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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Melbourne Age on John Pilger in his homeland

John Pilger

The following interview with John Pilger appeared in the Age on 28 September 2007...

John Pilger admits that he knows how to slow down, but has no intention whatsoever of doing so. The veteran investigative reporter, whose very name has become a signifier of dissenting opinion and controversy, is back in Australia - his land of birth and where he still spends several months each year during our summer - promoting his latest work, the Latin America documentary The War on Democracy.

As well as media interviews, a situation in which Pilger reveals that commanding voice, a keen intellect and a readiness to grapple with any query of his work, he's been participating in question-and-answer sessions with the public at advance cinema screenings. The latter he enjoys greatly.

"Really they're public meetings," Pilger observes. "It's like another element of political life is going on. They're a new kind of demonstration in a way."

The War on Democracy, a study of the political and economic situation in oil-rich Venezuela that expands to engage America's autocratic and often violent actions south of its border, is a first of sorts for Pilger. His traditional home has been television, notably with ITV in Britain, but this time he's debuting on cinema screens, a reflection of the public's growing faith in the film documentary as a harbinger of truth.

Pilger credits Michael Moore with helping popularise the documentary at the box office, a process that went mainstream in 2004 with Fahrenheit 9/11, a film that was in part inspired by Pilger's previous work, 2003's Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror. Having now made the transition himself, Pilger sees the difference between the two formats for him as being essentially logistical as opposed to artistic.

"I tried to work out what that difference was and it became a technical one. We had something of a luxury in having a two-camera shoot and a longer time to do a recce. I was conscious of the panorama of cinema and the sound of cinema, especially the music," explains Pilger, who by showing them the film persuaded the estate of R&B great Sam Cooke to license his 1964 civil rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, for use over the final credits for a fraction of the fee it regularly commands.

The financing for The War on Democracy, which was reported and written by Pilger and co-directed by young English documentary-maker Chris Martin and Pilger, stems from an unlikely source: a former oil rigger turned sports rights packager turned West End theatre impresario named Michael Watt.

A New Zealander who told Pilger he wanted to do something that would make him proud, Watt, after what an initially suspicious Pilger describes as "a very interesting first encounter", then put up approximately 80 per cent of the budget - roughly $1 million ($A2.33 million). He then scrupulously kept his distance.

Pilger admits he's not suited to the amounts of meetings and negotiation required to get a film made (he elected to take a wage and is unconcerned about whether he'll see a profit).

But on screen in Venezuela, where in 2006 he spent several weeks in the underprivileged barrios and shadowing populist president Hugo Chavez, the work is undoubtedly his: strident, passionate and clearly focused on revealing the tentacles of conspiracy.

"One of the aims of the film was to correct what I perceive as the nonsense written and broadcast about Venezuela and Chavez. I wanted to show what he was like personally and how that's contrary to how he's portrayed," Pilger explains.

"It's easily the most democratic country in Latin America. It's not another Cuba, far from it."

There are several scenes in which Pilger didn't have the time to qualify what is suggested. A reference to Chavez getting limited power to rule by decree, bypassing parliament, is not as ominous as it sounds. In other scenes, Pilger asks simple questions: speaking to Chavez, he queries why so many citizens of a major oil producer still live in abject poverty - only to be met with wildly truncated bursts of rhetoric.

"His answer went on and became quite convoluted, describing a World Bank report on poverty and the areas that needed to be addressed, and then he talked about that while he'd been in power for nine years he'd spent half that time just trying to stay in power," says Pilger.

He hopes his audience will find the film entertaining. "When I say entertaining I don't mean entertaining for the family, I mean it has to win the attention of people and make them want to go through the journey with you," he says.

It must be said that Pilger himself - his performance, if you will - is quite entertaining. His brief reaction shots when interviewing a US State Department official are priceless, and with his Custer-like mane and raffish linen suit, he's the very picture of a distinguished foreign correspondent.

Sure, he's won Britain's Journalist of the Year twice, as well as International Reporter of the Year, but he's also sartorially gifted.

"The suit is old, but the tie is even older," laughs Pilger. "Genuine 1950s rayon - one of only four ties I own. Believe me, it's all a facade."

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