Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Ranked no. 5 in The London Film Review’s list of the “Top 25 Films of 2013”, John Pilger’s latest film, Utopia, is born of his return to the Aboriginal community of that name in Australia’s Northern Territory, 28 years after he had visited it in the making of his earlier film, The Secret Country. As Pilger points out, the European who named the place either had a grand sense of irony or was suffering from severe sunstroke. The earlier work presented a bleak tale of an Indigenous people – the longest surviving continuous culture on this planet – that had been brutalized, marginalized and subjected to government policies designed to eliminate every trace of their uniqueness. The core message of this latest work is that little if anything has changed in the intervening period.
The inhabitants of Utopia are shown today as the poorest community of one of the richest countries in the world – citizens of “the lucky country” living in conditions that would disgrace many a so-called Third World country. Pilger shows a community that is supposed to be on the receiving end of vast amount of welfare funding to rectify deplorable housing, health and education provisions, yet there is scant evidence of it having reached anywhere near those intended beneficiaries.
Stepping outside of Utopia itself, Pilger paints a bleak picture of life for remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory and most of Australia. He provides graphic evidence, using CCTV images from inside police stations in some instances, of extreme physical violence leading to death, and heart-wrenching interviews with relatives of Indigenous people who have died in police custody. From Western Australia, he tells of an Aboriginal Elder who quite literally cooked to death inside the back of a police van while being transported hundreds of kilometres in searing heat with no air conditioning. The politician with responsibility for the portfolio is shown telling, with no apparent emotion, how she contemplated resignation for three days, and how all had been taken care of, since new vans had been put on order.
One of the most disturbing implications of Pilger’s reports, amongst a seemingly endless list, is the common factor that Indigenous death as a result of non-Indigenous violence, inhumanity or sheer incompetence generally leads to no prosecution of those directly involved and no substantive change to policy, behaviour or attitude by those with ultimate authority. The full range of critical issues raised by Pilger includes: death in custody, mortality rates amongst the world’s worst and getting no better, youth suicide at unbelievable rates, ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families without cause and so the list goes on.
I have been in this amazing country for just five years and have been a proud Australian citizen for just over one year (granting me a status that the Indigenous population had been deprived of for nearly two centuries and rights to which they can still only aspire). However, despite my limited knowledge and experience, I found that in watching Pilger’s meandering across so much of the vast land and so many issues, about 90 per cent of the cases he presented were already known to me – and to everyone else I spoke to. As such, with the film attracting an Australian audience of like-minded individuals, it did not add much to our understanding. Rather, I along with others was left wondering why he did not address the Indigenous death in custody that is probably the most widely known outside of Australia, that of 36-year old Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. That said, there was one shocking event presented that neither I nor any of my colleagues had been aware of previously.
The so-called Northern Territory Intervention program initiated by the government of John Howard has been the subject of furious debate and controversy since its introduction in 2007. Based on the claims of rampant child abuse and organized paedophilia across communities by Mal Brough, the then Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the rights of the entire remote Indigenous population of the Territory were withdrawn, with the Army sent in to “bring order” to communities. The way to the Intervention was in part paved by the broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the previous year of an interview with a “former youth worker in Indigenous communities” who talked of paedophile rings and sex slaves being endemic across the Territory, with communities too scared to speak out. Pilger showed, without rebuttal by those involved, that the entire episode was an elaborate hoax, with the “youth worker” being a branch manager for the office of Minister Brough, and never having lived in an Indigenous community. This report would, in itself, have justified an entire film.
