Enemy of the people

Despite a few stylistic slip-ups, this is a chilling tale of US imperialism

<strong>The War on Dem

How fitting that The War on Democracy, a documentary examining Washington's ongoing campaign against central and South America, should arrive on the cusp of the blockbuster season. If you feel like making a stand against the pernicious US hegemony, you could always buy a ticket for this film and swan past the queues for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in a snooty manner.

The War on Democracy marks the first cinematic outing for the documentary veteran (and New Statesman columnist) John Pilger - a sign of how the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have transformed the marketplace. Ironically, the film's authority is occasionally undermined by those touches that feel tailored for an audience which favours Moore's unsubtle style. When footage of the Venezuelan underclass springing to the defence of the briefly overthrown Hugo Chávez is accompanied by Labi Siffre crooning "Something Inside So Strong", you have to ask: who is in charge of this manipulative soundtrack and couldn't that person be reported to Amnesty International along with the criminals in the film?

The documentary is essentially a compilation of US atrocities - a kind of Now That's What I Call Human Rights Violations. It starts with a section in which Pilger kicks back with Chávez and surveys the reasons for the president's popularity among Venezuela's working class and why the middle and upper classes despise him. (It all comes down to oil - surprise, surprise.) That this is the film's weakest stretch can be blamed on the suspicion that Pilger is so enamoured of Chávez, personally and politically, that either the right questions aren't being asked, or the wrong answers are being waved through. When Pilger puts it to Chávez that the extreme poverty in Venezuela seems inconsistent with the billions of dollars the country makes from oil, the president's woolly answer - that the aim is not for everyone to become millionaires - cries out for the impatient scepticism of a Paxman or a Humphrys.

But it's hard to quibble with the thrust of Pilger's argument, which is that the US government has happily terrorised any country in central and South America that has given off even a whiff of autonomy. We drop in on Guatemala to learn about the death squads of General Ríos Montt and Chile, where Sara de Witt recalls being tortured by Pinochet's goons when a student. She is a lucid interviewee, yet Pilger and his co-director Chris Martin cut away during her testimony to a gratuitous point-of-view shot, complete with red filter and sinister music, that imagines what she must have seen as she was led into the tower in Santiago where her ordeal took place. If you need your torture stories spiced up in this way, perhaps you should have bought that Pirates ticket after all.

The film is at its most compelling when the facts are presented bluntly. In a mind-boggling exchange, a former CIA chief, Duane Clarridge, disputes Pilger's claim that Pinochet caused huge suffering; his beef is with that word "huge". He also contests the assertion that thousands were killed in Chile. "I bet you can't count more than 200," he scoffs. You half expect him and Pilger to start haggling over the body count.

Clarridge is poisonous, but the documentary badly needs his toxic glare and Pilger knows it, judging by the frequency with which he cuts back to their meeting. The tales of death squads and conspiracies make for gruelling listening, but nothing sharpens the viewer's attention like an unrepentant ghoul, and Clarridge provides that necessary flash of macabre clarity.

The War on Democracy may not have the clout to compete with blockbusters, but the film-makers will be missing a trick if they don't rush out some Duane Clarridge merchandise. I'm saving up for the action figure where you pull the string in his back to hear him deny a US-led coup of your choosing. Failing that, I might splash out on the voodoo doll.

Pick of the week

Black Gold (U)
dir: Marc Francis
This documentary asks: What's the real cost of your cup of coffee?

Ten Canoes (15)
dirs: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr
Easygoing comic fable conceived by, performed by and concerning Aborigines.

Opening Night (15)
dir: John Cassavetes
Intense 1977 drama with Gena Rowlands as an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits