"The issues raised in this film are vitally important: it is a history of the involvement of journalism and the mainstream media in not merely reporting on, but collaborating with, the making of wars," John Pilger, radical filmmaker, journalist and author, told the audience at a showing of his 2010 film The War You Don't See.
The film was part of the Power of the Documentary: Breaking the Silence film festival, curated by Pilger and showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney between November 28 and December 9.
The War You Don't See starts by exposing the official reporting on World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. It continues to emphasise, in Pilger’s words, the "role of journalism in promoting current wars, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are all not so much wars as invasions. Journalists in the mainstream media tend to play the role of 'stenographers' for the war makers."
Pilger noted the role of a number of "honourable exceptions" to this trend. One was Australian war correspondent Wilfred Burchett, who went against the system of "embedding" journalists inside the war machine, and travelled independently to Hiroshima after its atomic bombing by the US in August 1945.
"Burchett blew open the whole issue of nuclear weapons and the catastrophic effects of radiation," Pilger said. For this, he was hounded and persecuted by US, Australian and other Western governments during the Cold War.
A key contemporary case is that of another Australian, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is now effectively "imprisoned" in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, facing possible espionage and other serious charges in the US.
"WikiLeaks produced more authentic journalism than most of the Western media combined," Pilger told the audience.
"People in the West imagine we have free speech: we don't, outside a limited area. The Australian press is among the most restricted in the world.
"But good journalists have independent minds. They don't merely follow the government line," he said.
The War You Don't See uses extensive interviews with journalists and official spokespeople, especially focusing on their complicity in beating the "war drums" of lies leading up to the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pilger himself should be added as an “honourable exception” to the "embedded journalist" role. His career has been a continual series of challenges to the "official line" on conflicts, beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing with the Pot Pot regime in Cambodia, Indonesia's atrocities in East Timor, the recent US imperialist wars and even possible future wars with China and elsewhere.
But, the Power of the Documentary is not confined to Pilger's own hard-hitting films. It includes a number of the most important documentary films of the past several decades.
On December 1, World AIDS Day, the festival showed Fire in the Blood, directed by Dylan Mohan Gray. More than 10 million people in the Third World have died from the disease because they have been denied proper medical treatment — now widely available in the rich Western countries.
Fire in the Blood is the epic story of the resistance of health campaigners on four continents, who took on the world's pharmaceutical giants in an attempt to make anti-retrovirals available as generic drugs to those with HIV and AIDS. Pitted against them are the drug companies and a small army of lobbyists, whose sole aim is ensuring that patent laws protecting capitalist monopolies remain unchanged, all with the complicity of politicians.
On its release in India, this David and Goliath story enjoyed the longest theatrical run for a documentary in the country's cinema history. It is credited with a significant contribution to an epic struggle that saved countless lives.
The War You Don't See and Fire in the Blood are just two of the path-breaking movies being shown at the Power of the Documentary festival at the MCA and at Parramatta's Riverside Theatres. For the remaining program, continuing till December 9, and to purchase tickets, visit the website.