It’s Australia Day 2013. The location is Circular Quay, Sydney. The large crowd bustles with good vibes, and as John Pilger’s camera pans across the throng, it catches many a reveller draped in the Aussie flag and plenty of punters who’ve taken the drastic step of having their face painted with a Union Jack and Southern Cross in order to testify to their national pride. He stops a couple in the crowd for a quick vox pop asking them, what and why are they celebrating? The answers are predictably sentimental and patriotic.
an angry and sorrowful film about an important subject
Pilger, a veteran journalist, hasn’t lived here since 1962 (he’s settled in England), and as he intones solemnly on his narration in this, his new documentary feature, he still identifies Australia as his homeland, a statement that sounds a lot like a confession. Blessed with movie-star good looks – even now in his whitened and heavily cragged 70s Pilger’s got the charisma and uber-confidence of a veteran campaigner – in addition to a voice that rivals Richard Burton in mellifluous beauty. Pilger listens carefully to each answer and offers the rejoinder: 'Many Aboriginals find this day offensive because this is the day 225 years ago, we took their country."
It’s hard to say who these people imagined they were talking to. They might have believed Pilger and his crew were a news team seeking fluff for the nightly bulletin. None of them seem sympathetic to Pilger’s remarks (or awareness to Indigenous sensitivities) and a few sound hostile. I reckon that’s what Pilger was after with this sort of soft-target coverage: ignorance and complacency breed indifference and that has created a gigantic gulf between white and Indigenous Australia.
One man walks off in a huff: 'You’re full of shit, mate," he says. What’s queasy about this scene isn’t just the intimation that this anonymous fellow is a racist, but the feeling that what made him run has also something to do with the fact a man with a camera had ambushed him. A true believer in the cult of personality, Pilger is a self-styled warrior, a defender of the underprivileged who learnt his trade in tabloids, and his preferred weapons of choice are fevered emotions, confrontation and his own most powerful creation – himself, or at least his on screen persona – part heat seeking missile, part compassion sponge.
Anyone familiar with Pilger’s work, like, say, 2007’s The War on Democracy, his debut feature documentary, can guess that the title here is ironic. (The former was co-directed with Chris Martin; this one Pilger co-helms with Alan Lowery.)
In Pilger’s typically heated rhetoric, he maintains that there are two Utopias in Australia: the non-Indigenous suburban paradise of excess and privilege, where its constituents can enjoy the pleasures of one of the world’s wealthiest nations; and the other 'utopia’ is one of 'tears and rage’. It is also a real place; it’s a white name for an Aboriginal homeland, maybe anglicised from the native Uturupa. A region of 3500 square kms, some 350 kms north east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, Pilger persuades us that this Utopia is hell on earth. A UN rep interviewed surveys the squalor of one Aboriginal settlement there and is bewildered by both the third world conditions and the Australian government’s inability to do anything meaningful about it.
Utopia is an essay film. Pilger’s theme contends that the sorrows the Indigenous population must endure in the 21st century – poverty, political manipulation, state-directed violence, the destruction of native land for commercial gain – do not derive from casual racism and prejudice alone but an official tradition that began with white settlement (an argument that has considerable merit and traction for some time in academic circles though Pilger and co. don’t mention that).
There’s not much that’s cinematic or contemporary about the approach here: Utopia is a series of episodes that pound away at the central premise. A lot of this stuff is distressing: ancient photos of Aboriginal people in chains; security camera footage of Aboriginal men tasered or the Rottnest Island tourist getaway built on the site of a colonial concentration camp where thousands of Aboriginal men died. The best episode traces the scandalous roots of the Howard government’s 'intervention’ policy of 2007; outrage was sparked after an anonymous source testified to widespread paedophilia in remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. This witness turned out to be a senior public servant who worked closely with the then Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Howard and co. sent in the troops. There was talk – unsubstantiated – that the whole thing was a sop to mining companies.
The style here is that of an old-fashioned, reporter-at-large TV news magazine. Pilger travels widely across several different Aboriginal territories but remains front and centre of the action, casting himself as wise narrator, sympathetic witness or dogged interrogator of politicians who can’t help but look dazed and confused under Pilger’s go-get-'em line of questioning. Kevin Rudd keeps his cool and his dignity and concedes to the huge task ahead for any government prepared to accept the challenge; his former colleague Warren Snowden, Labor MP for Lingiari in the NT, blows his cool when Pilger demands to know why he hasn’t 'fixed’ Aboriginal health in the Territory.
Pilger includes interviews he did with his researcher Amy McQuire and two of the film’s producers, writer Chris Graham of the National Indigenous Times and now Tracks, and Paddy Gibson, an activist and academic. What’s notable about their contribution is that it speaks to a force that Pilger doesn’t quite make transparent: the growth of Indigenous media in the last generation and its power as an alternate voice in the Australian polity.
Despite its flaws in conception and coverage, this is an angry and sorrowful film about an important subject and it’s typical of Pilger. He has always passionately pursued unpopular subjects and uncovered important stories over the last 50 years in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Palestine. Right-wingers hate him; left-wingers applaud his chutzpah and seasoned journos – many of them fellow travellers – ponder why such an experienced and prize-winning correspondent so often lets his passion get in the way of such coveted values as balance and circumspection. But then sometimes working up the just the right amount of rage in the face of cruelty is the point.