Filmmaker John Pilger is a very important Australian institution. The National Film and Sound Archive once again proved it is the same last week, when it hosted Pilger in Canberra for a screening of his latest film Utopia (2013).
Pilger, an incendiary expat, has been making films about the wrongs of this country, and many others, for around 35 years. I haven’t seen enough of them to say Utopia is the best or most important. But it is one of the best and definitely most important Australian films I have seen for quite some time. Australia has long been a deeply racist country and indeed nothing has changed. This racism manifests itself in many different ways. The horrific deaths in custody and police brutality (normalised and made easier by their new favourite toy the taser). The continued celebration of Australia Day on the offensive date of 26 January, when the British invaded this country (not to mention the widespread incomprehension of why this date is offensive). Also on a much more localised, personal level, the sharing of racist jokes and the like is still far too commonplace, again something only getting worse with the proliferation of social media.
The film opens with one of the all-time great fatcat scumbags of this country Lang Hancock waxing lyrical on what he terms “the Aborigine problem”. His solution is extermination, except for those who have assimilated and taken on ‘white’ values. Yes this is historic footage, but unfortunately the views that Hancock espouses are not too far removed from the views of many today. Before getting into his focus on the plight of Indigenous Australians in remote areas today, Pilger does a good job of sketching out the historical precursors. In particular the continual systematic reduction of Indigenous Australians to sub-human status and the forgotten history of extermination in our past, continued and exacerbated by the continual lack of acknowledgement of the Frontier Wars which were a feature of early European settlement. These wars claimed more indigenous lives in Australia than Native American ones were lost in North America, but which still have no place in our National War Memorial. The title of the film comes from a settlement named (ironically?) Utopia, which is statistically the least advantaged place in all of Australia. Pilger brings us images from Utopia and similar places that are repeated all over central and northern Australia. Remote communities that are neglected by authorities to the point that they are now pockets of third-world poverty in this very first-world country. These regions represent the spiritual and physical home of so many of Australia’s Indigenous population which is why it is imperative that those who wish to, should always be able to live there. Authorities must do more to ensure that this can take place in something other than squalor. Squalor that doctors in the film compare to 19th Century Dickensian England. Squalor that results in one-third of Indigenous Australians dying before the age of 45. Squalor that results in epidemic levels of trachoma, a disease which is entirely preventable and has been eradicated in every single other developed country in the world and of course amongst white Australians. What is termed “the punishing of the Indigenous different” in the film is not restricted to living conditions in remote areas. With around 3% indigenous population, the rate of indigenous incarceration in the country is startling. So much so that Western Australia has just built an Indigenous only prison. So much so that in some parts of the country, Indigenous incarceration rates are up to eight times greater than what they were in apartheid South Africa. As in America today, there are two sets of laws and law enforcement in our country.
Utopia also examines ‘The Intervention’ which was unleashed in 2007 by the conservative Howard government. This involved the use of our military to seize control of remote communities and their rights. It also involved the extraordinary step of Australia temporarily suspending the Racial Discrimination Act. There is only one reason that you suspend a Racial Discrimination Act and that is in order to do something racist. Howard and his cronies (chiefly Mal Brough) justified this by painting horror stories of child sexual abuse in these remote communities. The only problem is that these were based on a lie. A former worked in these remote communities appeared on the ABC Lateline program spinning these tales. As a matter of fact, he was no former worker in the community (he had never spent a night in the community he was apparently an expert in), but rather a worker in Brough’s Department. On another note, the silhouette that his shaded features on Lateline project is the spitting image of Freddy Krueger’s silhouette. Unfortunately apt.
One of the devices Pilger uses in the film is to compare the footage he shot of same of the same communities that he shot 28 years ago with that he shot in 2012. The contrast is startling, mainly because there is actually very little difference at all. The interviews that Pilger undertook with many of the politicians that oversaw much of this total lack of change, including Brough, Warwick Snowden and Kevin Rudd, are equally startling. Each of them bumbles through, in fear of Pilger’s questions. Not because of the interviewer’s aggression (though his questions are rightfully forceful) but because of the knowledge they all have that they did a great disservice to the country in their treatment of these issues, and their unwillingness to be brave enough to let that show.
Pilger’s focus in Utopia is to not to exhaustively detail the solutions that should be brought about by those in power in this country. As he so rightly pointed out during the Q & A, the solutions have been well known for decades, there is just a refusal to actively engage with the problem. The reasoning behind this is twofold. Firstly, with a racist electorate to placate, there is little political traction to be gained by investing time and resources into actually fixing the issues. Secondly, there is a focus on creating the utterly false perception that Australia is a poor country. We are a very rich country. Any country that can afford to sign a contract for $1.2 billion to jail and oppress people legally seeking asylum (as our Government did this past week) is in no way poor. Imagine the great work that could be done on the issues that Pilger presents for $1.2 billion (or for that matter, the work that could be done re-settling those fleeing oppression in their homelands in Australia).
I initially began this closing paragraph by stating Utopia was a film that all Australians must see. But I think it is important to say that this is a film that I would encourage every single one of you to see, no matter where you live. Australia is my country, but it is one with a shameful past and an equally shameful future. I hope that you can all manage to see this film to learn a little more about that.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Canberra folk, Utopia screens one more time at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archives on 16 March and also opened at Palace Electric Cinemas in New Acton today.