The rising of Latin America - the genesis of 'The War On Democracy'
13 June 2007
In the 1960s, when I first went to Latin America, I travelled up the cone of the continent from Chile across the Altiplano to Peru, mostly in rickety buses and single-carriage trains. It was an experience my memory stored for life, especially the spectacle of the movement of people.
They moved through the dust of a snow-capped wilderness, along roads that were ribbons of red mud, and they lived in shanties that defied gravity. "We are invisible," said one man; another used the term abandonados; an indigenous woman in Bolivia unforgettably described her poverty as a commodity for the rich.
When I later saw Sebastiao Salgado's photographs of Latin America's working people, I recognised the people at the roadside, the gold miners and the coffee workers and the silhouettes framed in crosses in the cemeteries. Perhaps the idea for a cinema film began then, or when I reported Ronald Reagan's murderous assault on Central America; or when I first read the words of Victor Jara's ballads and heard Sam Cooke's anthem A Change Is Gonna Come.
The War On Democracy is my first film for cinema. It follows more than 55 documentary films for television, which began with The Quiet Mutiny, set in Vietnam. Most of my films have told stories of people's struggles against rapacious power and of attempts to subvert and control our historical memory. It is this control, this organised forgetting, that has always intrigued me both as a film-maker and a journalist. Described by Harold Pinter as a great silence unbroken by the incessant din of the media age, it assures the powerful in the west that the struggle of whole societies against their crimes is merely "superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged... It never happened. Even while it was happening it never happened. It didn't matter. It was of no interest".
This was true of Nicaragua in the early 1980s, when a popular revolution began to turn back poverty and bring literacy and hope to a country long dismissed as a banana republic. In the United States, the Sandinista government was successfully portrayed as communist and a threat, and crushed. After all, Richard Nixon had said of all of Latin America: "No one gives a shit about the place." The War On Democracy is meant as an antidote to this.
Modern fictional cinema rarely seems to break political silences. The very fine Motorcycle Diaries was a generation too late. In this country, where Hollywood sets the liberal boundaries, the work of Ken Loach and a few others is an honourable exception. However, the cinema is changing as if by default. The documentary has returned to the big screen and is being embraced by the public, in the US and all over. They were still clapping Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 two months after it opened in this country. Why? The answer is uncomplicated. It was a powerful film that helped people make sense of news that no longer made sense. It did not present the usual phoney "balance" as a pretence for presenting an establishment consensus. It was not riddled with the cliches, platitudes and power assumptions that permeate "current affairs". It was realist cinema, as important as The Grapes of Wrath was in the 1930s, and people devoured it.
The War On Democracy is not the same. It comes out of a British commercial television tradition that is too often passed over: the pioneering of bold factual journalism that treated other societies not as post-imperial curios, as useful or expendable to "us", but extraordinary and important in their own terms. Granada's World in Action, where I began, was a prime example. It would report and film in ways that the BBC would not dare. These days, with misnamed "reality" programmes consuming much of television like a plague of cane toads, cinema has been handed a timely opportunity. Such are the dangers imposed on us all today by a rampant, neo-fascist superpower, and so urgent is our need for uncontaminated information that people are prepared to buy a cinema ticket to get it.
The War On Democracy examines the false democracy that comes with western corporations and financial institutions and a war waged, materially and as propaganda, against popular democracy. It is the story of the people I first saw 40 years ago; but they are no longer invisible; they are a mighty political movement, reclaiming noble concepts distorted by corporatism and they are defending the most basic human rights in a war being waged against all of us.
Cinema and television production are closely related, of course, but the differences, I have learned, are critical. Cinema allows a panorama to unfold, giving a sense of place that only the big screen captures. In The War On Democracy, the camera sweeps across the Andes in Bolivia to the highest and poorest city on earth, El Alto, then follows Juan Delfin, a priest and a taxi driver, into a cemetery where children are buried. That Bolivia has been asset-stripped by multinational companies, aided by a corrupt elite, is an epic story described by this one man and this spectacle. That the people of Bolivia have stood up, expelled the foreign consortium that took their water resources, even the water that fell from the sky, is understood as the camera pans across a giant mural that Juan Delfin painted. This is cinema, a moving mural of ordinary lives and triumphs.
Chris Martin and I (we made the film as a partnership) used two crews and two very different cinematographers, Preston Clothier and Rupert Binsley. They shot in high-definition stock, which then had to be converted to 35mm film - one of cinema's wonderful anachronisms.
The film was backed by the impresario Michael Watt, a supporter of anti-poverty projects all over the world, who had told producer Wayne Young that he wanted to put my TV work in the cinema. Granada provided additional support, and ITV will broadcast the film later in the year. The extra funding also allowed me to persuade the late Sam Cooke's New York agents to license A Change Is Gonna Come, one of the finest, most lyrical pieces of black music ever written and performed. I was in the southern United States when it was released. It was the time of the civil-rights movement, and Cooke's song spoke to and for all people struggling to be free. The same is true of the ballads of the Chilean Victor Jara, whose songs celebrated the popular democracy of Salvador Allende before Pinochet and the CIA extinguished it.
We filmed in the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, where Jara was taken along with thousands of other political prisoners. By all accounts, he was a source of strength for his comrades, singing for them until soldiers beat him to the ground and smashed his hands. He wrote his last song there and it was smuggled out on scraps of paper. These are the words:
What horror the face of fascism creates
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision ...
For them, blood equals medals ...
How hard it is to sing
When I must sing of horror ...
In which silence and screams
Are the end of my song.
After two days of torture, they killed him. The War On Democracy is about such courage and a warning to us all that "for them" nothing has changed, that "blood equals medals".