If there’s a general cultural mode amongst the broad base of the Australian voting public on the subject of this land’s indigenous peoples, it’s one of overwhelming apathy. The horror which forms the daily existence of Aboriginal communities in our sunbaked interior is not part of our national discussion in any particularly meaningful way. Our myriad discourses on the subjects of Aboriginal people and native identity has been hijacked by a caucus of right-wing shock jocks and ideologues who push a narrative of dependency and entitlement, far removed from the actual lived realities of Aboriginal Australians in the 21st century. John Pilger, the crusading anti-imperialist and one of the chief cultural exports of the Australian Left, filmed Utopia as a howl of outrage – a caustic rejection of our country’s treatment of its first people and a conscious effort to stoke the flames of our anger at the systemic forces which enable it. It is deliberately contrarian, pointedly partisan, and utterly essential to an understanding of where we are as a postcolonial nation.
The title of the film derives from a a largely autonomous Aboriginal homeland in the Northern Territory, which Pilger alleges is anything but utopian, instead serving as microcosm for a nationwide Aboriginal community which suffers from horrendous health issues, structural poverty and violent treatment by law enforcement authorities. Through interviews with Aboriginal leaders and healthcare professionals in the region, Pilger paints a dark picture of a world where most will die young after a lifetime of poverty. The camera’s gaze is perpetually condemnatory – look at this, look at this horror – and the film’s audience could be forgiven for being overwhelmed by the implied violence of the whole enterprise. It is not a pleasant viewing experience and there is little to no focus on positive developments in indigenous reconciliation. Is this a problem? I’d argue that it isn’t. There is a serious question as to whether Australia needs another platitudinous reflection on the advancement of Aboriginal people, which ring hollow in the face of monolithic inequality. Nobody else is presenting a directly adversarial viewpoint on the scale Pilger attempts here, a situation which deserves a remedy.
Pilger uses the film as a platform to argue that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people is tantamount to a kind of neo-apartheid, not far removed from the deliberate separatist nationalism of South Africa in the last century. He occupies the frame himself as a kind of interrogator – in the vein of Herzog, almost – who questions authority figures like Kevin Rudd with an aggressive, accusatory style more akin to an inquisition than an interview. The result is a kind of catharsis, a means of forcing authority to take responsibility for the savagery of legislative efforts to intervene in Aboriginal lives. A review of the film by one of its subjects, former Minister for indigenous health Warren Snowdon, alleges that the film lacks objectivity and serves mostly to further Pilger’s personal agenda. There’s a grain of truth to this characterisation, but it becomes meaningless in the face of the film’s purpose. Pilger’s goal is ultimately emotive, not informational. He wants us to understand indigenous Australians not as grim statistics but as a long-suffering collection of individuals crippled by racist policy of the past and present. On this front, he succeeds.
In one particularly impactful scene, Pilger takes several Aboriginal community leaders to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth. Rottnest, which once served as a brutally-administered prison for Aboriginal men until 1902. Today, it serves as a beach resort. The same small rooms which housed up to forty prisoners now serve as rustic accommodation for holidaymakers, none of whom are told in the brochure that people died there. There, as Pilger states quite plainly, a disconnect between the lives of modern Australians and the bloody foundations which form its bedrock. Much attention is paid in this film to Australia’s psychic geography; the continuum of land and people that forms the core of Aboriginal spirituality. An elder in the film suggests that white Europeans can only ever perceive land as commodity. Wide-panning shots of deep-crust coal mines loom like a soundless Koyaanisqatsi tribute, telling us a story of a people utterly divorced from any connection to the earth. There’s an environmental message here: once we sever the connection between mankind and nature, the unbounded expression of the Dreamtime vanishes with it.
There is a considered political thesis which underlies the majority of Pilger’s critiques. He alleges that the military intervention into Aboriginal territories under the Howard administration was merely a thinly-veiled land grab, designed to eviscerate the human population from mineral-rich tracts of earth. A woman recounts seeing helicopters hoisting vast uranium survey equipment flying low over her community in the days following the beginning of the intervention. Critical evidence of a government media coverup presented by incoming New Matilda editor Chris Graham and strenuously denied by former Howard minister Mal Brough compounds the case. The message is simple: the colonialist impulse of early British settlers never evaporated entirely. The greed and lingering xenophobia of Australia’s general population enables this kind of large-scale dispossession. Solutions are not presented. Gestures like Rudd’s apology are dismissed as posturing. The film is a howl of rage, long overdue.
In 1984, mining magnate Lang Hancock – father of wannabe plutocrat Gina Rinehart – suggested on national television his solution to the ‘Aboriginal problem’: a system of mass sterilisation with the intention of breeding the Aboriginal population out of existence. Pilger chose this archival clip to introduce Utopia, and the sense of helpless fury persists for the rest of its two hour duration. What he has created is a film that looks backwards with a persistent critical eye. It is a condemnation of our current failures of reconciliation as a system of manifest history. Utopia is a defining anti-colonial film which condemns Australians with as much fury as it does the endless system of bureaucracy which enables them.
Until June 14 you can watch John Pilger’s Utopia over at SBS OnDemand.
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