John Pilger is one of the West’s greatest investigative journalists. Time and time again he’s brought up issues that were – and often still are – deeply relevant to the way the world works today.
He’s made a real difference in shaping our knowledge of many of the most pressing issues of our time and his latest film, The Coming War On China, is a stark warning about the potentially disastrous direction our leaders are pushing the world. But as his previous films show, all too often we don’t heed Pilger’s warnings until it’s much too late…
The Quiet Mutiny (1970)
Pilger’s first film looked at the then-raging Vietnam War from a perspective rarely taken - that of the common foot solider. What he found was collapsing morale and near-open rebellion against their commanding officers. They were signs that, whatever the top brass might have been saying, the war on the ground wasn’t being won and almost certainly couldn’t be won. After all, how do you win a war when soldiers were openly assassinating - or “fragging” - their commanding officers? Unfortunately, his warnings were ignored and the war dragged on until 1975.
Cambodia: Year Zero (1979)
After the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue regime in Cambodia, Pilger led a team that entered the country to document the famine and suffering going on there. This documentary caused an outrage in the UK, where over US$45 million was raised, largely from the general public, to assist in famine relief. Problem was, the real point of Pilger’s documentary wasn’t the fall of Pol Pot but the way the West was prolonging the country’s suffering – in large part because Pol Pot and his cronies had been overthrown by Communist Vietnam. Rather than acknowledging their support for a genocidal maniac, many Western nations continued to see Pol Pot as one of Cambodia’s rightful rulers until the 1990s. It seems even murdering half the country wasn’t as bad as being a communist.
The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back (1985)
Pilger has a long interest in Aboriginal affairs – in 1969 he travelled with Charlie Perkins to Jay Creek in Central Australia. The Secret Country was his first documentary looking at the history of Aboriginal Australians after white settlement, with a focus on the previously largely ignored or suppressed history of conflict between settlers and Indigenous people. He’s since revisited the topic numerous times, most recently in his 2013 film, Utopia. It’s safe to say that despite his efforts at bringing these issues to the fore, he hasn’t detected much real change in 40-plus years.
Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy (1991)
While the massacres in East Timor were hardly a secret, what was kept under wraps – again, until Pilger’s investigation – was the extent of the involvement by the USA, UK and Australian governments. Not wanting to upset the Indonesians with lucrative contracts on the line, according to Pilger, the West turned a blind eye to the Indonesians murderous actions. Then, once the damage was done, they made various public protests that really meant nothing. Under the pressure generated from this exposure in the West, the Indonesians withdrew from East Timor… a full decade later.
Stealing a Nation (2004)
A look at the undercover effort by the UK and USA to remove the native population of the island of Diego Garcia and the Chagos archipelago (a British possession) so that it could become a US military base, this details the forced removal of over 2000 Chagossians to Mauritius. While there was some minor compensation from the UK government, they’re now largely living in extreme poverty while their homeland is taken up almost entirely by a massive US military staging post. Despite this negative publicity, in 2010, leaked diplomatic cables revealed a UK plan to turn the islands into a nature reserve to prevent the Chagossians from resettling there. In 2016, the UK announced they simply wouldn’t allow them to return.
The War on Democracy (2007)
Here, Pilger shifted his focus to America’s backyard, looking at the numerous ways the United States has meddled with and manipulated the governments of Central and South America. Critics have been distracted by Pilger’s admittedly soft handling of Venezuela’s then-president, Hugo Chavez – a man whose image as an anti-American hero in the region was already starting to crumble and who since his death has been seen as something close to a dictator that economically ruined his nation. Because of that, this documentary’s real point in highlighting America’s criminal activities down south has largely been overlooked.
The War You Don’t See (2010)
Pilger turned his attention to the media, pointing out that at a time when the West’s own governments and military are involved in near-endless conflict, racking up hundreds, if not thousands of civilian casualties, our media is doing its level best to downplay this on-going horror. Blinded by the glamour of military operations and a disinterest in any real context, the media feeds the public – who would be appalled by the crimes committed in their name – exactly what the government wants them to know, which is very little indeed. Pilger’s warning was once again on the money and once again nothing was done about it. Does anyone reading this really think media coverage has become smarter and more insightful since then?
The Coming War on China is streaming now on SBS On Demand: