Did we like it?
A customarily impassioned, illuminating polemic by John Pilger against American “imperialism” in Latin America; yet its potency was diluted by Pilger’s onerous bias to his own agenda of vilifying the United States, which ended up making certain chapters resemble the naked propaganda that he so deplored the US for perpetrating.
What was good about it?
• Pilger skilfully wove the first-hand accounts of those people who have suffered first hand because of his interpretation of American interference in the politics of Latin America.
• Mariela Machedo told of how the people in the indigent barrios marched through the streets of Caracas when President Hugo Chavez was deposed in the coup organised, according to Pilger, by the Venezuelan army, the disgruntled middle-classes and the covert presence of American funding.
• Even though it was as cynically manipulative as the US government, Pilger’s masterly blending of an episode of independently corroborated tragedy and barbarity and the furious, rancorous denials by a senior figure associated with its implementation was a brilliant, if harrowing, piece of television.
• We say this as it was also the section when the lava of fury began to breach the dam of our intellectual reasoning, and by the end of it had utterly inundated our brains leaving us a seething mass of anti-American rage.
• Pilger chronicled the Chilean coup in 1973 in which the democratically-elected President Allende was usurped by an amalgamation of the Chilean military and the US government. Pilger listened to the tale of a man who was imprisoned in the notorious Santiago football stadium where the ‘dissenters’ were concentrated, and told of the famous guitarist who kept the internees spirits up until he was murdered.
• We were then introduced to Duane Clarridge, the former head of the CIA in Latin America, and after five minutes we realised that Pilger, with very little prompting, was speaking to a man who revealed himself to be someone who makes Satan look like Mother Theresa.
• Clarridge boasted that “the only reason Chile exists is because of [General Agustin] Pinochet” (the former fascist dictator whom the CIA had helped install). Pilger then put it to Clarridge about the human price of Pinochet’s administration. “What human price?” Clarridge exclaimed. “There weren’t thousands [of killings].” The interview then cut to a memorial in Santiago which clearly contained the list of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Pinochet’s victims, and followed it with an interview with Sara De Witt who was tortured by Pinochet’s henchmen, and who mourned the loss of her friends who didn’t survive. “I think about what they thought about when they were being killed,” she said.
Cut back to the clueless barbarian Clarridge. “The CIA played a major role in overthrowing… what’s his name?” Pilger: “Is it ‘OK’ to overthrow a democratically-elected government?” “Depends what your national security interests are.” “Are you denying Pinochet caused huge suffering?” “Not huge.” “You’re saying it’s worth it?” “Sometimes things have to be changed in a rather ugly way.”
• We’ve often slated programmes that use the sight of people crying as a low-com-denom way of clawing in emotionally vapid viewers who believe such expressions of feeling are somehow transcendental of all human dialogue when it is merely a mine, carefully placed by the production team, being detonated. Here, three people cried and the astounding thing was they managed to hold their composure for such a long time – Sara De Witt became glassy-eyed talking about her torture and Paraguayan taxi driver-cum-priest Juan Delfin broke down when he spoke of how civilians gunned down by the army where piled up in his church.
But the most moving of all was Sister Dianna Ortiz, a US nun who was working in Guatemala during the uprising. She offered a voice of dissent against the US-backed rebellion and was kidnapped and gang raped by outlaws that were led by a fellow American. As she began her account she audibly calmed herself, and as images of the conflict were on screen her little voice could be heard pleading, “Please, stop.”
• The writhing cerebral vacuum of Glitterball followed this erudite programme and watching one after the other was like having your brain shovelled out of its cranial plot to make way for a Jamie Cullum-themed fun park full of jaunty piano rides inhabited by dwarves with the weirdest hair known to humanity in a typically derivative and soulless tribute to Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory.
What was bad about it?
• The whole tone of the documentary slanted as far to the left as the American government were accused of slanting to the right in their treatment of Latin America.
• Each and every witness called by Pilger either to compound his own entrenched views or those he interviewed who shared the opposite view all served to promote his own ends. The poor under classes in Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia all simply recounted their own hardships brought about by what Pilger saw as US meddling, but anyone who might offer an opinion contrary to Pilger’s wishes were either manipulated, deceived, provoked into making ludicrous statements or were as hateful as a fistful of grit thrown into the eyes, such as the aforementioned Clarridge.
• Pilger afforded Venezuelan president Chavez the same level of critical scrutiny as a wronged housewife on Jeremy Kyle. He sat enraptured as the charismatic Chavez spoke eloquently about his roots and how he pledged to give “what life I have left” to the people of his country after their insurrection restored him to power. Very noble.
However, when Pilger revealed that Chavez had assumed “presidential powers” he claimed this was “to speed up reforms”; an explanation Pilger swallowed without even a facial grimace. If somebody with whom Pilger had a beef had said that, he would have given them his practised glare of incredulity and followed it up with a sardonic piece of narration coloured by some distressing footage of mutilated, dead peasants strewn about their village.
• In Caracas, Pilger paid a visit to the home of the middle-class John Vink ostensibly to get his views on Chavez. However, that ruse was little more than a Trojan Horse so his crew could capture images of his vulgar opulence while Pilger pretended to be interested in Vink’s collection of objet d’art in order to exacerbate the impression of gilded amorality. These scenes were then topped and tailed with glimpses of the appalling poverty in the barrios to extinguish any sympathy for Vink’s concerns over Chavez’s premiership.
• Pilger opened up his film using reactionary idiots on right-wing US TV channels, during which programmes Chavez was described as a “criminal” and that he should have been killed. What was needed was a measured, sober response to the ascent of Chavez to the de facto throne of Latin America from a respected neutral academic.
• The outdated celluloid technique of zooming in on a supposed villain’s eyes to make them appear more evil such as what happened to Richard Nixon. He had to live with the burden in his youth of looking like Jimmy Carr, so he didn’t need Pilger making him seem even more sinister.
• The quite shocking film of an anonymous member of Chile’s middle-classes apparently justifying Pinochet’s sadistic purges. “Our country has to be well set, well run, well worked and see that everyone does the work,” she bellowed. “I don’t believe that any torturing is done in the country – why torture somebody when you can shoot them?” But because Pilger’s film was so subjective, there needed to be a name and some record of where this excerpt came from else it could be suspected to be just another bit of fake propaganda cobbled together by Pinochet’s adversaries.