Whether John Pilger is destroying an ill informed New Zealand news reader, constructing damning evidence against the likes of Henry Kissinger, teaming up with Julian Assange to continue the derailment of mass produced lies, or exposing his native country Australia’s appalling treatment of it’s indigenous people, he’s always exciting, revelatory and controversial. So when I found out his new film Utopia, was to be making its international debut just a short rail ride away in Soho, I called my only Southern Hemispherian friend within a 100 mile radius and got us some tickets. Being an Australian in the United Kingdom, I often look across the continents and see my home country turning its back, time and time again, on its own people, its history and its uniqueness. In a lead up press release Pilger said of the film, “It will describe not only the uniqueness of the first Australians, but their trail of tears and betrayal and their resistance – from one utopia to another.” I was, understandably, excited.
The film opens with a quote from Lang Hancock, mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s father, advocating the sterilisation of unproductive members of the Indigenous Australian community. In this sense it would seem the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Later in the film we’re shown Gina leading a crowd chant of ‘Axe the Tax’, a mining tax that, if implemented, would, as Pilger reminds us, create more than enough wealth to address Indigenous Australia’s plights many times over. Of course the irony that the mining companies are unwilling to give any sizeable compensation to Indigenous Australians on the whole, the desecration whose land their wealth is based on, is not wasted on Pilger. In fact it is addressed in Pilger’s now famous scathing, direct, take-no-prisoners reporting.
The film covers a large portion of Australia’s colonial and contemporary history. It touches on the manner in which Cook and the First Fleet arrived, through the Stolen Generation, and the continued practice of child removal even after Rudd’s much lauded apology, the Northern Territory intervention, implemented by the Howard government, the shocking conditions in which many members of the Lucky Country’s original inhabitants live and the mainstream Australian media’s incompetence in reporting truthfully on such matters are all discussed. Pilger also unmasks many lesser known horrors such as the concentration camp-like conditions of the now popular Tourist resort on Rottnest Island, where, ironically, the luxury spa that was once a holding pen for ‘undesirable’ Indigenous men, is called Karma.
As an Australian I found the film to be essential viewing for anyone either wanting to know more about our history, or simply wishing to visit it. I won’t describe the movie itself in any more detail except to say that it does address many issues which have been swept under the rug for far too long. I give the film itself 5 stars, if for no other reason than Pilger’s uncompromising approach to this vital subject.
After film Q&A:
Pilger was present to take questions after the film. He talked about:
- The previous decades of leadership to our current government’s inability to act:
“What the new government has done, what pretty well all Australian governments have done since the 70s, is make cuts of some kind; some kind of reduction in the government commitment to Indigenous affairs, Indigenous welfare, Indigenous culture, Indigenous everything really.”
- The general way in which Australians treat and see our indigenous people:
“The Australian political view of Aboriginal people is that we will control them, we will decide what’s best for them. If from time to time something comes to light that suggests that all is not well in the communities, that there is dire poverty, preventable disease and so on, then we will say, in one form or another, that it’s their fault.”
- The mythologizing of our roles in successive, brutal wars:
“This day, ANZAC day, every April is like a religious day. It is considered the national day of Australia. It’s not just Australia day, it’s that day and ANZAC, a total failure. It’s sort of like taking the Edwardian idea of the young man who isn’t a man unless he’s bloodied in war, which was, when the men went to that war, a view amongst a certain class in this country and elsewhere in Europe. It’s so antiquated and weird. The reason is because the national mythology has to depend on some pretty feeble stereotypes, such as the stereotype of the Australian soldier climbing the cliffs at Gallipoli. When you go into the Australian War memorial, the sheer veneration of every colonial war since the boxer rebellion and the Sudan when Australians went and those who died, died of disease. There is not a single mention, nowhere, of this war that raged across Australia for almost a century. Now that means that there is unfinished business historically.”
I was lucky enough to ask a question:
“I’m continually confronted, as an Australian, when I discuss with my fellow Australians the things that you speak of; like us not paying heed to true warriors like Jandamurra of Western Australia. These people, I think, should echo throughout our history, yet they are, continually, not paid heed to. I did note at the end of your film, however, that you have the support from some brilliant and well known Australian artists including Xavier Rudd and Paul Kelly who are great supporters of our Indigenous history, and there are movements within Australia currently, that may be classed as tokenistic or mere gestures, but are movements none the less. One movement that comes to mind is the Recognition movement, which asks for constitutional recognition and has marched from Melbourne to Darwin (and are continuing now) and have received quite a lot of alternative press. For these people, and myself, I’m not sure how to put it… I need some kind of hope. Hope, because I’m continually faced with a blank screen any time I try to address these very important issues. As an Australian, I find it hard to return home and bring these things up. Do you have any words of advice or something that could possibly add some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, perchance?”
“No. (laughter) You articulate it all very well and I can only offer you my solidarity but it’s up to you. It sounds like you’re on top of the subject, you know what to do. I can’t offer you any advice. You can just keep standing up to it, because that’s the only way. And the only way that authority and governments ever change is under pressure. That’s the only way. They don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t do it because they think the electorate want them to do it, they do it under pressure. And until the whole question of Australian sovereignty and its people, its original people, is made a central political issue, things won’t change. It’s up to people like you to keep doing what you’re doing, to not be fazed by them. It’s quite difficult. I mean that’s what shocks people here. You have backpackers wandering around saying ‘I heard it’s a really nice country and everyone’s so friendly, and then all of a sudden someone says this’. They wonder if they heard about it in the sticks of Queensland, ‘No, no, no, I heard about it at a dinner party in Sydney.’
It’s the kind of attitude that would not be acceptable anywhere else. It doesn’t necessarily make everywhere else better, but it does make it very different, and you’re having the experience of being somewhere else and seeing the country as I have; from a distance. So you can take that back. Just keep standing up.”
So for those of us concerned, you heard the man. Keep standing up.
Utopia will be launched in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, with screenings from 21-23 January and on Australia Day, 26 January. A cinema release and SBS broadcast will follow. Screenings of the film will take place throughout the UK beginning the 18th of November. For more information check www.johnpilger.com