Some commentators critique Pilger’s work as being unbalanced and selective, and one “whitefella” tells him on screen that he is “full of sh**” for pointing out on Australia Day that the Indigenous people had been on the land for thousands of years. Whilst Pilger presents the Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews by and large as discrete and conflicting, it must be acknowledged that there are many individuals and organizations that seek to engage with Indigenous Communities, coming from a Western cultural and business context but with determination to develop understanding of the Aboriginal context (cf. Parsons, 2008). Also, academic critique in the pages of CPoIB (Sullivan, 2008) points to the complex intercultural bureaucracy – with many Indigenous players – that is charged with overseeing and implementing the systems that Pilger identifies as failing. Similarly, other journalists have delved into the murky depths of the intercultural bureaucratic jungle of the Northern Territory in a much more critically probing manner (cf. Skelton, 2010). That said, Pilger’s work must be seen as a counter-balance to the apathy, ignorance and untruths displayed by many others, including the example cited above from the national broadcaster, the ABC – which has recently been under fire from the Abbott government for its alleged partiality and ill-informed reporting. For all of these reasons, Utopia is a film that had to be made and that must be seen. Yet, the sheer scope and scale of the issues raised by Pilger is, to my mind, the underlying reason for the film’s greatest weakness.
As highlighted above, the film’s name is taken from the poorest community on this rich land, which is supposedly the focus of the film. Yet, I along with others was left at the end with the key question alluded to at the outset unanswered – “What happened to the money?” And, it is not just about welfare payments and hand-outs from the city-based tax payer. It is widely known that the traditional lands of Australia are the source of much of the resource riches that maintained the country reasonably stable as Europe and North America suffered the ravages of the global financial crisis. Many across the country question where the royalty payments due to the traditional owners of these lands have been directed (cf. O’Faircheallaigh, 2011). Following a neo-colonial trajectory of exploitation, it appears that “the path to “development”, “progress” and “modernity” continues the same uneven transfer of resources from the south to the north” (Banerjee and Prasad, 2008, p. 91), here the “north” being China, aided by mining magnates and politicians.
My expectations of the film were of an in-depth investigation of Utopia, where stones would be turned and worms would crawl from under them. Where did the millions of dollars allocated to “solving” the problems of diabolical housing, health and education issues in Utopia actually go? Pilger offers no clues, let alone any answers. At the end, I was left sadly wondering if I had watched a piece of “tabloid reporting” on the shock elements of all the issues facing Indigenous Australians – and there is no denying that these elements need to be reported – but had been offered no investigative journalism on Utopia.
Broadcast and shown in the UK in 2013, Utopia was only released to Australian audiences in January 2014. I can imagine the horror and disbelief that it provoked in the UK, evidenced by the Twitter stream that followed its UK showing – how can people be left to live in such disgusting conditions in a civilized, democratic Commonwealth country? Here, however, my concern is that Pilger’s confrontational approach, without the persevering probing of depth that is required, will result only in him preaching to the already converted and being written off as a bullying “leftie” by the conservative right.
However, the final message must be, if you have not yet seen Utopia, then you must do so.
For a full and confronting discussion of this event, see Tedmanson (2008).
It must be noted, however, that the ABC report was revealed as a fiction in 2010 by Chris Graham of the National Indigenous Times (www.indymedia.org.au/2011/12/09/the-abc-lie-that-built-the-intervention).
Banerjee, S.B. and Prasad, A. (2008), “Introduction to the special issue on ‘critical reflections on management and organizations: a postcolonial perspective’”, Critical Perspectives on International Business , Vol. 4 Nos 2/3, pp. 90-98.
O’Faircheallaigh, C. (2011), “Native title and Australia’s resource boom: a lost opportunity?”, The Conversation , 11 August, available at: http://theconversation.com/native-title-and-australias-resource-boom-a-lost-opportunity-2725 (accessed 14 February 2014).
Parsons, R. (2008), “We are all stakeholders now: the influence of western discourses of ‘community engagement’ in an Australian Aboriginal community”, Critical Perspectives on International Business , Vol. 4 Nos 2/3, pp. 99-126.
Skelton, R. (2010), King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya , Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Sullivan, P. (2008), “Bureaucratic process as Morris dance: an ethnographic approach to the culture of bureaucracy I Australian aboriginal affairs administration”, Critical Perspectives on International Business , Vol. 4 Nos 2/3, pp. 127-141.
Tedmanson, D. (2008), “Isle of exception: sovereign power and Palm Island”, Critical Perspectives on International Business , Vol. 4 Nos 2/3, pp. 142-165.