Directed by John Pilger & Alan Lowery.
Australia’s past is explored by one of its most famous – and outspoken – sons. John Pilger’s film tackles his country’s racially divided history and how the state, the media and corporations have played a part in a system that is regarded by many as apartheid in all but name. The film examines the exploitation of the Aboriginal population, both as a people and of the land they have lived on for centuries, and how so many institutions have profited while they have suffered.
Australian journalist, documentary maker and iconoclast John Pilger is a controversial figure. Over his career, he has criticised western governments, politicians and has also been a thorn in the side of mainstream media. In particular, he has often criticised Australia over its treatment of Aborigine people. His latest documentary, Utopia, serves as a summary of those criticisms, as well as exposing some of the latest atrocities committed against the Aborigines.
Pilger’s documentary is named after a small, dilapidated Aborigine village in the Northern Territory. The village, which a report found to be the poorest, least advantaged place to live in Australia, was ironically named. More broadly, the title is meant to serve as juxtaposition: despite Australia’s wealth, natural beauty and high standard of living (the perceived ideals of a Utopian society), Pilger examines the continued oppression of Australia’s original people. Australia’s “dark secret” as he wishes to call it.
The film begins in the village of Utopia, with Pilger speaking to the inhabitants. A health worker explains that the multitudes of preventable illnesses suffered by the inhabitants are due to a mix of factors; their incredibly poor housing conditions, bad diets and lack of sanitation and health care. A key word repeated during the scene is that the illnesses are due to “compounding factors.”
Pilger’s documentary goes on to construct the argument that the Aborigine’s plight is due to compounding factors: racist government policies, unequal work opportunities, lack of investment in Aborigine areas, unchallenged police brutality, media lies and the censorship of Aborigine history and culture. These factors, in Pilger’s view, have combined to oppress Aborigines.
Some of what Pilger exposes are truly shocking. For instance, on Rottnest Island, a former prison for Aborigines (that was effectively a concentration camp) has been turned into a hotel for tourists, with no acknowledgement of its past. Imagine if former concentrations camps in Germany had been converted into luxury hotels?
Pilger also attempts to challenge the stereotypes white Australians have of Aborigines: he interviews ordinary people who believe the Aborigines are drunks who refuse to join in society. The film argues that the high rates of alcoholism, self-harm and suicides are connected to their poverty and lack of economic opportunities. Pilger’s arguments are effective and compelling. Pilger even personally confronts several politicians over their lack of involvement in the issue and the mistakes they’ve made.
The documentary is constructed in a traditional manner, with talking heads, interviews and archival footage, narrated by Pilger. He is firmly on the side of the Aborigines and the film is call for for socialism and conscientious economics: if you prefer balanced, neutral documentaries, such as Werner Herzog’s The Abyss, you may be disappointed. However, minus Pilger’s self-indulgent speech directly to camera during the documentary’s denouement, the documentary avoids histrionics, instead calmly explaining facts and deflating myths.
While the documentary is compelling from an academic point-of-view, it’s still engaging from a film-making perspective. Well-paced and smoothly constructed, the documentary is edited so that topics are presented in logical progression, and never shifts from scene to scene in a clunky way. Still, some may be turned off by its grim, heavy tone: there are no easy solutions presented, no hopeful scenes designed to inspire or pluck at the heartstrings. These wouldn’t serve Pilger’s purpose, which is to provoke Australia’s government or people into action.
Utopia is a fascinating, thought-provoking documentary, which explores several political and ethical issues; for instance, the documentary asks whether a minority should or should not have to conform to the majority and who has a true claim to the land and natural resources below it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★