John Pilger is a polemicist with only two colours on his palette: black and white. Where others see complexity, he sees right and wrong. Where others strive for neutrality, his reporting is unapolagetically activist.
That’s why he’s so widely acclaimed — Sydney Peace Prize winner; twice British journalist of the year — and so reviled. Writer William Shawcross called him “one of the worst journalists writing in the English language”; journalist Auberon Waugh coined the term “to pilger” in his honour, meaning to employ “extravagant and emotive language to make a bogus political point”.
In his new film Utopia, the progressive expat returns to a topic he has tackled repeatedly during his career: the oppression of indigenous Australians. The message is that living conditions for Aboriginal people have hardly changed since his 1985 film A Secret Country; indigenous people in remote areas, he argues, are suffering the “equivalent of apartheid”. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd and former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough were both interviewed for the film, which will premiere locally on Australia Day but can already be downloaded legally on iTunes.
While Utopia has received positive reviews in the UK — including four stars in The Guardian — it is likely to receive a more mixed reception in Australia, where indigenous policy remains a heated issue and where Pilger is loathed by conservative commentators.
The film begins with a powerful montage of archival footage. Mining magnate Lang Hancock calling for “half-caste” Aborigines to be sterilised; an Aboriginal boy screaming in pain as police taser him; a police officer hurling an indigenous inmate against a prison wall. Cut to Sydney’s glamorous Palm Beach, where Pilger is inspecting a $30,000 a week holiday rental — a vision of paradise quickly juxtaposed with the poverty and degradation of the Northern Territory homeland of Utopia. Here, we discover 20 people living in cramped, unclean shanty houses with no electricity or running water. It’s arresting, disturbing stuff.
Utopia carries all the hallmarks of Pilger’s previous films: the sonorous voiceover, the emotive soundtrack. Interviewees he agrees with are coddled; those he disagrees with are harangued.
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The most testy encounter comes with Warren Snowdon, the federal Labor MP for Lingiari in the Northern Territory. Snowdon, the minister for indigenous health at the time of the interview, reacts angrily when Pilger asks whether he is proud of the conditions in remote Australia. “The reason I’m asking you these questions is: one, you’re the minister for indigenous health,” Pilger says. “And two: you’ve been the representative of some of the poorest, sickest people in Australia for 23 years. Why. Haven’t. You. Fixed. It?”
“What a stupid question, what a stupid question,” Snowdon fumes. “What a puerile question.”
The most moving moments come when Aboriginal people are given space to speak for themselves. Such as when Noongar elder Noel Nannup explains the offensiveness of turning a former Aboriginal prison camp on Rottnest Island into a luxury resort.
The publicity campaign for Utopia describes the film as “epic”. It certainly is ambitious. Utopia covers deaths in custody, health problems, housing issues, the removal of Aboriginal children by child protection services and flaws in the native title system. But it’s notable, too, for what it leaves out. There’s no mention of Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton’s influential views on welfare dependency and alcoholism. And there’s no exploration of the need for jobs and economic development — as well as increased government funding — in remote communities.
The film’s most sustained focus is on the Northern Territory intervention of 2007, which Pilger argues was a disaster carried out on a phony pretext of rampant paedophile rings. The ABC’s Lateline program cops a sustained bollocking for a famous 2006 report on the Mutijulu community that helped spark the intervention. An anonymous “former youth worker” who made explosive claims about sexual abuse was later revealed to be a senior public servant in Brough’s department who had not lived in the community.
Pilger makes some questionable decisions of his own in Utopia. Associate producers Paddy Gibson (a socialist activist and university researcher) and Chris Graham (former editor of the National Indigenous Times) give lengthy on-screen interviews; so does researcher Amy McQuire. He also airs conspiracy theories that the intervention was a trojan horse for a natural resources grab.
The film concludes with Pilger’s vision for the future: a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
“Like apartheid South Africa, reconciliation is not possible without justice,” he says. “And this will only happen when the first Australians are offered a genuine treaty that shares this rich country — its land, its resources and opportunities. The benefit then will be mutual. For until we give back their nationhood we can never claim our own.”