Veteran documentary filmmaker John Pilger’s latest, Utopia, is a hard-hitting investigation into modern Australia’s commitment to its indigenous communities.
Shock Tactics by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Designed to shock from the outset, John Pilger’s Utopia pulls no punches. It opens with a 1984 interview with iron ore magnate Lang Hancock in which he suggests that Australia’s Aborigines should be corralled and made to drink water containing a chemical aimed at making them sterile. “The Aboriginal Problem” is then brought sharply up-to-date with grainy footage showing alleged police brutality inflicted on young Aborigine men in 2012. Utopia‘s initial premise is simple: has anything has changed at all since colonisation reduced Aboriginal Australians to “sub-human status”?
As white inhabitants of the “lucky country” enjoy the good life in expensive beachfront holiday homes outside Sydney, Pilger travels to Utopia, an Aborigine community 200 miles from Alice Springs, to see how “the other Australia” lives. A rich country for some, not all tax payers are entitled to the same basic rights it seems: the residents of Utopia, Australia’s poorest and most disadvantaged place are living with primitive facilities, no electricity and an outside tap.
Heaping on the bleakness in a Michael Mooresque fashion, Pilger interviews those who care for the inhabitants of these struggling Aborigine communities. Doctors and support workers tell of cross-contamination, sanitation, vermin infestations, short life expectancy and a list of health issues worthy of 19th-century Dickensian England. Comparing his footage to an investigation filmed in 1985, Pilger maintains that very little has changed in nearly 30 years. Australia is not short of resources, so where does the problem lie?
Making politicians squirm is something of a forte for Pilger. It certainly makes for uncomfortable watching. Awkward interview follows awkward interview at such a pace it is hard to judge whether any truth lies behind the litany of justifications and excuses spouted, or whether Pilger’s spin is perhaps a little too insistent. One commentator in favour of greater support for Aborigine communities makes the point that appears increasingly inescapable to those of us looking on from overseas: the issue has become too politicised and acerbic to be resolved rationally within Australia without international assistance.
Moving on to discuss particular facets of the problem in more detail, jingoistic white Australians celebrating Australia Day in Sydney Harbour are asked whether they realise that celebrating the beginning of colonisation might be deemed offensive to their country’s first inhabitants. Right-thinking, well-balanced views were never likely to be found among these face-painted, flag-brandishing, boozed-up revellers: “they have to help themselves”, “they choose to live in bad conditions” and “they get offered a lot of things, but like to live that way” are just some of the horrifying yet somewhat inevitable sound bites.
Accompanied by two important figures in the local Aborigine community, Pilger travels to Rottnest Island, a prime holiday resort for white Australians just outside Perth. The three are mystified by the lack of recognition of the island’s Aborigine history and its former prison where thousands of Aborigine men and boys were incarcerated and tortured. As they visit the hotel and spa that now stands on the site, their incredulity is overwhelming. It is of course difficult to question such shocking revelations, but Pilger’s exposé is almost too clumsy, almost laid on too thickly to have the desired impact.
Utopia really hits its stride towards the end as it features first-person testimonies from members of the Aborigine communities who remain frustrated by their government’s refusal to correct decades of neglect: the old woman who remembers being taken from her family as part of the stolen generation; the young woman who talks of the demonization of Aborigine men in Australia and its incompatibility with her own experiences; and finally, the couple who discuss the suicide epidemic among young Aborigine men, something of which they have first-hand experience following their son’s decision to take his own life.
Pilger’s hints at links between Australia’s multimillion dollar mining industry and governmental reluctance to really tackle the issues faced by the country’s first inhabitants never quite hit the mark. It is the one-on-ones with those who have struggled that, despite their subtlety, serve to make the director’s point hit home in a way that his sensationalist revelations fail to do.
Time will tell as to whether Utopia succeeds in bringing real change to Australia’s disadvantaged Aborigine communities. However, Pilger’s message may well have been better served had he used a lighter touch to bring the world’s attention to such an important issue.