Between the lines

John Pilger   | Photo Credit: 01dmcJohnPilger

The theatre of war and violence, over the years, across the world. In it are many players: As always, the power wielders; the silent sufferers; and the words, both written and spoken, popularised by mainstream media. Emmy and Bafta award-winning journalist John Pilger's films chase this reality with a difference.

Be it Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine, Iraq, East Timor or Afghanistan, Pilger has tried to reach the truth buried under the popular truth and reveal it for all to see and ponder over. As if following almost the same script, each conflict typically ends up crushing the voice of ordinary people.

Pilger's crisp narratives on camera try and drop light on such voiceless people, the scars left by the turmoil. He came to limelight due to his powerful reportage of the Vietnam War as a correspondent for The Daily Mirror, becoming U.K.'s youngest to claim the coveted Journalist of the Year award.

He produced a powerful film, his first, Vietnam: A Quiet Mutiny in 1971. Years later, in 1995, he returned to Vietnam to bridge then and now, producing yet another film. His film on Iraq, Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq, like all his productions, hits hard, juxtaposing visuals of children wounded and killed by American bombs while the then heads of participating nations like George W Bush and Tony Blair were telling the world, “The attack is not against Iraqi people”. Pilger's films on his home country Australia receive the same treatment, bringing to light its ‘forgotten past', its indigenous people.

The Sophie Prize winner's latest film, War That We Don't See, premiered in both cinema and television in London last year. The film links the role of the media in World War I and the bombing of Hiroshima with the situations in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, investigating the how and why of it. It was screened in New Delhi's India International Islamic Centre recently as part of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies' C. R. Parekh Public Lecture.

In an e-mail interview, Pilger throws light on his work. Edited excerpts:

Many western journalists reported the Vietnam War but you went back to catch up with it and made a film on it. What pulled you back to the story?

The Vietnam War was one of the epic events of the 20th Century. Vietnam had seen off invaders: from the Chinese to the French and the British and finally the Americans. That makes Vietnam quite special. Personally speaking, I always liked the Vietnamese; I appreciated their sense of history and irony. A courage was evident too. Above all, they refused to be history's victims, though many suffered. As a journalist, I felt the importance of telling Vietnam's story as a counter to the dominant propaganda in the West of false victimhood and cultural superiority. When you have lived through and reported historical events, you have the responsibility, I believe, of trying to preserve that which you know to be truth.

Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Palestine, have seen and reported so many moves made by the powerful on the powerless. What impact do these experiences have on you as a person?

The experience has made me respectful of ordinary people and their collective and individual courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

It has also taught me about rapacious power and the often benign facades behind which it exists; in other words, it has made me alert to the lies of governments, no matter their claims to democracy.

I have learned to report from ‘the ground up', rarely from ‘the top down': to believe ordinary people and be ever sceptical of authority in all its forms.

How do you go about choosing your subjects, their treatment and layout? Tell us about your film on Afghanistan…

I made a film about Afghanistan in 2003. It is titled Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror. I filmed interviews with ordinary Afghan people including a woman called Orifa who lost eight members of her family when a U.S. plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on her mud, straw and stone home. The film made the point that her story was emblematic of the terror that seldom speaks its name, for it is ‘our' terror.

These days, I choose the subjects of my films from an archive in my memory. I made five films in Cambodia, because I wanted to find out what had happened to the society I witnessed in the wake of Pol Pot in 1979. I have made five films on Australia, my homeland, because I believe documentary ought to tell the story of those obscured by national myths and stereotypes — the kind I grew up with. So I try and maintain a narrative in all my films.

Any censorship you have faced?

I have had my battles with television regulators in the U.K, but I have also had many supporters within the industry who have helped get my films on air. I learned very early on to be aware of censorship that is seldom recognised — such as censorship by omission and self-censorship. Many journalists unwittingly or even subliminally self-censor because they want to please their employers and adhere to the ‘rules of the club'; they fear being cast as outsiders and troublemakers; I know that feeling.

Are you planning any film currently?

Yes, I am developing a new film set in Australia called Utopia. It is about great wealth and power and the rights of the oldest people on earth.

(One can watch John Pilger's films on

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 10:45:24 AM |

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