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Following last week’s controversial documentary on Mother Teresa, tonight Channel 4 are proud to present The Queen Mother: She’s a Witch. See her collecting ingredients for her steaming cauldron, see her casting an evil spell, and see her taking a goat away for sacrifice. Next week Channel 4 is proud to present Lassie was a Nazi. Spitting Image s17e1, ITV 1993
The film was shown 11 times … Royal Family … the most watched documentary ever seen by three-quarters of Britain … The palace ordered the film be locked away. Paxman on the Queen’s Children, Channel 5 2019
The documentary as a television ‘event’ can send ripples far and wide … Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia’s liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia’s suffering was a wilful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot’s demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children’s milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime. Little of this was reported. Had Year Zero simply described the monster that Pol Pot was, it would have been quickly forgotten. By reporting the collusion of ‘our’ governments, it told a wider truth about how the world was run … Within two days of Year Zero going to air, 40 sacks of post arrived at ATV … in Birmingham – 26,000 first-class letters in the first post alone. The station quickly amassed £1m, almost all of it in small amounts. ‘This is for Cambodia,’ wrote a Bristol bus driver, enclosing his week’s wage. Entire pensions were sent, along with entire savings. Petitions arrived at Downing Street, one after the other, for weeks. MPs received hundreds of thousands of letters, demanding that British policy change (which it did, eventually). And none of it was asked for. For me, the public response to Year Zero gave the lie to clichés about ‘compassion fatigue’, an excuse that some broadcasters and television executives use to justify the current descent into the cynicism and passivity of Big Brotherland. Above all, I learned that a documentary could reclaim shared historical and political memories, and present their hidden truths. The reward then was a compassionate and an informed public; and it still is. (Documentary & Cambodia) John Pilger, article New Statesman 11th September 2006, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’
Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody – even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying – in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics. Leni Riefenstahl
In the US the ’50s and ’60s marked the documentary’s golden age, especially at CBS, where pioneering television journalist Edward R Murrow, immortalised in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck produced such landmark investigations as the CBS Reports programme Hunger in America. Naomi Wolf
99,034. The political documentary, that most powerful and subversive medium, is said to be enjoying a renaissance on both sides of the Atlantic. This may be true in the cinema but what of television, the source of most of our information? Like the work of many other documentary film-makers, my own films have been shown all over the world, but never on network television in the United States. That suppression of alternative viewpoints may help us understand why millions of Americans display such a chronic ignorance of other human beings.
It was not always like this. In the 1930s, the Workers’ Film and Photo League, based in New York, produced a dazzling series of ‘neighbourhood documentaries’ that presented the world in decidedly non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical terms, including the United States, where epic documentaries such as The Scottsboro Boys and The National Hunger March accurately recorded America’s ‘lost period’ – the incipient revolution of working people suffering the Depression and their brutal repression by the police and army. Shown in trade union halls and workers’ clubs, and at open-air meetings, these films were very popular. Thanks to George Clooney’s recent, superb movie Good Night and Good Luck, we know of Edward R Murrow’s See It Now, which in the 1950s gave millions an unsentimental and truthful view of their nation, stirring and angering and empowering rather than pacifying, which is the rule today.
I learned my own lessons about the power of documentaries and their censorship when in 1980 took two of my films, Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia and Cambodia Year One, to the United States in the naive belief that the networks would want to air these disclosures of Pol Pot’s rule and its aftermath. All those I met were eager to buy clips that showed how monstrous the Khmer Rouge were, but none wanted the equally shocking evidence of how three US administrations had colluded in Cambodia’s tragedy; Ronald Reagan was then secretly backing Pol Pot in exile. Having bombed to death hundreds of thousands of Cambodian peasants between 1969 and 1973 – the catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, according to the CIA – Washington was now imposing an economic blockade on the most stricken country on earth, as revenge for its liberation by the hated Vietnam. This siege lasted almost a decade and ensured that Cambodia never fully recovered. Almost none of this was broadcast as news or documentaries.
With the two films under my arm, my last stop in Washington was PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, which has a liberal reputation, rather like the BBC. During a viewing with a senior executive, I discerned a sharp intake of breath. ‘Great films, John,’ he said, ‘but …’ He proposed that PBS hire an ‘adjudicator’ who would ‘assess the real public worth of your films’. Richard Dudman, a Washington journalist with the rare distinction of having been welcomed to Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, was assigned the task. In his previous Cambodia dispatches, Dudman had found people ‘reasonably relaxed’ and urged his readers to look ‘on the bright side’ as Pol Pot had started ‘one of the world’s great housing programs’. Not surprisingly, the author of this apologia turned his thumb down on my films. Later, the PBS executive phoned me ‘off the record’. ‘Your films would have given us problems with the Reagan administration,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
I offer this charade as a vivid example of the fear and loathing of the independent documentary’s power to circumvent those who guard official truth. Although its historical roots are often traced back to the work of Robert Flaherty, the American director who made Nanook of the North in 1922, and John Grierson, the British documentarist whose first film was premiered at a London double bill with Battleship Potemkin in 1929, in Britain the modern documentary’s political power is often measured against a specious neutrality invented by John Reith, founder of the BBC, while he was writing and broadcasting anti-trade union propaganda during the 1922 General Strike. The stamina and influence of this pervasive BBC myth are reflected in the rarity of truly independent political documentaries.
Some remarkable films are made, however, testaments to a faith in the documentary form that never fails to inspire. One comes readily to mind: A Letter to the Prime Minister: Jo Wilding’s Diary from Iraq. Jo Wilding, a young trainee lawyer and human rights worker in Iraq, produced some of the finest frontline reporting of the war online from Fallujah, then under siege by the US Marines. Living with families and without a flak jacket, she all but shamed the embedded army of reporters in her description of the atrocious American attack on an Iraqi city. Her documentary, directed by Julia Guest, presents the evidence of a crime and asks Tony Blair to take his share of the responsibility: a basic question now asked by millions of Britons. The film was offered to television, and rejected. It has been shown at festivals around the world, but ‘painfully little’ in Britain, says Guest, apart from single screenings at the Barbican and a forthcoming screening on October 15 at the Curzon Soho in London.
One problem facing political documentaries in Britain is that they run the risk of being immersed in the insidious censorship of ‘current affairs’, a loose masonry uniting politicians and famous journalists who define ‘politics’ as the machinations of Westminster, thereby fixing the limits of ‘political debate’. No more striking example currently presents itself than the relentless media afforded the infantile scrapping of the political twins, Blair and Gordon Brown, and their tedious acolytes, drowning out the cries of the people of Iraq and Gaza and Lebanon – countries where the BBC has effected its false equilibrium and waffled about ‘two narratives’ as if truth and justice are taboo concepts. Similarly, the fifth anniversary of September 11 proved a lost opportunity to rest the reverential and the ghoulish and describe how George W Bush and his gang used the tragedy to violently renew their version of empire and world domination.
Like the best of commercial television, cinema does offer hope for the political documentary, although film-makers who believe they can follow the success of Michael Moore beware. Moore’s work is very popular, and makes money: the two vital ingredients for distributors and exhibitors. To get into cinemas, documentaries need to have at least a hope of repeating something of Moore’s success. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that outstanding serious documentaries, if promoted imaginatively, can attract huge pubic interest.
(When Death of a Nation, the film I made with David Munro about East Timor, was shown on ITV late at night, it was followed by 5,000 phone calls a minute from the public).
When this has happened on television, the reward has been not so much ratings as a ‘qualitative’ audience: that is, people who engage with the work.