Author, journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has spent the last four decades providing a voice for the vulnerable and powerless. He has worked up an impressive resume of work, picking up a Bafta and Emmy in the process, that tackles the theme of division between the powers to be and those considered to be ‘lesser’ individuals who suffer in their wake. His best known work is focused on his native Australia where his breakthrough film The Secret Country (1985), focused on the indigenous Aboriginal population and their shameful persecution over the years. This focus is reiterated in Utopia (named after the Aboriginal homeland in the northern territory) along with the shocking facts of how their land was stolen from them and the various injustices against them that have not ceased with the passage of time.
Pilger does not hold back in his words and examinations of the current climate in Australia and rightly so. References to ‘the lucky country’ are used alongside words such as ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’; words that are hard to associate with one of the world’s leading nations. However they seem fully justified in the wake of Pilger’s disturbing revelations. There have been film projects, both factual and fictional, that have focused on the dark chapters of slavery and of ‘The Stolen Generation’, the hideous government policy that saw children taken from their families in order to be used as slave labour and as a deliberate effort to ‘breed out the black.’ Such depictions of shameful events seem like a distant memory but there appears to be no let up in unjust persecution on the native population. If anything it would appear to have taken on a more subtle and ‘respectable’ facade. Grim statistics of neglect, rife disease, suicide rates and overwhelming incarceration of Aboriginal citizens portray a chilling view of a seemingly national ignorance. Amidst this catalogue of atrocity, Pilger specifically focuses on the steady and insidious efforts of a government endorsed think tank that attempted to quietly erase the dark history of the nation’s past (‘no genocide, no theft of land’) and then proceeded to fuel various moral panics in the media, including a notorious claim of mass paedophilla taking place within Aboriginal tribes. The claims were untrue and served as a mass distraction to a land grab in the area to mine for natural resources that have kept Australia’s economy strong during the recent downturn. Images of the countries majestic rural beauty take on a dark, melancholic tone in the knowledge of what has been to done to lay claim to it. The interview subjects gathered together on behalf of the government and media institutions, which includes former prime minister Kevin Rudd, are given a fair approach by Pilger but this still appears to provide more than enough rope for some of them. His interview style is concise and devastating in it’s blunt to the point attitude but not as devastating as his subjects apparent apathy or, more shockingly, a casual indifference to the shocking social divisions and injustices over the years. This sentiment also come across in a quietly disturbing set of soundbites from from everyday citizens celebrating national holidays to commemorate the arrival of westerners to the continent. Though it is admittedly unlikely for the filmmakers to include footage with those uneasy at the one sided nature of the celebrations, it’s still unnerving to see such willful disinterest and prejudice in a first world nation.
Throughout the film the sense of quiet anger and shame is raw but never lapses over into trite sentiment. Aboriginal interviewees contained in the film have been at the receiving end of neglect, stereotyping and institutional racism and there is no pleading for sympathy from them or in the tone of the film. There is the inclusion of astonishing footage of labour strikes that helped signal the collapse of slavery in the nation. Rather than raging against indignity, there is a focus on the quiet and calm search for justice. This is encapsulated in one astonishing scene where Pilger accompanies the descendants of Aboriginal prisoners to the sight of a remote former prison where hundreds were incarcerated and lost their lives. It is now a luxury resort, with no references or memorials to its past and those who died there. The camera holds on the elder descendants face, clearly wracked with pain and anger, yet refusing to be broken by what he sees. Filmed in an unfussy and focused manner, it’s small moments like this that hit the hardest. Pilger and his collaborators voice is a calm yet impassioned one and it deserves to be heard in this extraordinary film.
UTOPIA will be released in UK cinemas on November 15th. It will be released on DVD December 16th and broadcast on ITV on 17th December. It is set to be shown in Australia early next year.