Imagine watching a film that tells the truth about the terrible injustices committed over 225 years against your people, a film that reveals how Europeans, and the governments that have run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from your people for their own benefit.
Now imagine how it feels when the people who benefited most from those rapes, those killings and that theft – the people in whose name the oppression was done – turn away in disgust when someone seeks to expose it.”
Adam Goodes is the Australian of the Year and plays AFL for the Sydney Swans.: “It takes courage to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular those truths may be.” Photo: Rohan Thomson
“Put simply, reconciliation hasn’t worked in Australia because as a nation, we continue to refuse to face up to our real past. Just as you cannot have reconciliation without justice, you can’t have justice without truth”
Sol Bellear reviewing the movie Utopia (see below ) Sol is the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern and a long-time Aboriginal activist.
Hostility to John Pilger’s film a denial of nation’s brutal past-Adam Goodes
For the last few weeks, I’ve seen a film bring together Aboriginal people all over Australia. The buzz around Utopia – a documentary by John Pilger – has been unprecedented. Some 4000 people attended the open-air premiere in Redfern last month – both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – and yet little appeared in the media about an event that the people of Redfern say was a ”first”. This silence has since been broken by a couple of commentators whose aggression seemed a cover for their hostility to the truth about Aboriginal people.
When I watched Utopia for the first time, I was moved to tears. Three times. This film has reminded me that the great advantages I enjoy today – as a footballer and Australian of the Year – are a direct result of the struggles and sacrifices of the Aboriginal people who came before me.
Utopia honours these people, so I think the very least I can do is honour Utopia and the people who appeared in it and made it.
It takes courage to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular those truths may be. But it also takes courage to face up to our past.
That process starts with understanding our very dark past, a brutal history of dispossession, theft and slaughter. For that reason, I urge the many fair-minded Australians who seek genuine prosperity and equality for my people to find the courage to open their hearts and their minds and watch Utopia.
Imagine watching a film that tells the truth about the terrible injustices committed over 225 years against your people, a film that reveals how Europeans, and the governments that have run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from your people for their own benefit.
Now imagine how it feels when the people who benefited most from those rapes, those killings and that theft – the people in whose name the oppression was done – turn away in disgust when someone seeks to expose it.
Frankly, as a proud Adnyamathanha man, I find the silence about Utopia in mainstream Australia disturbing and hurtful. As an Australian, I find it embarrassing. I also see an irony, for Utopia is about telling the story of this silence.
Some say the film doesn’t tell the ”good stories” out of Aboriginal Australia. That’s the part I find most offensive.
Utopia is bursting at the seams with stories of Aboriginal people who have achieved incredible things in the face of extreme adversity. Stories of people like Arthur Murray, an Aboriginal man from Wee Waa, and his wife, Leila, who fought for several decades for the truth over the death in police custody of their son Eddie.
Their quiet, dignified determination helped spark the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, a landmark inquiry that still plagues governments today.
Even before that, Murray led a historic strike of cotton workers and forced employers to provide better wages and conditions for Aboriginal workers. How is this achievement negative?
The film also features Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, a strong Aboriginal woman who proudly speaks of truth and a long overdue treaty.
The work of Robert and Selina Eggington is also profiled in Utopia. After the suicide of their son, Robert and Selina created a healing centre in Perth called Dumbartung. Its aim is to stop the deaths and provide an outlet for the never-ending grief of so many Aboriginal families.
I reject any suggestion that by telling those stories, that by honouring these lives, Pilger has ”focused on the negative”. Their achievements may not fit the mainstream idea of ”success” but they inspire me and other Aboriginal people because they’re shared stories. They are our courageous, unrecognised resistance.
Nana Fejo, another strong Aboriginal woman, appears in Utopia. She tells of her forced removal as a child. It’s a heart-wrenching story and yet she speaks with a graciousness and generosity of spirit that should inspire all Australians.
