In the 1960s, when I first went to Latin America, I travelled up the cone of the continent from Chile across the Altiplano to Peru, mostly in rickety buses and single-carriage trains. It was an experience my memory stored for life, especially the spectacle of the movement of people. They moved through the dust of a snow-capped wilderness, along roads that were ribbons of red mud, and they lived in shanties that defied gravity. “We are invisible,” said one man; another used the term abandonados; an indigenous woman in Bolivia unforgettably described her poverty as a commodity for the rich.
When I later saw Sebastiao Salgado’s photographs of Latin America’s working people, I recognised the people at the roadside, the gold miners and the coffee workers and the silhouettes framed in crosses in the cemeteries. Perhaps the idea for a cinema film began then, or when I reported Ronald Reagan’s murderous assault on Central America; or when I first read the words of Victor Jara’s ballads and heard Sam Cooke’s anthem A Change Is Gonna Come.
The War On Democracy is my first film for cinema. It follows more than 55 documentary films for television, which began with The Quiet Mutiny, set in Vietnam. Most of my films have told stories of people’s struggles against rapacious power and of attempts to subvert and control our historical memory. It is this control, this organised forgetting, that has always intrigued me both as a film-maker and a journalist. Described by Harold Pinter as a great silence unbroken by the incessant din of the media age, it assures the powerful in the west that the struggle of whole societies against their crimes is merely “superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged … It never happened. Even while it was happening it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest”.
This was true of Nicaragua in the early 1980s, when a popular revolution began to turn back poverty and bring literacy and hope to a country long dismissed as a banana republic. In the United States, the Sandinista government was successfully portrayed as communist and a threat, and crushed. After all, Richard Nixon had said of all of Latin America: “No one gives a shit about the place.” The War On Democracy is meant as an antidote to this.