Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Utopia: An Aboriginal perspective

IMAGE CREDIT: Chris Graham.
IMAGE CREDIT: Chris Graham.
NATIONAL: Award winning investigative journalist John Pilger’s new film Utopia will be a powerful weapon to raise awareness about Aboriginal Australia, according to Arrente writer Celeste Liddle*.
On flicking through the UK reviews of John Pilger’s new documentary film “Utopia”, one thing quickly becomes apparent: Pilger has created a hard-hitting film that is of extraordinary importance.
Utopia, which was released in the UK in November, has consistently received rave reviews. CineVue refers to it as “as an examination of forgotten injustice it’s quite simply essential viewing”. Metro states that the film is “confrontational, eye-opening and saddening viewing”.
As someone who has been lucky enough to see the film, I cannot say I am at all surprised that four-star ratings have dominated, with the slightly lower ratings seemingly limited to criticism about the length of the film and Pilger’s interruptive and bombastic-at-times interview style.
It is frequently described as a “must see”, its content as bleak, confronting and disturbing and its core arguments as compelling and shameful.
In short, since its release, it has shaken viewers in the UK and awoken them to some unspoken truths in this country.
That the film may not have the same reaction in Australia is not a surprise to me. The content, after all, covers the appalling situations and vast injustices facing many Indigenous Australians.
It’s been historically well-established that these things are not items of interest to the majority of people living in this country.
Whilst some independent cinemas have come on board to screen Utopia, it looks like additional screenings are going to have to be held in places such as universities and activist organisations, as well as on SBS TV.
In other words, what should be mandatory mainstream viewing about what’s happening in the proverbial “backyard”, particularly if people take the democratic process of voting seriously, is probably going to end up preaching to the converted.
It’s nothing new that other countries are expressing shock and outrage over this film, whilst Australia tries to ignore its content. For further information, check out the mounting pile of political denials following reports from visiting UN officials.
It’s a crying shame, because Australia NEEDS to see this. They need to sit down and absorb the realities of the “Aboriginal situation” and they need to start responding if they actually do believe in the “fair go for all” they’re so fond of espousing as a core value of this country.
They need to start acknowledging the history and addressing the current issues if they do actually believe this country is a place to be proud of.
In Utopia, Pilger takes the viewer on a journey through some of the most horrible human rights abuses affecting Indigenous Australia.
It’s a journey that started 28 years ago with his film The Secret Country – The First Australians Fight Back and Utopia shows that little has changed.
Powerfully, at the beginning of the film, Pilger highlights some of the exorbitant wealth certain sections of Australia are currently enjoying to the point where they can afford the rent on a $30,000 per week beach-side property.
He then takes the viewer to Ampilawatja, where shanties are lodgings and kids have to be bathed under a communal outdoor tap. He juxtaposes the wealthy Canberran suburb Barton, named after the orchestrator of the White Australia Policy, with the region of Utopia, the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country.
Basic services such as sanitation and transport are lacking in Utopia’s communities. Trachoma and glue ear are still health issues running rampant. The differences between Barton and Utopia are stark, yet the differences between 1985 and 2013 Utopia are almost non-existent.
Pilger then delves into the years of historical denial. The lack of acknowledgement of the frontier wars at the Australian War Memorial; the demonising of a people to justify the building of an empire; the “history wars” of the Howard years where actualities got shoved aside for national pride.
It’s particularly poignant when Pilger visits a former prison camp and place of torture and murder for Aboriginal men called “The Quad” on Rottnest Island.
He finds this place has been turned into a luxury resort.
Ignored historical facts are delivered thick and fast throughout the film and each one lands like a punch in the gut, but none more so than the idea that Australians just do not want to hear it.
White Australia definitely appears not too keen to hear it, at least.
As already mentioned, many appear to think Australia is a nation to be proud of. They show this in a scene where Pilger takes a camera down to Circular Quay to speak to the flag-shrouded masses there celebrating Australia Day.
As Pilger works his way through the jingoistic hoards asking people whether they thought Aboriginal people had a right to be offended regarding the meaning of Australia Day, he is greeted by everything from the perennially boring “we’re ALL Australians” to hearing some
of the most enduring stereotypes of the “uncivilised Aborigine”, to being told that he’s “full of s**t”. Certainly some realities of the country’s National Day rain on the parade of the festival-goers and they simply don’t wish to know about it.
The criticism of the collective Australian amnesia and avoidance continues as John Pilger delves into black deaths in custody and the imprisonment rates of First Peoples.
He shows footage of the final hours of Kwementyaye Briscoe; locked in his prison cell as police neglect to seek proper medical assistance.
Pilger speaks to the parents of Eddie Murray: a 21 year old man who died in custody in 1981 by hanging after being arrested for public drunkenness. There have been serious doubt cast on this official reasoning for his death – police records had been falsified and there was evidence that there had been cover-ups.
That his parents fought for decades and both ended up passing away before seeing any justice makes this case even more tragic. Eddie’s case was the first one examined in the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, yet years later these deaths continue with little public outcry or even acknowledgement.
When the film investigates the installation of the Northern Territory Intervention, the injustice highlighted goes up another notch.
The ABC Lateline report that led to the Howard government declaring a “state of emergency” in the NT was exposed by journalist Chris Graham (formerly Managing Editor of Tracker and a contributor) as having fabricated stories and falsified documents; using old and inaccurate footage in some cases to construct their untruths.