Like Fejo, my mother was a member of the stolen generations. My family has been touched by suicide, like the Eggingtons. My family and my people talk of truth and treaty, just like Kunoth-Monks does. My family has been denied our culture, language and kinship systems, like all the Aboriginal people who feature in Utopia. This extraordinary film tells the unpleasant truth. It should be required viewing for every Australian.
Utopia brought back were not pleasant, and large sections of the film simply made me angry
Sol is the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern and a long-time Aboriginal activist
It’s the new mantra in Aboriginal affairs: get your kids to school.
Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd were fond of saying it. So too is Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
While I don’t accept that education alone, or rather a lack of access to it, explains the desperate poverty in
But if it’s good enough for blackfellas, then it should also be good enough for whitefellas.
Mainstream Australia has long lacked a real education about Aboriginal people, about our shared history, and this nation’s brutal past.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way in – an opportunity to get a “punter’s guide” to the truth about the treatment of Aboriginal Australians.
John Pilger’s latest film, Utopia – a 110-minute feature length documentary more than two years in the making – should be required viewing for all Australians, in particular lawmakers.
I watched the film recently and it brought back many memories for me. Admittedly, a few of them were pleasant. The spirit of my people has always helped to sustain and inspire me, and watching old warriors such as Vince Forrester, Bob Randall and Rosie Kunoth-Monks, for me at least, took the edge off some of the hard truths in Utopia.
But many of the memories Utopia brought back were not pleasant, and large sections of the film simply made me angry.
During the 1970s, I travelled the nation with Fred Hollows. We travelled across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, treating Aboriginal men, women and children for trachoma and other eye diseases, problems which still plague remote Aboriginal communities today.
The Australia I saw in Utopia this week is the same Australia I saw with Hollows.
Very little has changed on the ground.
Attitudes in non-Aboriginal Australia, it seems, have not evolved much either.
In one part of the film, Pilger is taken on a tour of Rottnest Island by a local Aboriginal elder, Noel Nannup. But it’s not the tour tourists get – despite “Rotto’s” history as a brutal concentration camp, today it is a resort and luxury spa, with virtually all traces of its past erased.
The stories around deaths in custody; around an Aboriginal elder being cooked, literally, in the back of a prison van; around government and media deceit that led to the Northern Territory intervention; all made for infuriating viewing.
But for me, Pilger’s interview with the former indigenous health minister, Warren Snowdon, and the responses of white people on Australia Day who were asked why they thought Aboriginal people didn’t celebrate January 26, were the real nuggets in the film.
For Snowdon’s part, he was grilled about why, after 23 years in office, his constituents were still among the sickest and poorest on earth. Snowdon’s seething, bombastic response was to label the question “puerile”.
And then there were the vox pops from mainstream Australians on January 26, 2013. People were asked why they thought Aboriginal people didn’t celebrate the date. Most seemed to have no idea that was even the case, and others were just openly hostile.
To me, it’s these attitudes of indifference, and sometimes outrage when challenged, that are the real elephants in the room for this country.
The denial of our history, and our collective refusal to accept the truths of our past are the biggest hurdles to Aboriginal advancement.
I hope that people who see Utopia will have their consciences pricked. Those who do might feel embarrassed or ashamed. But I hope that’s not the only reaction. I hope, above all else, Utopia starts a long overdue national conversation.
We can’t just sweep aside the truths in Utopia because they’re uncomfortable. And we can’t let conservative commentators make it all about the film-maker rather than the film, which is what often happens with Pilger’s work.
I’m bracing myself for the inevitable focus on Pilger’s “style” and his “bias”. So before it comes, let me give you one assurance: You’d be hard-pressed to find many Aboriginal people with whom Utopia won’t resonate strongly.
The reason why is simple: what John Pilger and his co-director Alan Lowery have produced is a substantial work of truth, one which provides answers to many of the questions Australians have been too afraid to ask.
Why is this happening? Why were there no reparations to the stolen generations? Why do Aboriginal people still live in such grinding poverty? If, as Snowdon concedes in the film, the NT intervention was “wrong-headed” and “stupid”, why did he continue and extend it under the Rudd and Gillard governments?
