truthdig – The current media home of author and journalist Chris Hedges, the site’s motto is “drilling beneath the headlines.”
Truthout – The non-profit organization and news team delivers independent, unbiased essays and analyses on a daily basis.
Yes! Magazine – The optimistic, up-beat side of the news revealing the people and projects focusing on solutions that build stronger, more resilient communities.
And while, we’re at it, why not try to hear the other side of the story directly from those involved. Here, for example, is Syria’s President Assad answering questions posed by a Swiss journalist. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.