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Socialism Today 103 - September 2006

Documentaries that Changed the World

John Pilger

Release date: 11 September 2006

Released by: Network DVD, £29.99

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Barbican Cinemas are showing John Pilger’s key works from 14-21 September

YOU KNOW what you are going to get from John Pilger: uncompromising footage, tough questioning and brutal honesty. This collection of twelve documentaries showcases his consistently high standard over nearly 40 years.

The common theme in this four-DVD set, which also includes an interview filmed at the Hay Festival 2006, is imperial power. Pilger’s journey from Vietnam to Diego Garcia – via Central America, the West Bank, Iraq and beyond – is one all those fighting against exploitation and oppression should take.

Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia shows Khmer Rouge forces moving into the capital, Phnom Penh: 1975, Year Zero. The Khmer Rouge unleashed a four-year reign of terror in which two million people died. Towns and cities were emptied, people tortured. Of 550 doctors in Phnom Penh, 48 survived. Two thirds of the 990,000 primary school children were never seen again.

In 1979, the regime had all but collapsed. Scenes of helpless children are hardly bearable as Pilger tours a ‘hospital’: no equipment, no medicine, no hope. Western powers still recognised the Khmer Rouge regime (backed by China) as against Vietnam (backed by Russia). Aid to Vietnam had been stopped by Europe. The people of Cambodia were cut off, expendable in the struggle for regional dominance.

Nicaragua: A Nation’s Right to Survive follows the Sandinista revolution which ousted the dictator Samoza in 1979. Radical social reform brought illiteracy down to 10% within four years. Under pressure from the US, however, international agencies put the regime on rations, causing severe shortages of food, medicine and machinery. Samoza’s National Guard, specialists in torture, formed the backbone of the US-backed Contras who waged war against the revolution from Honduras.

This was a "revolution of all the people", a "broad front": 60% of the economy remained in private hands, only 35% of the land was nationalised. This is presented as its strength. In reality, it was a fatal flaw. Unless the working class takes full economic control, eventually, the capitalists inevitably take it back, and power with it. Nicaragua would be no different.

Burp! Pepsi Vs Coke in the Ice Cold War traces the history of these brands against the backdrop of global politics. The second world war was the perfect vehicle for Coca-Cola distribution (including to the Nazis), bottling plants on frontlines paid for by the US war department.

Nixon got Kremlin supremo, Khrushchev, to pose drinking Pepsi, which became the first US product made in the Soviet Union. In 1949, Mao kicked Coca-Cola out of China. President Carter got it back in 1978. It is a study of the links between corporate and political power. In Chile, Pepsi Cola’s boss ran a daily paper which was used by the CIA to help Pinochet’s bloody coup.

Flying the Flag – Arming the World Thatcher shut down British manufacturing, but the arms trade boomed, with 20% of the world market (second to the US), employing 10% of Britain’s workers. Thatcher sold fighter aircraft to Suharto’s dictatorship in Indonesia, signed a $30 billion deal with Saudi Arabia (netting her son, Mark, an estimated £12m). And, just after Saddam gassed thousands of Kurds to death at Halabja, he got £340 million in export credits.

Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny is a brilliant film about the collapse of morale in the US forces, brought back up to date with the occupation of Iraq. Reviewed in Socialism Today No.96.

The Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy begins with tips from an Indonesian army pamphlet, The Dos and Don’t of Torture. Labour and Tory governments keep Suharto’s regime well armed. Australia supports the regime to get its hands on Timor’s oil. There is sickening coverage of the massacre of a demonstration in Dili in November 1991. People fleeing into a cemetery are beaten and shot, 180 killed. Another 400 are killed in the subsequent two days. Pilger interviews a sinister Indonesian ambassador, who says there is no credible evidence for the massacre. After an outcry, ten low-ranking officers are sentenced for a few weeks; eight demonstrators get between five years to life.

Inside Burma: Land of Fear In 1996 Burma had been a dictatorship since 1962. British colonial rule from the 19th century stripped teak forests, stole Burma’s precious jewels, siphoned off the oil. Despite fierce repression after a massive demonstration in March 1988, people set up a ‘parliament of the street’, producing 40 newspapers. Dockers and other workers strike.