The most pressing question from my perspective is why has reconciliation in this country failed?
Pilger touches on this in his closing remarks. He makes the point that until Aboriginal people are delivered justice, there can never be reconciliation.
I agree strongly. But I would add that the path to justice begins with the truth.
That’s a reality that nations such as Canada and South Africa recognised many years ago, when they established their respective Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
Put simply, reconciliation hasn’t worked in Australia because as a nation, we continue to refuse to face up to our real past. Just as you cannot have reconciliation without justice, you can’t have justice without truth.
Through Utopia, Pilger sheds some light on those truths. It’s likely to be very uncomfortable viewing for many Australians, and it will inevitably cause pain.
But you’ll find the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people are prepared to watch Utopia, and feel the hurt all over again.
The real question is how many non-Aboriginal Australians have the courage to watch this film, educate themselves a little, and feel the hurt for the first time?
* Sol Bellear is the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern and a long-time Aboriginal activist.
The importance of our NACCHO member Aboriginal community controlled health services (ACCHS) is not fully recognised by governments.
The economic benefits of ACCHS has not been recognised at all.
We provide employment, income and a range of broader community benefits that mainstream health services and mainstream labour markets do not. ACCHS need more financial support from government, to provide not only quality health and wellbeing services to communities, but jobs, income and broader community economic benefits.
A good way of demonstrating how economically valuable ACCHS are is to showcase our success at a national summit.
Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine has criticised aspects of the John Pilger documentary, Utopia. Mr Mundine said that Australia “is no more racist than anywhere else” and suggested that some of the film’s themes are no more than baseless conspiracy theories.
Mr Mundine’s comments outraged high profile Aboriginal leaders who work at the coalface of Aboriginal impoverishment. One said that Mr Mundine “wears rose-coloured glasses” and all of them said he does not represent the interests of Aboriginal peoples.
Veteran Australian journalist John Pilger’s new film places Aboriginal Australia’s dispossession and Third-World living conditions on the global stage.
Indigenous people in remote areas, Pilger says in Utopia, which opened last month (6,000 people in an open air Redfern Cinema) , are suffering a form of apartheid. But even indigenous rights advocates wonder whether the award-winning documentary maker, loathed by conservative commentators, is not presenting a skewed picture.
NACCHO has provided a wide range of review and would welcome your comments. We would note that the film failed to mention the great work that 150 NACCHO members and many other Aboriginal community controlled organisations has achieved over 40 + years
Here, former Aboriginal affairs minister Fred Chaney, Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, academic Anthony Dillon and former indigenous health minister Warren Snowdon – who had a combative exchange with Pilger – review Utopia.
Northern Territory MP and former minister for indigenous health
Having been interviewed by John Pilger for Utopia, my expectations for an insightful, balanced and fair yarn were not high. Despite my distaste for Pilger’s hectoring and polemical style, the film does remind us of our national story’s shameful aspects. It highlights the saga of suffering, dispossession, alienation, racism and poverty suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. However, this film is a documentary designed to tell a story reflecting Pilger’s view. It’s not one of genuine inquiry or balance. Some elements, including skilful use of archival footage, are effective despite the Pilger narrative. These include the coverage of the sacrifice and strikes by the NSW cotton workers and Wave Hill stockmen, the discussions of the stolen generations and failures of the justice systems. The exposure of the Northern Territory intervention, its false rationale and effects, is compelling.
Elsewhere though, the film falls short. It tells us nothing new and makes no attempt to analyse more contemporary policies or their impact. Some of the omissions are glaring. Despite featuring the debate on national land rights, there is no discussion of the success of land rights in the NT and elsewhere, or the benefits derived from native title recognition. There is no recognition of Labor’s ending the intervention and removing the exemption for it from the Racial Discrimination Act. The Close the Gap campaign and measures funded in areas such as health and education seem to be of no interest to Pilger. His disdain for reconciliation is made clear. He apparently sees no value in recognising the success of community-based organisations, the growing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander middle class, and the burgeoning number of academics, professionals, tradespeople and entrepreneurs among them and the many in leadership positions. Pilger reminds us of a sorry past and the need to ensure indigenous rights are respected, but otherwise misses the mark. The film lacks balance and objectivity.
