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Why the documentary must not be allowed to die

By John Pilger - posted Friday, 22 December 2017


I first understood the power of the documentary during the editing of my first film, The Quiet Mutiny.

In the commentary, I make reference to a chicken, which my crew and I encountered while on patrol with American soldiers in Vietnam.

"It must be a Vietcong chicken – a communist chicken," said the sergeant. He wrote in his report: "enemy sighted".

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The chicken moment seemed to underline the farce of the war – so I included it in the film.

That may have been unwise.

The regulator of commercial television in Britain – then the Independent Television Authority or ITA – had demanded to see my script.

What was my source for the political affiliation of the chicken? I was asked. Was it really a communist chicken, or could it have been a pro-American chicken?

Of course, this nonsense had a serious purpose; when The Quiet Mutiny was broadcast by ITV in 1970, the US ambassador to Britain, Walter Annenberg, a personal friend of President Richard Nixon, complained to the ITA.

He complained not about the chicken but about the whole film. "I intend to inform the White House," the ambassador wrote. Gosh.

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The Quiet Mutiny had revealed that the US army in Vietnam was tearing itself apart. There was open rebellion: drafted men were refusing orders and shooting their officers in the back or "fragging" them with grenades as they slept.

None of this had been news. What it meant was that the war was lost; and the messenger was not appreciated.

The Director-General of the ITA was Sir Robert Fraser. He summoned Denis Foreman, then Director of Programmes at Granada TV, and went into a state of apoplexy. Spraying expletives, Sir Robert described me as a "dangerous subversive".

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This is an edited version of an address John Pilger gave at the British Library on 9 December as part of a retrospective festival, 'The Power of the Documentary',held to mark the Library's acquisition of Pilger's written archive.



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About the Author

Australian-born John Pilger is a multi-award winning journalist and documentary film maker. On November 4, 2014, John Pilger received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s international human rights award. A Secret Country, his best-selling history of Australia published 20 years ago, remains in print (Vintage Books).

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