In praise of the 'subversive' documentary
14 September 2006The political documentary, that most powerful and subversive medium, is said to be enjoying a renaissance on both sides of the Atlantic. This may be true in the cinema but what of television, the source of most of our information? Like the work of many other documentary film-makers, my own films have been shown all over the world, but never on network television in the United States. That suppression of alternative viewpoints may help us understand why millions of Americans display such a chronic ignorance of other human beings.
It was not always like this. In the 1930s, the Workers' Film and Photo League, based in New York, produced a dazzling series of "neighbourhood documentaries" that presented the world in decidedly non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical terms, including the United States, where epic documentaries such as The Scottsboro Boys and The National Hunger March accurately recorded America's "lost period" - the incipient revolution of working people suffering the Depression and their brutal repression by the police and army. Shown in trade union halls and workers' clubs, and at open-air meetings, these films were very popular. Thanks to George Clooney's recent, superb movie Good Night and Good Luck, we know of Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, which in the 1950s gave millions an unsentimental and truthful view of their nation, stirring and angering and empowering rather than pacifying, which is the rule today.
I learned my own lessons about the power of documentaries and their censorship when in 1980 took two of my films, Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia and Cambodia Year One, to the United States in the naive belief that the networks would want to air these disclosures of Pol Pot's rule and its aftermath. All those I met were eager to buy clips that showed how monstrous the Khmer Rouge were, but none wanted the equally shocking evidence of how three US administrations had colluded in Cambodia's tragedy; Ronald Reagan was then secretly backing Pol Pot in exile. Having bombed to death hundreds of thousands of Cambodian peasants between 1969 and 1973 - the catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, according to the CIA - Washington was now imposing an economic blockade on the most stricken country on earth, as revenge for its liberation by the hated Vietnam. This siege lasted almost a decade and ensured that Cambodia never fully recovered. Almost none of this was broadcast as news or documentary.
With the two films under my arm, my last stop in Washington was PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, which has a liberal reputation, rather like the BBC. During a viewing with a senior executive, I discerned a sharp intake of breath. "Great films, John," he said, "but ..." He proposed that PBS hire an "adjudicator" who would "assess the real public worth of your films". Richard Dudman, a Washington journalist with the rare distinction of having been welcomed to Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, was assigned the task. In his previous Cambodia dispatches, Dudman had found people "reasonably relaxed" and urged his readers to look "on the bright side" as Pol Pot had started "one of the world's great housing programs". Not surprisingly, the author of this apologia turned his thumb down on my films. Later, the PBS executive phoned me "off the record". "Your films would have given us problems with the Reagan administration," he said. "Sorry."
I offer this charade as a vivid example of the fear and loathing of the independent documentary's power to circumvent those who guard official truth. Although its historical roots are often traced back to the work of Robert Flaherty, the American director who made Nanook of the North in 1922, and John Grierson, the British documentarist whose first film was premiered at a London double bill with Battleship Potemkin in1929, in Britain the modern documentary's political power is often measured against a specious neutrality invented by John Reith, founder of the BBC, while he was writing and broadcasting anti-trade union propaganda during the 1922 General Strike. The stamina and influence of this pervasive BBC myth are reflected in the rarity of truly independent political documentaries.
Some remarkable films are made, however, testaments to a faith in the docudmentary form that never fails to inspire. One comes readily to mind: A Letter to the Prime Minister: Jo Wilding's Diary from Iraq. Jo Wilding, a young trainee lawyer and human rights worker in Iraq, produced some of the finest frontline reporting of the war online from Fallujah, then under siege by the US Marines. Living with families and without a flak jacket, she all but shamed the embedded army of reporters in her description of the atrocious American attack on an Iraqi city Her documentary, directed by Julia Guest, presents the evidence of a crime and asks Tony Blair to take his share of the responsibility: a basic question now asked by millions of Britons. The film was offered to television, and rejected. It has been shown at festivals around the world, but "painfully little" in Britain, says Guest, apart from single screenings at the Barbican and a forthcoming screening on October 15 at the Curzon Soho in London.
One problem facing political documentaries in Britain is that they run the risk of being immersed in the insidious censorship of "current affairs", a loose masonry uniting politicians and famous journalists who define "politics" as the machinations of Westminster, thereby fixing the limits of "political debate". No more striking example currently presents itself than the relentless media afforded the infantile scrapping of the political twins, Blair and Gordon Brown, and their tedious acolytes, drowning out the cries of the people of Iraq and Gaza and Lebanon - countries where the BBC has effected its false equilibrium and waffled about "two narratives" as if truth and justice are taboo concepts. Similarly, the fifth anniversary of September 11 proved a lost opportunity to rest the reverential and the ghoulish and describe how George W Bush and his gang used the tragedy to violently renew their version of empire and world domination.
Like the best of commercial television, cinema does offer hope for the political documentary, although film-makers who believe they can follow the success of Michael Moore beware. Moore's work is very popular, and makes money: the two vital ingredients for distributors and exhibitors. To get into cinemas, documentaries need to have at least a hope of repeating something of Moore's success. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that outstanding serious documentaries, if promoted imaginatively, can attract huge pubic interest. When this has happened on television, the reward has been not so much ratings as a "qualitative" audience: that is, people who engage with the work. (When Death of a Nation, the film I made with David Munro about East Timor, was shown on ITV late at night, it was followed by 5,000 phone calls a minute from the public).
What we need are more "citizen" documentary-makers, like Jo Wilding and Julia Guest, who are prepared to look in the mirror of our "civilised" societies and film the long rivers of blood, and their ebbing truth. It took Peter Davis's Oscar-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds to make sense of the mass murder that was the invasion of Vietnam. Two sequences brilliantly achieved this. There was General William Westmoreland, the American commander, declaring: "The Oriental doesn't put the same price on life as the Westerner," while a Vietnamese boy sobbed over the death of his father, murdered by GIs. And there was a naked Vietnamese girl, running from a Napalm attack, her body a patchwork of burns, and followed by a woman carrying a baby, the skin hanging off its body. Thanks to Hearts and Mind, they are now unforgettable evidence of the barbarity of that war.
There is a hunger among the public for documentaries because only only documentaries, at their best, are fearless and show the unpalatable and make sense of the news. The extraordinary films of Alan Francovich achieved this. Francovitch, who died in 1997 , made The Maltese Double Cross - Lockerbie. THIS destroyed the official truth that Libya was responsible for the sabotage of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. Instead, an unwitting "mule", with links to the CIA, was alleged to have carried the bomb on board the aircraft. (Paul Foot's parallel investigation for Private Eye came to a similar conclusion). The Maltese Double Cross - Lockerbie has never been publicly screened in the United States. In this country, the threat of legal action from a US Government official prevented showings at the 1994 London Film Festival and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. In 1995, defying threats, Tam Dalyell showed it in the House of Commons, and Channel 4 broadcast it in May 1995.To make sense of the current colonial war in Afghanistan, I recommend Jamie Dorian's Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, which describes how the country's liberators oversaw the secret killing of 3,000 Afghans - the number killed in the Twin Towers. To begin to make sense of the news, I recommend Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, and to understand one of the major reasons Bush and Blair invaded Iraq, I recommend Greenwald's latest, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. All are available on DVD. In these dangerous times, with countries about to be attacked and many innocent lives already condemned, we urgently need more documentaries like these, for the simple reason that the public has a right to know in order to act.