Dr Anthony Dillon
Academic researcher, University of Western Sydney
Utopia shows some clear examples of the appalling problems facing some Aborigines. And for that I applaud him. But this important message gets lost among other, less important, matters such as the history of Rottnest Island (a segment featuring poor acting), Australia Day celebrations, and the lack of commemoration of our Aboriginal defenders against the British invasion. The naive viewer could be forgiven for thinking that most Aborigines live under such poor conditions. Missing from Utopia is balance, as well as any well thought out solution to the problems facing those Aborigines who are its focus. While Pilger insists a treaty is needed, there is no mention of the fact that many thousands of Aboriginal Australians are doing well without a treaty. After viewing this film some will say: ”It’s the government’s fault. Ah, I feel so much better now because I have exposed the government and am therefore helping Aborigines.” This film will provide the feel-good stimulation these people seek. If only such self-gratification was helpful. But Pilger underestimates the intelligence of the average Australian. They know there is an enormous amount of goodwill for Aboriginal people and that the majority of them are doing well; it is a relatively small minority who are not. A solution begins with understanding why some Aborigines are doing well and others are not. Perhaps Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an example of a successful Aboriginal woman and key player in Utopia, could provide her insights? Why are she and many others like her doing well, but the people of Utopia and other places like it are not?
Australian of the Year Champion Sydney footballer
I am an urban Aboriginal man; I wasn’t brought up into my culture, I don’t have my language, nor my kinship system to live by. My mum was part of the stolen generations and, because of this, my mum and her three boys never learnt what it meant to be Aboriginal.
Utopia has shown me how, over 225 years, the Europeans, and now the governments that run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from my people for their own benefit. The total injustices that have been played out since colonisation are absolutely shameful, and I now find it hard to say I am proud to be Australian.
Australia has a very black past; Utopia shows real-life stories of what has happened over the past 225 years. I cried like I had lost a family member on three occasions watching this film – a must-see for all Australians.
Former minister for Aboriginal Affairs, 1978-1980 Senior Australian of the Year, 2014
It is always painful to replay the story of dispossession, dispersal and continuing deprivation of the first Australians. They are entitled to an honest telling of their history, and they are entitled to an honest assessment of continuing failures. John Pilger rubs our noses in some brutal realities, but his expose is shallow in comparison with other accounts of the treatment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Barry Hill’s book Broken Song is but one example. And where does Pilger take us? The film’s interview with Warren Snowdon highlights the dilemma for all of us working with Aboriginal people. Should we focus on lamenting the mistakes of the past and continuing failures, or on working out what to do now, learning from the successes and failures of the past and present?
My own long involvement with Aboriginal causes has been sustained by knowledge of past and present wrongs. That is what drives continuing engagement in the unfinished business of reconciliation. But a focus on wrongs without remedies, on failures of policy rather than learning from the causes of failure and the causes of success seems to me likely to continue the past. If there were not reason to celebrate the achievements of so many Aboriginal people over my lifetime I would despair about ever seeing an end to current problems. To see only government failure in a year when there is cross-party support for what is broadly termed closing the gap and for constitutional recognition, is to fail to see that we are still struggling with the ”how” as much as the ”what”. We all should share in Pilger’s rage, but it is useless if it does not motivate us to continue the search for solutions. That search is a bit more difficult than his documentary would suggest.
Respected veteran Aboriginal community worker David Hewitt has challenged the vision of Aboriginal issues in central Australia presented by John Pilger’s documentary film, Utopia.