In 1989, Aung San Sui Kyi is put under house arrest, 3,000 activists are arrested. In elections the democracy movement wins 82%. The generals hold on to power, forcing thousands into chain-gang slavery. French oil company, Total, and US’s Unocal deal with the regime. British firms continue selling arms, while Hawke, ex-Australian PM, leads a trade mission so that Australian capitalism does not miss out.

Welcome to Australia is set in the build up to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. When the International Olympic Commission assessed Australia’s bid for the games it did not check the facilities for Aborigines. There would not have been much to see. There still isn’t.

Aborigines suffer mass poverty, low life expectancy, high suicide rates, and institutional racism. Eddie Murphy was found hanged in a prison cell in 1981. The campaign led by his parents forced the authorities to exhume the body. Eddie’s sternum had been smashed. The original open verdict still stands. Prime minister Howard vetoed a proposal to add Aborigine names to war memorials, denouncing what he calls the "black armband version" of Australian history. He slashed social programmes for Aborigine communities. He would not be interviewed for this film.

Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq is about ten years of UN sanctions. They stop the supply of electricity, clean water, food, medicines, even pencils and soap. The WHO estimates 500,000 children died as a result. Evoking Cambodia, drugs are not available to treat children with leukaemia, stomach tumours, renal shutdown. Saddam and his cronies have their own clinics, well-stocked palaces, luxury shops. They aren’t affected.

The Ba’ath party was helped to power by the US and Britain. By 1979, Saddam had butchered his way to the top. Anthrax for WMD came from England, botulism from the US. The relationship cooled with the first Gulf war but when the Shia rose at the end of the war in 1991, the US blocked access to weapons, allowing Iraqi forces to quell the rebellion.

Palestine is Still the Issue compares suicide bombings with the terror inflicted on Palestinian people by Israel, and in the run-up to the formation of the state by Jewish forces. A so-called incursion to stop terrorism in Ramallah leaves it utterly destroyed: schools, offices, clinics, cinemas. This is a systematic war on a whole people.

A wealthy Israeli ‘settlement’ – satellite dishes, swimming pools, irrigated crops – contrasts with the arid, grinding poverty outside. Pilger talks to Jews who support a Palestinian state, including Rami Elhanan’s, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing. He sees the poverty and discrimination, understands the anger. It is a glimpse of hope. Pilger calls for "Two countries, Israel and Palestine, neither dominating nor menacing the other". But how can competitive, divisive capitalism deliver that, especially here? Two working-class communities both gaining from cooperation would be a different proposition: a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel.

Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror deals with the aftermath of 9/11, including the lawlessness of Afghanistan. Pilger interviews neo-cons and goes to Bagram airbase, the notorious torture centre en route to Guantánamo. Rumsfeld is on film meeting Saddam. Colin Powell speaks (February 2001): "He [Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to WMD". Condoleezza Rice (July 2001): "His [Saddam’s] military forces have not been rebuilt". Two months later, the war on Iraq is based around the existence of WMD.

Stealing a Nation recounts the expulsion of British citizens from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean as 2,000 people were forced out to make room for the US military. Mauritius, which governed the islands, was granted independence from Britain in 1968 on condition that it laid no claim to them. Supplies were cut off, the people shipped out and dumped onto derelict housing in Mauritius without electricity, clean water or work. The High Court in November 2000 ruled their expulsion illegal. They are still fighting against the world’s superpower and the British state.

Witnessing the repression, poverty, politicians’ lies, and the might of the multinationals exposes the western model of democracy: a pretty façade hiding murder, torture and extortion by the hired hands of regional and world powers in the interests of capitalist exploitation. But these films also stand in testament to the incredible bravery and determination of the world’s workers and poor to fight against seemingly impossible odds.

Ultimately, the sadness, rage, and inspiration felt watching these powerful films reaffirm the need to build an alternative to capitalism. Democratic socialism – with economic control in the hands of the working class, implementing a rational plan of production and resource use – would provide the basis for an international system of human solidarity. Only then will the horrors so graphically depicted by John Pilger serve as a reminder of what was, rather than an all-too-familiar depiction of what is.


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