Pilger's Utopia a devastating expose of Australian apartheid


Directed by John Pilger

The latest documentary by Emmy and BAFTA award winning film maker and journalist, John Pilger, contrasts two very different worlds: one of white aspiration on Sydney’s northern beaches, and the other the Aboriginal community in the ironically named town of Utopia, located in central Australia.

The town has been assessed as the most disadvantaged and poorest community in Australia. The distinction could not be more stark.

In his latest film, Utopia, Pilger confronts Australia with the shame of the entrenched neglect and continuing failure to provide even the most basic of conditions for Aboriginal communities ― such as sanitation, bathrooms or kitchens.

It highlights a concerted campaign waged against Aboriginal people, against Aboriginal self-determination and against Aboriginal peoples established, although limited, land rights in the Northern Territory.

Filmed when the Labor government was still in power last year, it examines the complicity of both sides of politics in the deprivation and early deaths of many Aboriginal people. It exposes the shameless moves against Aboriginal lands under the guise of an “intervention” based on lies and deception.

The ongoing role of the police as an occupation force against Aboriginal people is depicted. It shows the tasering of an Aboriginal youth and many cases of deaths in custody that breach the most fundamental human rights.

It is reflected in Australia’s disgraceful incarceration rate, with Aboriginal people the most incarcerated people on earth.

We hear how Mr Ward died in Western Australia after being tortured, sustaining burns to his skin, before literally cooking to death in the 57 degree heat in the back of an airconditioned van.

We hear of Mr Briscoe, who died of asphyxiation and intoxication at the age of 27 while being taken into police “protective custody” in Alice Springs, despite committing no crime.

Little has changed since the failure to charge police after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This was despite the commission finding police had lied, committed perjury and covered up evidence in the 1981 case of Eddie Murray, who had died with a smashed sternum, though police claimed it was suicide.

Eddie’s father, Arthur Murray, who was active in striking for better wages and conditions for cotton chippers in Wee Waa, NSW, considered his son’s violent death the end result of a campaign of harassment in retaliation for his activism.

Utopia details Australia’s hidden humiliation, of Aboriginal communities forced to endure living conditions not acceptable in a developing country, far less in a wealthy country built on resources taken from Aboriginal lands.

It shows Aboriginal communities forced to live with 15 to 30 people to a house, with no electricity, kitchen, shower or bathroom, and only an external shared tap and fire to cook on and little or no transport.

Remote Aboriginal communities are denied the basic conditions taken for granted by the rest of the Australian community. At the same time, government business managers in these same communities have 18 air-conditioners running in their gated houses.

These deplorable conditions are common across remote Aboriginal communities. A lack of sanitation and cleaning facilities directly impacts on the health of children and adults, with cross-contamination leading to diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and otitus media and resulting in hearing loss and delays in learning.

The film visits the small community of Mutujulu where failed sanitation leaves raw sewage in the backyard and 70% of the homes are filled with crumbling asbestos. There is nowhere else to go, so community members are forced to continue living in homes that seriously damage their health.

These conditions would not be tolerated for white people, reflecting the deep discrimination that Australia was built on and maintains.

Pilger draws on archival film footage of his 1984 film Secret Country to highlight the complete failure to progress the same issues raised three decades ago in that film.

Trachoma remains a scourge in Aboriginal communities, where it continues to painfully blind Aboriginal people, though it is completely preventable. It has placed Australia on a United Nations international shame list for its failure to address this devastating condition, with simple adequate hygiene and access to bathrooms a key preventative measure.

The film is shocking, as doctors complain of treating patients with insects in their ears because of the difficulties for communities to wash. The Indigenous Doctors Association reports high levels of malnutrition among communities where the cost of fruit and vegetables is too expensive to maintain a healthy diet.

The alarming fact that one third of Aboriginal people die before the age of 45 years should outrage Australia.

