u t o p i a
15th November 2013
29th October 2013
I don’t always agree with John Pilger. His support of Julian Assange rankles when the man sits avoiding charges in an embassy in London, having pretty much brought down his own empire by making it all about him for example. And parts of his otherwise impressive documentary The War on Democracy did not sit well with me. But as a persistent documentary maker who has a firm grasp on what is relevant, he can’t be faulted.
His latest movie, Utopia, causes me no such qualms and is one of the most necessary documentaries I have seen in some time. Pilger returns to his native Australia to unearth the horrendous inequalities within society and the horrifying racism that still persists today. This isn’t the first time that Pilger has been home to film these issues. The Secret Country was filmed in 1985 and that date is important to note given the issues that are brought up in this movie.
Pilger takes the titular town of Utopia as a jumping off point to review Australian policy to its indigenous people. He notes grimly at that start of the movie that the people who named Utopia must have had a particularly cruel sense of irony. The town is a ghetto and life expectancy in the area and amongst the indigenous population is barely 40. Forty. That’s not a typo. Pilger dips back in time to review the original settlers and early governments’ policies towards the locals, a group of people that were not recognised on any census until the 1970’s, but that isn’t the main focus of his documentary. Having been there in 1985 to review the state of things, Pilger is keen to catch up with what has improved since then. He is understandably disappointed with what greets him.
Checking out an exclusive development on the coast, it’s easy to see the stark contrast that’s been drawn between one of the healthiest economies in the world, and the bush economy that the indigenous people are forced to be a part of. Pilger is a genial interviewer but he doesn’t pull any punches and he has managed to present a decent cross section of interviewees for the movie. Aboriginal people, reformist whites and uncomfortable politicians all get their say. Interviews with Kevin Rudd and Mal Brough are particularly revealing as both attempt to justify different parts of the issue. Rudd, having finally apologised to the Aboriginal people in 2008, attempts to defend the fact that even since then there has been no noticeable change in the lot of the locals. Brough, attempts to defend his and John Howard’s 2007 raids on various Aboriginal villages under the guise of rooting out ‘systematic paedophilia’ amongst the communities. No proof was ever found or presented to back these claims and the subsequent economic profiling of the communities and demands for leases to be handed over is difficult to justify. Unless you happen to have an interest in mineral rights.
Pilger’s central question is simple and terrifying. Is Australia running a version of South Africa’s apartheid system? It’s an easy question to dismiss, how could that still exist today? But as he scratches below the surface, you start to look at the question in a different light. If you doubt me, ask yourself this, when was the last time you considered Australia to be close to electing an Aboriginal president? You never have, it wouldn’t even occur. It never occurred to me either, but walking out of this screening, it was screaming in my ears. I also came to a more disturbing question. Was White South Africa’s mistake with apartheid that it was too honest about it? If it had been less obvious, fewer signs, maybe it would still be getting away with it.
Utopia made me angry and left me with a huge feeling of dismay. How can so many countries have come so far with historical issues like this but one of the most advanced countries in the world still not be dealing with it on this scale? Watching the body language of the politicians interviewed in this movie it is stark staringly obvious that they were hugely uncomfortable with the utterly reasonable questions presented by Pilger. They should be. There is no excuse for a country as rich as Australia to still be dragging its feet on these issues. Pilger’s movie asks difficult questions and comes back with wholly unsatisfactory answers from Australian governments past and present. This is an important film about a sadly neglected subject and it is remarkably balanced given the subject matter. People on both sides get their say and though it is obvious which side of the issue Pilger is on, it’s almost impossible to see how anyone could possibly be on the other side. Unless they happen to have an interest in mineral rights.
Utopia will make you look differently at a wonderful country that should be a lot more diverse and accepting than it is. It will also make you wonder how successive governments have got away with it for so long. Australia still has no treaties with the Aboriginal Nations, despite countries like Canada and USA having treaties since the 1700’s. Pilger will no doubt return to the subject, I hope things will have changed when he next visits but history would seem to suggest otherwise.
Check out the trailer here.