Margaret and David Hewitt (centre and right)
Speaking on ABC radio Alice Springs, Hewitt, who with his wife, nurse Margaret Hewitt, has been involved in community development for half a century, said Pilger had failed to recognise the work that had been done by individuals and organisations in central Australia during the past 20 or 30 years. .He gave the examples of the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service, the Purple House, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Shire youth workers, the NPY Women’s Council, Anglicare, the Finke River Mission and Yipirinya School.
Hewitt accused the London-based film-maker of including inaccuracies in Utopia, and was particularly critical of his claims of “starvation “amongst children at the Mutitjulu community at Uluru, who he had claimed didn’t have enough money to buy fruit and vegetables.
“Mutitjulu would have to be one of the wealthier communities in Central Australia,” Mr Hewitt said. “The people there receive gate money from Uluru and benefit from the Mutitjulu foundation. There’s plenty of work for anyone interested in making a bit of money.”
Hewitt said he had written to Canberra anthropologist John Altman, who appears in the film, about his concerns and asked him to pass the letter on to Pilger, but he had not yet heard back from the documentary maker.
He questioned Pilger’s insistence in an ABC Radio interview (below) that he was not just another journalist “parachuting in” to the Centre, “That’s precisely what he did,” Hewitt said. He accused Pilger of ignoring the Mulligan enquiry into child sexual abuse in the APY lands between 2005 and 2008. The report referred to “horrific incidents” including the granting of sexual favours in return for sniffable petrol. Mr Hewitt said another issue ignored in the documentary was the amount of abuse caused by widespread viewing of pornographic and violent DVDs in homes in communities.
Pilger’s references to the “Aboriginal industry” in the film were “unfortunate,” Hewitt told interviewer Nadine Maloney.
“You’ve got to remember that he’s part of that industry,” Mr Hewitt said. “Obviously he’s made part of his income from his work among Aboriginal people and is totally unfair to criticise people who are working for in the Aboriginal industry.”
Listen to the full interview John Pilger gave Lauren Fitzgerald on ABC Radio Alice Springs, 24 January 2014.
In a country where there are social security, public health and public education systems, it is not possible to talk about poverty without examining the term. Film-maker John Pilger (right) does. This is but one of the glaring weaknesses of his approach to the subject of contemporary ‘Aboriginal Australia’ in Utopia. The recently released feature-length film played to a packed house at Araluen in Alice Springs last Saturday night (picture at bottom). The screening was hosted by the NT Greens.
The film cannot rightly be called ‘documentary’ or ‘journalism’ if those words are still to have any standards attached to them. It does not ask questions, other than ones Pilger thinks he knows the answers to and to which he can lead his interviewee. It does not seek out or fairly treat a single dissenting point of view. It does not recognise complexity. It has all the irksome smugness – and the sing-song voice to boot – of a man in a pulpit who is quite sure of being right.
Aboriginal Australians are represented overwhelmingly as victims, none more so than the residents of the Utopia homelands in the Northern Territory. We see only the worst of their humpies and shelters, and they are allowed to take on representative status, standing in for other remote communities at a time when there has been an unprecedented government effort, however flawed, in remote housing provision. The only Aboriginal resident of Utopia asked to speak is shamelessly led to give the answers Pilger wants.
We see none of the recent investment in the area – for example, the multi-million dollar middle school. We are told nothing of household incomes (Indigenous households in Utopia – average size 5.6 persons – have a median income of $749 per week, according 2011 Census data). We hear a lot about ill health and the threats to health from a health professional, but get no enquiry into why many Aboriginal people have not adopted the domestic and personal hygiene practices required for living in houses (it’s a little more complicated than having the hardware perfectly set up). We also do not hear at all about the health research that showed people from the Utopia homelands to be doing rather better than their NT remote community peers, with, for example, an adult mortality rate from all causes consistently lower by about 40%. This kind of information would be far too confounding for Pilger’s victim model.
