looking back over pilger's australia

hamish ford assesses the films and their impact

JOHN PILGER IS A PARTICULARLY DISSONANT FIGURE IN PRESENT DAY AUSTRALIA. THE DVD RELEASE OF HIS DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT THIS COUNTRY CREATES AN OPPORTUNITY TO LOOK AFRESH AT THIS CONTROVERSIAL EXPAT JOURNALIST AND FILMMAKER.

Based in London, though returning to Sydney regularly, Pilger provokes criticism not only from the right but also some on the liberal left for his work’s morally loaded political rhetoric and selective use of factual information. This has gradually resulted in his disappearance from the Australian media, a situation in stark contrast to the prominence of his work in the UK.

This discrepancy, Pilger argued in a 2004 lecture at the University of Western Australia, is revealing. “Of all the western democracies,” he argued, “Australia is the most derivative and the most silent. Those who hold up a mirror are not welcome in the media. My work is syndicated and read widely around the world, but not in Australia, where I come from.” When he is mentioned here, it is via conservative columnists’ attacks on his UK Guardian or New Statesman articles. It might, then, come as a surprise that this locally marginalised figure is probably our most internationally celebrated journalist, winning at least 20 major international awards including two BAFTAs, an Emmy and the UN Media Peace Price (twice). Yet here he is mainly treated as a dangerous extremist. (After a rare local interview on Lateline two years ago, Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald lambasted the ABC for even allowing Pilger a public hearing; the critique Pilger was making of the US presence in Iraq now seems rather less radical.)

The particularly effective conservative belittling of his work in Australia notwithstanding, philosophically at least Pilger is in fact a ‘conservative.’ He is the quintessential old-school crusading journalist, confidently claiming to report the ‘truth’ denied by the mainstream political discourse of the day—however, one committed to working within what is now perjoratively called the ‘tabloid’ press. This determination to work at the very heart of the accessible, non-elitist (and commercial) media is, I believe, a key reason for his being misunderstood by skeptical consumers of the ‘quality’ broadsheet press: “I believe in popular journalism”, he has said. Likewise, most of his films have emerged through involvement with ITV in the UK, a commercial broadcaster which has supported Pilger since his first film in 1970. Interestingly, he says the sustained attacks on his work really got going with the films, perhaps in response to their garnering consistently large TV audiences in Britain.

The 3-DVD selection of Pilger’s films about Australia is not without its problems: there is a lot of repeated material, phrases and footage throughout, and his delivery can sound pompous. Yet the films contain details, interviews, archival images and provocative analyses that make up a sustained critique of Australia’s historical and political heritage in a sometimes incendiary counter-narrative of nation. Made just prior to the Sydney Olympics, the film Welcome to Australia tells a very different tale from the nationalist PR blitz that happily co-opted Indigenous dance, art and Cathy Freeman while effectively hiding the real conditions of Aboriginal Australia.

Yet while decrying successive governments’ denial and recalcitrance in this area, Pilger also offers a hopeful note of progress when it comes to activism and community-generated moves towards change and reconciliation. However, like Michael Riley’s early photography (p20), this cautious hopefulness today comes across as elegiac indeed. Five years into the ‘War on Terror’, at no point in my 36-years have the issues relating to reconciliation and Aboriginal human rights been less substantively discussed. The Iraq War, asylum seekers, terrorism for conservatives and progressives alike, these are the zeitgeist issues of debate. Pilger ends by arguing that no genuine, meaningful Australian nationhood can be claimed until that of the ‘original Australians’ is fully recognised and accounted for.

One of the most powerful ideas argued in the films is that Australia has, with momentary exceptions (notably that of late 1940s and early 70s Labor Governments), never really been a sovereign nation. Other People’s Wars addresses the way in which we happily send our young off to fight for (British, then US) empire; and while the World Wars are recalled all over the country by ‘Lest We Forget’ plaques, we continue to deny the war at the dawn of our own history—let alone tending to reparations. (How many residents or tourists enjoying Sculpture by the Sea know Bondi Beach was used for Indigenous weapons manufacture for many years in the fight against the British invaders, as Pilger recounts?) He argues that the largely unknown Aboriginal battles for land (after the initial offer to share it with the whites was rejected) surely exemplifies qualities supposed to characterise Australian values—typically used to describe white ‘Diggers’—of the underdog, fighting against all odds, freedom from tyrannical rule and invasion. Yet, Pilger soberly points out, not one plaque is to be found heralding such bravery and heroism.

Of course his work isn’t beyond criticism. The tone of the films at times seems patronising; the apparently straight claims of offering the truth do sometimes rankle. And formally, his filmmaking—virtually unchanged throughout the years—is stilted and conservative. Yet too often engagement with Pilger’s work stops at these distracting elements. Filmmaking and methodological artistry aside, these films boldly articulate the shameful big picture elements of Australian nationhood, giving no quarter to the government line under cover of ambiguity or ‘balance.’ The cumulative impact is both rare and startling in its provocation.

Pilger’s work has always been controversial, perennially ‘untimely’ in a Nietzschean sense. Yet renewed global condemnation of US foreign policy in the wake of Bush’s adventurism, and the first-world’s historical and ongoing behaviour towards non-Western nations more generally, should make his analysis increasingly difficult to marginalise. Nevertheless, in present-day Australia the (new) political correctness seeping through our media institutions over ten years has meant Pilger’s work is commonly seen as morally repugnant. That his tone is sometimes sanctimonious in its own moral and historical surety (all the more startling today in being so at odds with the equal ‘certainty’ of right-wing polemicists) shouldn’t distract us from the real power of these films. They act as untimely meditations upon our problematic nation—the sting of which has never been more needed.

Documentaries That Changed The World: John Pilger's Australia, 3 DVDs, 240mins, distributed by DV1, www.dv1.com.au

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 19

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006