The findings from police departments,the Central Australian Specialists, the Australian Crime Commission and other experts that there was little to no evidence to support the claims made by the Lateline programme and the then government has not caused public outcry. Six years after the Intervention was instituted and the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) suspended to bring the policy in, the Intervention continues, albeit in a modified form.
There are two huge points Pilger investigates through this section of the film.
One is that the greater Australian public has been more than happy to accept the intervention because they readily accept horrible and racist stereotypes of Aboriginal people as fact.
Another is that when it comes to a country generating billions of dollars worth of income through the mining of its mineral resources, the demonisation of Indigenous Australia is a small price to pay.
It’s almost completely impossible to deny the truth of Pilger’s assertions here. Pilger has already so poignantly highlighted many layers of Australian racism by this point, and has juxtaposed this racism with wealth generation repeatedly.
Indeed, the continual spectre of the mining industry looms throughout the film.
The diminishing of land rights by governments and the fear campaigns that have been run by the media are highlighted.
Taxes upon mining and the resources that these funds could have injected into severely disadvantaged Indigenous communities are shown as being vehemently opposed by some of the wealthiest and powerful mining magnates in the country.
Mining interests have continually been at loggerheads with the interests of traditional owners, and at the end of the day, the magnates have almost always won.
Most Australians have remained apathetic to the reality that whilst Gina Rinehart earns almost $1 million every 30 minutes on natural resources in this land, Australia remains the only first world nation to not have eradicated trachoma.
Indeed, the minority government formed in 2010 by the ALP following the toppling of Kevin Rudd from leadership suggests that, in part, Australians felt taxing mining companies was actually a bad thing. That the media continually pumped this information through to the voting public is undeniable. When it boils down to it, a fairer distribution of wealth, particularly for Indigenous Australia, is not a consideration for a population who are conditioned to think that black Australia already get too much.
Pilger also delves into the Stolen Generations and how they are continuing today via the high rates of removal of Aboriginal kids by government authorities. The Apology given by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 is revisited and Rudd emulates the Artful Dodger when asked why things have not improved and why compensation was denied to members of the Stolen Generations and their families immediately following The Apology.
Pilger’s final argument; that a treaty with Indigenous Australia needs to happen is a very poignant note to end on. I particularly commend him for this.
In an endless and well-funded campaign for Constitutional Recognition, which to me is a form of “practical reconciliation”, the point that it’s not a true negotiation and redistribution for the proper benefit of black Australia needs to be made.
What will truly change if black Australia is merely written into a coloniser document, and why is it considered so important at this point in time for this to happen? Why was a treaty on the table in the 1980s yet is not being talked about now when we are told so frequently that many gains have been made?
Pilger doesn’t even mention Constitutional Recognition and I can only garner from this that he, like so many of us in the community, has reservations regarding this push and cannot see what the true benefit of it will be beyond yet another symbolic gesture.
Throughout the film, you see Pilger completely setting politicians and other officials on the back foot when questioned on how they have dealt with Aboriginal issues, and the few gains that have been made.
You see medical practitioners, journalists and researchers highlight the many miscarriages of justice and human rights abuses that have been inflicted particularly on the most vulnerable members of the community.
You see Pilger bring the evidence of all this to the table over and over again for the audience to ruminate upon.
Yet here’s the rub for me: as an Aboriginal woman in this country, very little of what he has presented to me is information I did not already know. Nor would it be information a fair chunk of black Australia wouldn’t know. It’s affected our families, it’s denied our heritage, it’s been right there in front of us our entire lives. We know it because it is a part of us.
This is why I have little sympathy when I see opinion pieces criticising John Pilger for releasing this film to the UK before Australia because they feel that this is an Australian story and it needs to be discussed here first.
The evidence has been there for Australians for a very long time, and Australians have chosen; through socially-embedded racism; through personal greed; through manufactured national pride, to ignore it over and over again.
If Utopia causes outrage in other parts of the world and casts a very stern global spotlight on Australia with regards to the situations facing Indigenous Australia, then perhaps this might actually lead to some more positive outcomes for a change.
We can only hope.
*Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte Australian woman living in Melbourne. She is the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Celeste blogs personally at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist and is particularly interested in education, politics and the arts.
** The community premiere of Utopia will be held at the Block in Redfern at 7 pm January 17th. It will be introduced by John Pilger. All are welcome to attend. Please click here for other screenings across Australia.



  1. Thank you, Celeste Litddle
    At last, a discussion of the film that is not focused on minimising its importance.
    I had always found it hard to believe that John Pilger could have made such a lot of mistakes - as the other reviewers claimed.
    Anyway, I look forward to seeng "Utopia" and learning from it.

  2. Dear Celeste. I watched it the other day and I would like to say thank you for your excellent review and post. As Audre Lorde said, its like having to reinvent the pencil everytime you want to send a message. Worrying developments, education minister saying school children need to be celebrating western culture, Lords and Ladies now given a whitely handshake, brought back into the fold. Whatever they say, in the end they always revert to type. Australia giving itself a new coat of white-wash just in case anyone might forget.