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Pilger's cheap shots won't ease Indigenous oppression

Tim Kroenert |  05 February 2014

Utopia (M). Director: John Pilger. 110 minutes

Who is John Pilger talking to? Fans of the rabble-rousing Australian journalist and documentarian — myself included — will know him as a fearless critic of the imperialist agenda of Australian and other Western governments, and in this context a stalwart defender of the poor and marginalised. Going back at least as far as his 1986 documentary The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back, he has railed against the dispossession and displacement of Australia's Indigenous peoples under the continuing impacts of colonisation.

His latest film, the ironically titled Utopia, paints with broad brushstrokes a portrait of Aboriginal disadvantage in Australia today, and mines the fundamentally racist ideologies that underpin it. But just who is his intended audience? It is not clear if even Pilger himself knows.

The obvious answer is that it is a film primarily for Pilger disciples, and from this perspective it feeds copious tinder to the flames of moral outrage. Pilger travels to Utopia, a region north of Alice Springs that is recognised as one of the most disadvantaged areas in Australia, and reveals the degradations suffered by the local Aboriginal communities after years of government neglect. He visits Rottnest Island off the coast of Fremantle, where a veil of tourist niceties has been draped over a sordid history of Aboriginal maltreatment. He recounts the events that led to the Intervention and claims there was propaganda sold to the public in order to justify this racist action.

These are appalling realities. But if Pilger is preaching to the converted, he's not telling them anything they don't already know. What then does Utopia achieve, except to invoke the tongue-clicking and head-shaking of moral superiority? Because on the available evidence, it seems unlikely that Pilger is chasing new converts. As an exercise in persuasive argument, Utopia falls well short.

Pilger asks leading questions of those he sympathises with, speaking for them rather than allowing them to illuminate the issues from their own experiences. And his bold assertions frequently bulldoze dissenting voices, silencing and aggravating the speaker. Fence-sitters and outright opponents are unlikely to be persuaded by such tactics. Even Pilger-sympathisers might object to the way he shouts down Labor MP Warren Snowdon, representative for the Division of Lingiari, as Snowdon attempts to explain how current health policies are attempting to undo past neglect of remote communities.

Pilger is prone to hyperbole too. He refers to a 'concentration camp' that was located on Rottnest Island and proceeds to denounce the atrocities that occurred there, without substantiating the use of such a loaded term. In fact the facility was an Aboriginal prison, and its history — and the fact that its buildings have been converted into a resort for oblivious tourists — is appalling enough without the need to resort to divisive dysphemism, which in fact only serves to weaken his argument.

During another sequence he conducts a vox pop amid flag-waving Australia Day revellers, goading them with questions about the white invasion that is commemorated by the day. This is predictable showboating that provokes some suitably cringe-worthy (and in one instance downright hilarious) reactions; but who of these individuals or those who share their whitewashed view of history will be persuaded by being ridiculed?

If it sounds like I'm overly down on Pilger, it's only because I share his outrage about these issues and believe they should be firmly on the agenda of mainstream public discourse. Pilger has been fighting the good fight for many years, but moral outrage can only get you so far. I yearned for Utopia to contribute to the debate more constructively, and was disappointed that Pilger seems content simply to rage and point fingers.

A series of screenings is underway during February and March, many of which will be accompanied by a Q and A with the filmmaker. Hopefully Utopia then is the beginning of constructive conversation, and not the last word.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

Well-written review. Sad to say, having seen the film I'm inclined to agree. The last thing that those of us sympathetic to this cause need is for our 'side' to appear sensationalist, extreme - or our claims dubious - because of a fairly self-indulgent docu-rant like Utopia. It's off-putting to someone like myself who deeply cares about Indigenous disadvantage, let alone the response it might evoke from those at the other end of the debate. We really can't afford anything less than constructive discussion & advocacy on this deeply important topic.

M Grey 05 February 2014

I saw this last night and think a couple things should be mentioned. 1. The audience is probably focused on people overseas. 2. The film managed to cover a hell of a lot of ground. It discussed history, labour struggles, child removal, poverty, mining. It was pretty incredible. Taking these bureaucrats to account was a good thing. I find your criticism a bit too harsh. Look it wasn't perfect but it needs to be said, more than once. @MGrey, I certainly don't think it was extreme. The neglect has been extreme, the exploitation by the likes of the mining industry has been extreme. The current government is extreme. Anyway it's nice to know you're sympathetic.

ChipH 05 February 2014

John Pilger has done some excellent work on several highly controversial subjects, which did need bringing to public attention, but he does have a tendency to be overly polemical at times, when a more balanced approach, letting the facts speak for themselves, may have been far more effective. I think "Utopia" could be useful as a starting point for some people who may not be fully cognizant of the dreadful treatment Indigenous people have traditionally copped here. However I think Indigenous affairs here have moved on due to the leadership and example of those such as Charles Perkins; Noel Pearson; Adam Goodes and so many others whose courage and remarkable behaviour under appalling conditions and extreme duress has materially changed things. Perhaps we need to let Indigenous Australians show the rest of us the way to move on from here?

