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Pilger's cheap shots won't ease Indigenous oppression

  • 06 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'