Utopia: Film Review

A stirring polemic exposing the appalling treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

Eminent Australian journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger revisits the plight of his homeland’s First People, uncovering how little has improved after centuries of oppression.

In 1985, having built a considerable reputation in the U.K. as a left-wing print-and-TV journalist, Australian-born John Pilger returned home to Oz to write and present The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back (directed by Alan Lowery). A 60-minute TV documentary that travelled widely, it exposed the horrific persecution of Australia’s indigenous population, from colonial days to the present. His latest documentary Utopia, co-directed by Pilger and Lowery, uncovers how pathetically little conditions have improved in the intervening years, as the First People continue to suffer from shocking mortality rates, police brutality, and harassment campaigns. Made with passion, this powerful but sometimes strident documentary won’t have mass commercial appeal, but limited release in the UK and Australia will help promulgate its message to receptive viewers.

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The film takes its title from an irony so heavy, a whole new rhetorical term needs to be invented to encompass it: Utopia is a 3,500 sq. km. region in the Northern Territory, a homeland for the Alyawarra and Anmatjirra people, where many First Australians live in abject poverty on a par with some of the poorest nations in the developing world, even though Australia itself is one of the richest countries in the world. By way of illustration, Pilger, an onscreen presence throughout, contrasts the manicured-lawn affluence of Barton, the wealthy suburb of Australia’s capitol Canberra, with the shabby huts of Utopia, where atrocious sanitary conditions create a slew of preventable diseases, such as blindness-inducing trachoma. One doctor laments that they have to deal with cockroaches taking up residence in children’s ears on a regular basis.

In a sit-down interview with Warren Snowden, formerly the Minister for Indigenous Health, Pilger grills the politician with belligerent, bull-dog tenacity about the government’s failure to improve living conditions, and the latter reacts with explosive hostility, dismissing one question as “stupid” and blaming “legacy issues” for the low standards of health. Later exchanges with ordinary white Australians in the street during celebrations for Australia Day (the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the first British ships in Sydney) are similarly heated and confrontational, which makes for rousing documentary entertainment even if such combativeness doesn’t necessarily move the debate forward to finding practical resolutions to solvable problems.

It could be argued, however, that it’s not Pilger’s aim to frame policy, but to report injustice, and that the documentary incontrovertibly achieves, smoothly intertwining throughout historical outrages over the centuries with contemporary parallels. Several recent cases are recounted of how aboriginal people have died unnecessarily in police custody, which meshes neatly with a history lesson about the concentration camps of Rottnest Island in Western Australia. Pilger fulminates against how the history of the island is completely ignored in its marketing today as a tourist destination. A one-time inmate explains how the cheerfully decorated room for a family of four in converted prison cell used to hold up to 17 men stacked in bunks.

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Elsewhere, the story of last century’s “stolen children” (aboriginal kids forcibly adopted for white families in order to destroy through eugenics the native population), dovetails with an account how in 2007 allegations of pedophilia among First People in the Northern Territory were first raised, used as an excuse to take large numbers children into care, and then completely discredited. Skirting just shy of slander, Pilger slyly mentions the mineral wealth of the area where the scandal unfolded, suggesting that shadowy interests with agendas quite different from concern for child welfare may have had a conspiratorial hand in the proceedings.

Other topics covered include past labor and land rights disputes, so all in all Utopia builds up a comprehensively damning indictment of how poorly First People have been, and still are, treated, shifting seamlessly between original and archival footage. What saves it from being either a total downer or a mere catalogue of horrors is the respect the filmmakers clearly feel for the indigenous people met throughout, the campaigners who refuse to be silenced, and the grieving parents who refuse to forget.  

TV-documentary-style production values suggest a low budget but in a way add grit and impact.

Opens in the U.K.: November 15 (Dartmouth Films)

Production: Dartmouth Films

Cast: John Pilger

Directors: John Pilger, Alan Lowery

Screenwriter: John Pilger

Producers: John Pilger

Executive producer: Christopher Hird

Co-executive producer: Tim Beddows

Director of photography: Preston Clothier

Editor: Joe Frost

12A certificate, 115 minutes