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British Film Review: Utopia
By Garrett Hunter
In 1992 I was living in Bondi Beach, Australia. Sitting on the beach that Christmas under a clear blue sky I read a book written by dissident journalist John Pilger. The book had been a gift and the hand written note on the inside sleeve forewarned me of its contents, ‘A not so nice view of Australia’, the note did not lie. The book was called A Secret Country and some of its revelations have stayed with me for the past 21 years. I recall how the 2nd chapter, called A Whispering in Our Hearts, was particularly hard hitting. This chapter was like a gruesome litany of horrors endured by the First Australian’s, the black Australians, since white settlement. The only comfort was the book was largely concerned with historical issues; the list was of horrors set in some colonial past, Pilgers Utopia shatters this delusion, the list of evils dispensed upon Australia’s black population continues to grow.
When it comes to uncovering unpalatable truths John Pilger has a robust pedigree, his writing and film making stretch back to his days as a war correspondent on the Vietnam War. As a UK resident for the past 50 years he has earned his reputation for criticising the policies –foreign and otherwise– of the British, American and Australian governments, to name a few. With Utopia he focuses once again on the land of his birth and on a topic he must have hoped would no longer need his attention. He must silently have hoped his book (and subsequent film) A Secret Country, would have awakened the majority of Australian’s to their nation’s ills and stirred them into enough action to rectify the problems, sadly no. The ills, as far as the Aborigines are concerned, are as unbearable as ever.
Utopia begins with old footage of Australian mining magnate Laing Hancock, a man who believed sterilisation was a good solution to the ‘Aboriginal problem’. “I would dope their water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out and that would solve the problem”. As unbelievable as it may sound, the breeding out of the pure-blood Australian Aborigine was once Australian government policy; Laing’s views were all too common.
With this kind of attitude towards the people they usurped in their own homeland it becomes easier –if no less shocking– to understand how the white settlers could allow, or cause, such suffering to the Aboriginal population. To highlight the disparity of wealth in Australia, Pilger takes us from a $30,000 per week apartment in Palm Beach, a few miles north of Sydney, to Utopia, a region in the Northern Territory where an Aboriginal population of 1400 live in such poverty that the most basic services; like lighting, cooking facilities, and sanitation, are absent. The film uses modern footage to show the hardship and suffering endured by the Aboriginal communities generally, how the squalid conditions in which they live contributes to their numerous health problems; Glaucoma, which can lead to blindness; otitis media, which can cause deafness; diabetes, coronary and renal disease, all of which add up to a short life expectancy. Almost one third of Aborigines die before they are 45 years old. Archival footage from his earlier, A Secret Country documentary is introduced to indicate how little things have changed.
Pilger takes his film crew across Australia to interview health workers, journalists, Aboriginal communities, politicians, business leaders and ordinary Australian’s; a portrait is drawn –its authenticity is for the viewer to decide– of modern Australian attitudes, of its government policies, and the consequences of them, upon the first Australians.
Aboriginal poverty and the ensuing health problems would have provided enough material for most film makers but Pilger is unrelenting, there is worse to come. The story of Mr Ward, for instance, an Aboriginal man who was locked into a police van and driven across the outback for 5 hours in temperatures so high it cooked him to death; no one was ever held to account. Death in custody, as Pilger shows us, is a fact of life to black Australian’s.
Flowing from one topic to the next the film exposes a side of Australia rarely, if ever seen; we learn of the record number of suicides by young black males -possibly related to the hugely disproportionate number of black prisoners per head of population. But perhaps most shocking of all is the revelation in the 2nd half of the film when Pilgers interviewees reveal how the Australian Government conspired to brand Aboriginals as serial paedophiles in order to suspend the racial discrimination act which would clear the path for some blatantly racist policies, policies which included taking new born babies from their mothers; a frightening echo of the Stolen Generation era which Pilger had been writing about more than 20 years before. Pilger alleges the entire paedophile story was a fabrication; as he puts it, ‘a major deception’ by the Australian government. But why would the Australian Government do such a thing, what would they have to gain? One theory put forward is that the government acts as little more than an administrator for the vast corporations, in this instance the multi-billion dollar mining corporations – in Australia they make nearly $1 billion per week. If this is the case then the outlook for the black Australians is as hopeless as ever. Modern Australian corporations, Utopia warns us, are producing propaganda which is a fusion of old colonial racism and modern media scare mongering, inverting moral principles such as ‘Save the Children’ to turn the majority against the rightful owners of their land. The last thing the mining companies want is a powerful (even equal) Aboriginal community with bona fide claims to the mineral rich lands upon which their profits depend.
The film ends with a haunting and melancholy song by Aboriginal singer Glenn Skuthorpe, the song is called No More Whispering; it is a suitable close to the film and the lyrics bring me back to the, A Whispering in our Hearts chapter I read 20 years before. It is incredibly disheartening to think things have not changed in that period, that they have in some ways got worse.
Although this is a well-made film by a consummate journalist and documentary film maker Utopia is not a film you will enjoy. As the old maxim goes, it is not a film he would have wanted to make; it is a film he had to make. Whether or not he -or John Pilger Jnr- will need to assemble a film crew and head into the outback in another twenty years to tell this story once again will depend on just how awakened the white population of Australia have become to their countries ills and to the suffering of its first inhabitants. Pilger, for one, is playing his part in finding a cure. Utopia is a film which should be seen by as many people as possible – 5 Stars.
Utopia is released in UK cinemas 15th November 2013
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