The poverty and degradation is distressing, but despite Australia’s wealth and resources, Aboriginal people are blamed for their own poverty and the government’s failure to invest in Aboriginal communities.

Utopia reminds us of some of our recent history and the impact of previous policies of assimilation, which saw children removed from their families and placed as essentially slave labour in the homes of middle-class whites.

Expectation that things would change with then-prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2007 were betrayed, according to Olga Havnen. About $80 million dollars is still spent annually on the removal of Aboriginal children and only $500,000 spent on supporting impoverished families.

This criminal level of neglect of Aboriginal communities is founded on Australia’s inability to face the truth of its history and reflects a deep ignorance of the broader community, promoted by the media and mining industry’s advertising campaigns.

Australia, Pilger notes, has a hidden history of Aboriginal resistance, drawing on historical footage of the eight year Gurindji strike and that community's resolute determination to gain equal wages.

The strike broke the exploitation of Aboriginal people working for rations and led to the Gurindji people holding out for their land rights.

But Aboriginal communities are now once again being forced to fight for previously hard-won struggles for land rights. Trish Morton-Thomas draws a connection between aerial searches for minerals and the finding of uranium stores in Central Australia, and the focus of the Northern Territory intervention on taking control of Aboriginal lands.

Pilger’s research unearths a 2007 government report that notes the Northern Territory as the frontier of Australia’s future mining interests.

Utopia explains how the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (or “NT Intervention”), which sent the army into Aboriginal communities and took over control of those communities, was based on a cynical lie of paedophile rings.

Pilger highlights that it was Chris Graham, of the National Indigenous Times who exposed the fact that Greg Andrews, a government official who briefed then- Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough, had posed as an anonymous youth worker, complaining of non-existent paedophilia rings. This supported previous allegations by Brough and prompted the intervention.

But despite the sensationalising of the issue, neither the Australian Crime Commission nor the NT police could find any evidence of paedophilia rings in Aboriginal communities.

The intervention ignored the poverty, lack of education, lack of housing, unemployment and desperate social conditions raised in the Little Children are Sacred report used to justify the Intervention.

Instead, it implemented income quarantining. This introduced a Basics card that replaced cash entitlements to social security and implemented a host of punitive measures that only targeted Aboriginal people and required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Rather, policies completely unrelated to child protection were instigated. The government was determined to take control of Aboriginal lands, blackmailing Aboriginal communities with the denial of basic services, housing and sanitation if they did not sign agreements to lease their land to the government.

The intervention also witnessed the almost total abolition of the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).

This concerted attack on Aboriginal communities and their capacity to make decisions, both personally and collectively, has led to collective despair in Aboriginal communities and resulted in the incidences of suicide and self-harm quadrupling.

Significantly, Pilger does more than just assess the decades of neglect, desperate poverty and the neoliberal motivations behind the current attack on Aboriginal communities that has seen a clear ideological shift away from Aboriginal self-determination.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks says Aboriginal people have never ceded their sovereignty or agreed in any way to the taking of our country in exchange for social security.

While other comparable countries have treaties that begin to recognise their Original Peoples’ self-determination, Australia’s tokenistic reconciliation process hasn’t stopped the current land grab or considered any form of justice for Aboriginal people.

Jon Altman considers that Australia requires international aid to deal with the appalling situation in Aboriginal communities, saying the issue is too politicised for governments to deal with rationally.

Utopia reminds us that Australia’s mining industry has profits of $1 billion a month, or close to $52 billion a year on land they don’t own. These huge profits allowed the industry to run a media fear campaign against the Hawke Labor government's promised national Aboriginal land rights.

A tax on mining super profits would have earned $60 billion, enough to fund land rights and end Aboriginal poverty, but it was knocked back by the Australian parliament.

Utopia’s most critical message is that real reconciliation is not possible without justice.

This film is also a powerful reminder of a quote by Desmond Tutu, who said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

[Utopia screening details can be found here.]