Last night, I was fortunate enough to be able to make it along to the Australian premier screening of John Pilger’s new documentary, Utopia, at The Block in Redfern (see the trailer for the film here). It was an emotional experience—some parts are very difficult to watch—with deep sadness, shame and guilt (as a white Australian), anger and even rage being stirred up, but there was also an almost tangible sense of hope that flooded the open-air event.
Utopia is in some ways a kind of follow-up film to Pilger’s The Secret Country (1985), though The Secret Country focuses more on the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact in Australia while Utopia focuses more on the present situation. At the beginning of the film, Pilger describes his shock in finding out that Indigenous Australians are still facing many of the same issues as they did when he filmed The Secret Country, and how (non-Indigenous) Australia still hasn’t adequately acknowledged it’s shameful history and grappled with the (ongoing) injustice of how Indigenous peoples have been—and are being—treated in their own land.
I was quite interested in how the film would unfold, considering the fact that Pilger is not known for his diplomacy. Personally, I very much appreciate Pilger’s work, but I also recognise that he doesn’t do well in acknowledging shades of grey. The best way that I can think of describing Pilger’s manner is that it’s like he suffers from ‘Truth-Telling Tourette Syndrome’, a condition that causes involuntary bursts of truth-telling in a manner that breaks the usual ‘rules’ of social interaction.* Pilger’s interviews in the film with people like Mal Brough, I suspect, will be seen as more or less effective depending on where one situates themselves on the political spectrum.
As the film unfolded, it also became apparent that Pilger was attempting to highlight a broad range of issues. The film covers living conditions and health issues in remote Aboriginal communities, the emptiness of Federal Government promises (no matter which party has been in control), Aboriginal deaths in custody, early movements towards workers rights for Indigenous people, the Intervention in the Northern Territory (in significant detail), the history of Rottnest Island (as a kind of ‘concentration camp’ for Aboriginal men) and it’s total ‘whitewashing’ of that history, the role of the Mining Industry in opposing Indigenous land rights and profiting from doing so, and the deeply saddening and alarmingly high rates of suicide among Aboriginal people in Australia. Each one of these topics, it could be argued, deserves its own full-length documentary (and more!), but Pilger touches on them all in more or less detail in the course of the film. My fear, then, was that the documentary would be ‘a mile wide but an inch deep’, and that by spreading itself too thin it wouldn’t have the same impact as covering a few issues in greater detail.
However, Pilger manages (somehow) to hold it all together, chiefly through the troubling but necessary comparison between the Canberra suburb of Barton (the most socio-economically advantaged location in Australia, named after Australia’s first Prime Minister**), and the central Australian community of Utopia (the least socio-economically advantaged location in Australia). This overarching structure is alluded to enough times throughout the film to allow an overall sense of connectedness. Though Pilger does, admittedly, make a couple of jumps in the documentary (the links between which, I’m sure, make more sense in his head), the issues raised and the stories told to seem to have, for the most part, an inner cohesion due to the people involved and the places visited. In addition to this, the issues that are covered each seem to be treated with enough depth to at least spark the curiosity of the viewer to find out more for themselves, or to be sufficient in dealing with the point that needed to be made without feeling like the only option left is despair. Perhaps the film is a tad too long in order to be able to do this, but it is gripping nonetheless.
I’m honestly not sure how much screen time is devoted to each ‘issue’, but it certainly felt like the point dwelt on in the most depth was ‘the intervention’ in the Northern Territory. Pilger covers, in detail, the ways in which the Government at the time unleashed an extraordinary wave of propaganda in order to justify its actions, and exposes some of the startling facts about the veracity of the information that was released and the complicity of the media (specifically in regards to the ABC’s Lateline reports). By seemingly insinuating that (perhaps most) Aboriginal men in remote communities were predatory pedophiles, community outrage (in non-Indigenous Australia) was sufficient to allow the Government to do, basically, whatever it wanted to do—including suspending the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT which, as is noted in the film, is something that needs to be done if the proposed action is fundamentally racist!
I guess the only thing I’d note here, by way of critique, is that Pilger’s coverage of this issue does, in the emotion of it all, tend to play down the findings in the Little Children Are Sacred report, which was central to the Howard Government’s ‘response’ in the Northern Territory. Though it has been noted many, many times—and correctly in my view, for what it’s worth—that the Howard Government seemed to ignore pretty much every single recommendation in that report, the report itself was significant enough that it shouldn’t be brushed off in the process of heavily critiquing the Howard Government’s policy and actions. It felt, just a little bit, like this nuance was lost in Pilger’s film.
Now, in the interest of making the point as clearly as I can here, I want to reiterate that, from the evidence I’ve seen, the Howard Government’s policy, and the implementation of said policy, was terrible (and it continues through Labor’s ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation). There was a determined effort in the rhetoric to demonise Aboriginal men (like middle-class white communities don’t also, sadly, have similar levels of child abuse!), in general, and the legacy of the (ongoing) implementation of the policy seems largely to be disempowerment. Instead of serious community consultation, there seemed to be even more centralised, external, and powerfully enforced decision-making. Rather than moving towards empowerment and self-determination, it seems, in general, that it’s been a process of shaming, and one only wonders at what other motivation there was in implementing the policy so forcefully (and Pilger hints at at least one possibility here, in the film).
All of that being said, the Little Children Are Sacred report should not be brushed away in the interests of (rightly) noting the critiques of the policy and its implementation outlined above. The point to be made, quite simply, is that addressing these issues means genuine consultation and empowerment of Indigenous communities in decision-making, rather than what has been done.
Returning to the film review, my final concern (though ‘concern’ might be too serious a word) was that Pilger would spend the whole of the documentary outlining the ‘problems’, and that audiences would be left with a sense of despair and disempowerment.
I don’t feel, however, that this was the case.
Though the film certainly doesn’t shy back from throwing a spotlight on some horrible facts, it ends on a positive note of seeking, it seems, to reignite the push for a formal treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and also towards the idea of true justice and self-determination. Pilger himself seems to be somewhat fixated on the idea of raising external pressure on Australia to act on these issues (like the way many nations pressured South Africa in regards to apartheid), but I am not willing to give up just yet on the notion that Australians do have the capacity to truly hear the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and come to the conclusion ourselves. Though one might feel a certain despair in listening to the ‘bogan’ stupidity around ‘Australia Day’, I have an unquenchable optimism in the ability of humans (even bogans!) to change their minds and behaviour once they actually meet, in person, people who are being adversely effected by their ignorance, and to truly hear their stories.
All in all, the film was certainly worth watching, and I encourage all Australians to see it. Unfortunately it won’t be released on DVD or iTunes before ‘Australia Day’, but I think it should become part of a package of ‘essential viewing’ for all Australians (and perhaps an ‘Australia Day’ tradition in years to come). Being part of the screening at The Block was very special indeed. With something like (I’m estimating) 2,000 people in attendance, and with many rousing speeches before the film itself (especially one by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), it is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.
Find an Australian screening of Utopia here, or purchase it on DVD or iTunes from May.
* I honestly do not mean to offend anyone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome by this reference, and have weighed up using the term here. I’m not at all trying to use it in a derogatory kind of way; I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Pilger’s manner. If, however, you are offended by the reference, please let me know and I will remove it (and offer my sincere and unreserved apology).
** Sir Edmund Barton also happens to be one of the architects of Australia’s ‘White Australia Policy’, which officially came about at the time of Federation in 1901.