Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The following is a brief interview we conducted with Brian Winston and Martin Duckworth. Brian Winston is an expert on documentary and film ethics and is also the author of Claiming the Real and Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. Martin Duckworth is a socially conscious documentary filmmaker, known for directing films such as Une histoire de femmes and A Brush with Life.

-What role do certain Hollywood films play in war propaganda?

BW: I think you need to use the distinction Ellul draws between passive and active propaganda in his class book 'Propaganda'. The business of the cinema, as with all mass media, is to work to maintain morale during war time. This can be done actively by demonising the enemy, encouraging people to fight, buy war bonds, save water, whatenver. Or it can be done by giving them escapism. One way or another, all commercial films do this simply because they are released during a war.

MD: I go by the definition of the Webster dictionary: that propaganda is "an effort to give credence to information partly or wholly fallacious". In other words, it is a form of manipulation which is based on a degrading and limited view of human nature. It is usually used to spread fear as a way of building political or economic power.

-Is a film that glorifies war necessarily propaganda?

BW: No -- In the sense that if you believe in such a thing as a just war (for example, World War II against Hitler) then it follows that films glorifying the struggle or demonising the evil enemy are legitimate.

MD: All wars are litanies of horror, and any film that glorifies one is a film of propaganda. Whatever wars are fought with popular support are an indication that propaganda has won, and that art is in peril.

-Do you think it's important for the audience to know if the Pentagon had any say in the film script in exchange for them providing military equipment or expertise?

BW: In one sense yes, but in another no becasue I would want audiences to always assume that the Pentagon had a hand in any film which used military equipment.

-How is subtle propaganda in feature films different from more overt propaganda in 'propaganda films' like the 'Why we fight' series? Which kind is more dangerous or effective?

BW: I believe that in a bourgeois democracy which is used to media 'freedom', there can be no question as to the superiority, in terms of effectiveness, of subtle (i.e. passive) propaganda, but there is suprisingly little actual study of such things.

-Do you think today's audiences are becoming more or less able
to identify propaganda in the media they consume?

BW: Not sure that they are -- but they do have a quickly reducing tolerance for state violence even when it is committed by their own side.

-Is there such a thing as good propaganda?

BW: Yes, the films of Humphrey Jennings made during World War II in the UK.

MD: My view is that there is no such thing as good propaganda. It is the enemy of art, whose function is to open up new frontiers of awareness and imagination. It thrives on war, the ultimate degradation of the human spirit.