It makes for powerful viewing. Every shot of the 110-minute film Utopia delivers an uncomfortable message. Or, as theaward-winning movie director and journalist John Pilger puts it, an airing of the country’s “dirty secrets”.
The film offers a glimpse into the lives of an Aboriginal community in an area of northern Australia ironically called Utopia – home to the oldest human presence on earth. Australian Pilger describes Utopia as: “A journey into that secret country. It will describe not only the uniqueness of the first Australians, but their trail of tears and betrayal and resistance – from one utopia to another.”
It opens with horrific scenes of brutality against Aboriginals, and continues to explore the unjust way in which the indigenous population has been treated, and continues to be treated, by politicians, by the media, by the public. Shooting the movie took Pilger back to Utopia, the poorest part of Australia, where he filmed The Secret Country in 1985 – that was considered a landmark movie, inspiring the setting up of the first indigenous memorial in the National Gallery of Australia.
However, 28 years on, he revisits some of the people and places to find little has changed.
Pilger’s Utopia was previewed at London’s Curzon Sohoin the West End on November 4, where he will also made an appearance and took questions. As well as in cinemas, it will also be screened on ITV. Here, he speaks to TNT.
After 28 years, what has changed in Utopia?
My colleague, Paddy Gibson, the film’s associate producer, made a study of what had changed since The Secret Country was shown in 1985. The short answer is very little. Yes, a new and tiny ‘middle class’ has arisen, but its co-option by non indigenous Australia – by government, business and academia – is striking, producing articulate people telling white Australia what it wants to hear. That’s vintage colonialism; what is different is that it’s unrecognised in Australia.
Why has nothing more been done?
Because there is no political will, no sense of what was once called a moral restitution. Australian society and its political class were always derivative of Europe: what the British call ‘provincial’. That has produced a mean spirit, a self satisfaction, the very opposite of the way many people see their society. If Australia lived up to its myths of fair go for the underdog, it would have repaired its relationship with indigenous people long ago. It shocks foreigners that there is so little recognition that the uniqueness of Australia is not the beauty of Sydney Harbour, but an extraordinary original human presence in an ancient land.
Would it be a different story if it was a white-Australian community?
Yes. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 apologised to the ‘Stolen Generation’, he added a qualifier – and his words were, ‘I want to be blunt about this’ – that there would be no compensation for the theft of 100,000 children. And there has been no compensation. Can you imagine him saying that to a white constituency? The courts would be packed with successful claimants. He wouldn’t dare. But he wagged his finger at black Australians, as if they were children.
The film opens with clips of Aboriginals being abused. Did you find many examples of this?
There are many examples of this kind of brutality and culpable indifference, mostly unreported. Since the royal commission into indigenous deaths in custody in 1989, black deaths in police cells and other incarceration have more than doubled. Australia locks up juveniles at the highest rate in the world; most are indigenous. Talk to any young Aboriginal person in a country town and ask them about the police; the stories are shocking.
You compared the rate of incarceration of Aboriginalsto black people in the final years of the apartheid inSouth Africa…
Yes, in Western Australia indigenous people are imprisoned at eight times the rate that black South Africans were locked up during the last decade of apartheid.
What were the most shocking things you saw while filming?
We filmed a house that was typical of so many we saw. It was riddled with asbestos; indeed, the authorities had put a yellow warning sign next to the front door. It accommodated 25 people, many of them children. Infections spread like wildfire; children developed diseases that would kill them early in life and are unheard of in white Australia – such as rheumatic heart disease, for which Australia holds a world record. In Wilcannia, New South Wales, the average life expectancy of indigenous men is 33. There are too many shocking examples to describe here.
The living conditions were described as “19th-century Dickensian Britain” – is that accurate?
Yes. As Dr Janelle Trees explains in the film, a feature of Dickensian England was cross-infection of what are today preventable diseases, caused by poor living conditions – abject poverty, in other words. That’s the situation in many Aboriginal communities.
Australia’s economy has boomed over the past 10 years. Why are aboriginals still in poverty?
Aboriginal people are cheated of the right that most Australians hold dear – the right to determine their own lives. They are controlled, manipulated, denied respect and rarely consulted. The money that governments claim to spend on indigenous people is often syphoned into a white industry making a killing out of what’s called the‘black dollar’ – jerry-building houses, short-changing on services, swallowing consultancy fees. Australia is a model of an ideological economy in which those who conform can expect a pretty good life (though this is increasingly at risk), and those who do not conform are cast out – regarded as hopeless. This is not civilisation in its literal sense.
Is this on the agenda of key politicians? What are they pledging to do about it?
Nothing interesting that I know about. It’s mostly authoritarian – controlling people’s lives. They dress up their policies with PR words such as ‘reconciliation’, which are meaningless. It’s an attitude, a mentality familiar to black South Africans.
Are Aboriginals demonised in the press?
The media plays an important role in stereotyping indigenous people as drunks and welfare dependents. In fact, as research by Olga Havnen in the Northern Territory shows, most Aboriginal people have nothing to do with the dole. There is another media view that likes to see Aboriginal people as ‘noble savages’ whose exotic primitivism needs protecting – it doesn’t use that term, of course.
Who is to blame for the lack of progress?
The majority of society shares the blame with politicians, themedia and academics who, like 19th-century anthropologists, relish pronouncing on indigenous life as if it exists in another country. We non-indigenous Australians are bystanders in our own country.
Is there any hope for equality in the future?
I don’t know about equality. If governments negotiate aproper treaty with Aboriginal people, recognising land rights and the right of self-determination, there may well be hope.
Utopia is in cinemas from November 15, available on DVD and iTunes December 16, and will air on ITV in December