A long-standing critic of Australia’s treatment of the Aboriginal people, John Pilger’s new documentary returns to a subject he first documented in The Secret Country in 1985. The plight of Australia’s indigenous populations and their treatment by the Australian government has been described as “apartheid in all but name”. Twenty-eight years on from his first documentary here Pilger returns to see what, if anything has changed, and to demonstrate how the enduring legacy of exploitation and racism continues under a blanket of silence.
The film’s title comes from a small aboriginal village in Northern Australia that has been declared the most disadvantaged place to live in Australia, but it is also a reminder of the contrast between Australia’s image as a wealthy, relaxed, outstandingly beautiful country with the ‘Best jobs in the world’ with the poverty, low life-expectancy and racism that Australia’s Aborigines live with.
Utopia starts in the suburb of Barton in Sydney, the country’s wealthiest area, named after Edmund Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister and instigator of the White Australia Policy. That the suburb was built on the site of an evicted Aboriginal settlement drives the disparity home. Australia’s richest live and profit from lands stolen from the Aboriginals.
During the film Pilger visits the popular tourist attraction Rottenest Island, a holiday resort located on a renovated prison camp. The country club overlooks a mass grave while the island’s golf tournament trophy is named after the prison’s governor, Henry Vincent, known to have personally murdered two indigenous prisoners and overseen the executions of many more. None of the tourists have any idea of the island’s past.
Elsewhere Pilger surveys the vast differences in job opportunities and welfare and highlights how Aborigines have been stereotyped as violent outsiders. Institutionalised discrimination is readily apparent – the difference in incarcerations rates between white Australians and Aboriginals is even more skewed than it is between white American and black Americans, yet the indigenous population is a far smaller proportion of the overall population. In interviews with politicians Pilger uncovers a shocking reluctance and refusal to acknowledge the crimes committed against the Aboriginals and a bleak look at the prospects for improvement.
An undeniably powerful and impassioned documentary, Pilger ranks as one of the most insightful and committed journalists working today. Screening at Curzon Soho from 15 November and available on iTunes on the same day, Utopia is released on DVD courtesy of Network on the 2 December. It is also be available from the BFFS Booking Scheme on the same day. The DVD contains over 4 hours of extras including additional and extended interviews and deleted scenes, any and all of which can be screened alongside the film.