Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Film: The War on Democracy & Queimada

UTV screened John Pilger's documentary 'The War on Democracy' last night at eleven pm. I think the time is relevant because clearly the schedulers decided it would only appeal to a minority of viewers but this seemed to defeat the film's purpose. Even for someone like me who has at best a superficial knowledge of the subject, there was nothing new on offer - for example a lot of the Venezuela section was already dealt with in 'The revolution will not be televised', the Irish documentary that chronicled the failed 2002 coup - so I can only surmise Pilger in the style adopted intended an introduction to the widest possible audience. How strange, and how heartening and of course how unlikely, it would have been to see it put on three hours earlier after Coronation Street. As for the content, irrespective of his allegiance, as a journalist, Pilger should have given Chavez a harder time on the issue of poverty which he easily side-stepped with aspirational stuff about giving people dignified lives. And I was surprised that Pilger allowed himself to be bullied by the obnoxious retired CIA man, who came close as it was possible to get to a carciature. You could imagine him popping up in 'Dr Strangelove' screaming about the world needing to recognise that America was not going to take 'any messing.'
For a subtler dissection of imperialism, I would recommend Queimada, which was shown as part of the Marlon Brando season at the IFI last weekend. Directed by Gilles Pontecorvo (Battle of Algiers), and set in the 19th century on a fictional Caribbean island, Brando plays Sir William Walker, an emissary of the British Crown, who has decided it is in its economic interest to foment a slave revolution on the island so as to undermine the Portuguese ruling class. Walker selects Jose Dolores, a street wastrel, to lead the charge but once the Portuguese are ousted, Walker persuades Dolores to throw down his arms and accept the rule of the businessmen who export fruit and sugar from the island. Dolores and his men are freed but they have to return to work on the plantation. Ten years later, Walker is back: this time, at the behest of the fruit company that controls the island, to stamp out another Dolores revolution. The slaves are free but as workers are treated like slaves and worse. The rising, which threatens the value of shares in the export company, is vanquished in the same way that the Portuguese initially wiped out the indigenous people - with a scorched earth policy. What I found remarkable about the film was the manner in which Walker instills ideas of freedom and dignity in Dolores in order to achieve an economic end. Dolores is dared to dream of the rights of man and civilisation while Walker is taking care of business, and when the economic rationale shifts, those dreams of freedom and equality are quickly jettisoned. Naturally there is a contemporary resonance to all this, as is witnessed in the fluctuating relationships between imperial powers and their client states. Ennio Morricone provides an unusual score for the film and Brando is excellent.

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