Edward F 05 February 2014

Having just returned from working in my 40th Aboriginal Community over 18 years. I would like the opportunity to complete a documentary on a reality based perspective. There are many people black and white in the Aboriginal industry who's vested interest drives their personal propaganda. I will certainly be seeing this doco and contrast with lived experience.

marcel campbell 06 February 2014

I agree wholeheartedly with ChipH. I have collected all Pilger's films and now am really looking forward to seeing Utopia. Pilger is too intelligent and experienced a film-maker to use "cheap shots" indiscriminately. His work has been very effective in educating a wide audience - from students to politicians. He didn't receive the Sydney Peace Prize from merely preaching to the converted. I agree that the Aboriginal viewpoint is paramount in ensuring reform and justice, but isn't it wonderful that at least one white man is standing up to be counted. His work is that of the true critic.

Annabel 06 February 2014

Pilger's 'Utopia' has much value with the debate it has stimulated. Even I (who have worked with Aboriginal people since 1969) was outraged to hear Lang Hancock's solution to the 'half-caste problem' and to learn about Rottnest Island. Aboriginal people are welcoming the film and think it should be seen widely by as many people as possible. They are pleased that at last some of the true stories of this land are being told. The film pre-screened in Darwin earlier this week to a mainly Aboriginal audience and received a standing ovation. It is empowering for people to see Rosalie Kunoth Monks, Trisha Morton Thomas, Maurie Ryan et al reiterating on film what they have been saying for a long time. Despite some awkwardness in the film it is being shown in many locations around the country. It was a sellout here in Alice Springs and there will be another screening for the public on the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations (coinciding with screenings around the country on that day). Pilger's film is adding to movement in the community for self determination and recognition of Aboriginal people's rights.

Marlene Hodder 06 February 2014

Didn't the Lord once said something about denial to Peter? I think the author has just committed his first denial about the way our indigenous brothers and sisters are treated. Sadly, he's not alone. I wish that Pilger will continue to rage and point fingers!

Alex Njoo 06 February 2014

Such an important subject so central to the healing of this nation and its aboriginal people in particular. What a shame though it is cheapened in this way by a man whose own political bigotry and looseness with the truth is the stuff of legend.

martin loney 06 February 2014

Revealingly, the author of this piece fails to mention ANY indigenous heroes appearing in this film – like 4,000 others at Redfern I was blown away by Arthur and Leila Murray, Noel Nanup , Marianne Mackay, Dexter Daniels, Robert and Selina Eggington, Rosalie Kunoth Monks, Pat Anderson, Tjanara Goreng Goreng, Lorna Fejo, Bob Randall, Vince Forrester, Trisha Morton Thomas, Amy McQuire.... WOW! Perhaps the reviewer does not really "see" & "hear" indigenous people? More interested in offering tired slurs against Pilger's style. Only interviewee mentioned: Snowdon (another white man). 23 years (23 YEARS TO ACT) as the NT MP means Snowdon has been paid MILLIONS by Australia to act for his constituents. Pilger's anger is right, he brilliantly exposes the guilt behind the bluster - yet this reviewer thinks he should pay obeisance to new, modest health policy reform! And why not quote Salil Shetty - SG of Amnesty from the film on this subject? Who is Pilger talking to and who is listening? Hardly as predicted here (Ch10’s The Project’s coverage is indicative…) The film speaks to those who CAN and WILL make a difference – not the hand wringers, closet eugenicists nor promoters of safe, biddable indigenous leadership.

Curious 06 February 2014

Pilger does not behave the way this so-called critic claims. It was an important film and follow up by the only Australian journalist who really bothers to get the truth.

Marilyn 07 February 2014

In Pilger's Utopia, there may be significant omissions to the story, even some distortions and manipulative juxtapositions, but there were undeniable cameos of truth – truth at its extreme. The film is an emotional experience which is gutwrenching at times and can arouse the shame and guilt of the whiteman. It shows past and present racism, intergenerational trauma – legacies of colonisation, disadvantage, disempowerment – and raises the question, “whose problem is it?”. Emotional experiences of pain and truth are important in achieving change and growth. Australia indeed has “a black past” and the past has a living presence. Whilst controversial and provocative, I congratulate Pilger, as a Whitefellah, for making this film.I encourage everyone to see it. For full comment visit: http://www.casse.org.au/the-utopia-controversy/

Pamela Nathan 10 February 2014

A screening last night in Darwin earned a generous applause from a sympathetic audience comprising mainly non-Indigenous people but also many local Indigenous people. For those of us who have spent any time working in this field or who have Aboriginal friends and relations the account rang true at many levels. The 'tin shed' scenes at Mutitjulu and Amplitwatja are hauntingly accurate. The overcrowding was well documented. The film did not show the efforts by governments to address the problem through investment in housing under the Intervention and Closing the Gap but the truth is that the housing stress remains because the Aboriginal population is growing so fast in the NT. My bleakest moment came in the account of the abduction of babies from Lightning Ridge. My daughter has just delivered her Aboriginal baby in Alice Springs. Recently he was admitted to hospital with a severe eye infection. I imagined that some authorities might make the judgment that the baby was 'neglected'! I could just feel the powerlessness of the mothers, fathers, and grandparents as the welfare officers came into the ward and took the Lightning Ridge babies away because they were 'at risk'. At an emotional level the film worked.

Michael Bowden 14 February 2014

The history is true but the lack of focus on current positive initiatives is upsetting. I felt like he hasn't been in the country since 1980.

Noniewalsh 24 February 2014

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