We are given no background to the area’s special character – the dispersal of its settlements and the absence to date of a major centralised community. There is no recognition of the complexity for government of this being privately-owned land. There is no recognition of the complexity for Aboriginal people of the communal nature of their land ownership under the Land Rights Act. There is no exploration of the possibility of self-help and enterprise and no recognition of where it has occurred. There is not a single reference, for example, to the brilliant success of Utopia’s artists. Indeed there is no reference to Aboriginal art movements anywhere in the film. There is also not a single reference anywhere in the film to the widespread problems of addiction, nor the complex issues of welfare dependency – unforgivable omissions.
But more importantly than all of this, we get no real sense of what life is like at Utopia, of the resilient vitality and humour of many people, of the bonds between them, of their reasons, other than mute tradition, for choosing to stay. Pilger also shows his incomprehension of their attachment to their lands by his snide comments on the naming of Utopia by early white settlers who “either had a very acute sense of irony or were demented by the fury of the heat”. He sees the country itself as a hellhole.
On the other side of the mirror, he gives us a ridiculous caricature of white Australia. When it comes to housing, it is represented only by fabulous wealth. The examples are a luxurious holiday rental at Sydney’s Palm Beach and the tree-lined streets of Barton in Canberra. No non-Aboriginal Australian is shown living in a sub-standard dwelling or on the street. There is no mention of the housing shortage and rising rates of homelessness across the country. We are just glibly told that non-Aboriginal Australians take for granted their right to a house. Houses fall on them, apparently, like manna from heaven.
When it comes to attitudes towards the nation’s history, it is not the people who live in the wonderful houses who get questioned, but rather the flag-waving hoi polloi wandering along the promenade at Circular Quay on Australian Day 2013. There’s reference to the “history wars” but only to one side, to those who denied the facts of forcible dispossession and other wrongs against Aboriginal people. You’d never know from Pilger’s film the serious debate and strong rejection that their denials engendered.
He does pick out a few lone white warriors who see things as he does: one is the reliably concurring academic Jon Altman, who seriously suggests that the problems may be beyond Australia’s capacity to solve; the others are the film’s associate producers, Chris Graham (right), former editor of the National Indigenous Times whose views still get an airing on Crikey, and Paddy Gibson, a university researcher best known for his anti-Intervention activism. Indeed, if you have read commentary on the Intervention by Altman and Graham, and media releases by Gibson on behalf of the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG, Alice Springs) and the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS), Pilger’s film will have no surprises for you. He could have written the script on their basis from his home in England and journeyed to Australia merely to get the pictures.
The Intervention is of course characterised as a frightening military-led action. Pilger wants to make sure that Bob Randall, speaking from Mutitjulu, gets this right (not that he needed much encouragement). This is but one example of Pilger leading the interviewee (he even does it to the experienced Aboriginal bureaucrat Olga Havnen, to her obvious embarrassment):
Randall: They scared the living daylights out of everybody. The mothers thought their children was going to be taken away. And they bolted. Everyone left this community. Pilger: So the army just rolled in, in their trucks. Randall: Yes. Pilger: And pitched their tents in the middle of the community. Randall: Yes. Pilger: The Australian Army, in an Australian Aboriginal community. Randall: Yes, yes. We were being attacked.
No questions from Pilger, such as: What did the army do? Did they carry weapons? Did they provide services for the community? Did they provide anything else? How soon did “everyone” return to the community? Instead, he narrates: “For the first time in modern Australia, the army was sent into black communities, as the spearhead of a government determined to control people’s lives and their land.” The footage, set to foreboding music, actually makes the point he misses. It shows a fleet of 4WDs, not military trucks. The Intervention in its initial phase was an ‘invasion’ by bureaucrats much more than by soldiers.
Pilger allocates an inordinate length of time to tearing apart all over again the ABC’s Lateline interview about child sexual abuse on Aboriginal communities, featuring an anonymous “former youth worker” whom Graham later exposed as Gregory Andrews, a public servant then working for the Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. Graham relishes going over this old ground, as though it were the investigation of the century. Meanwhile he and Pilger conveniently overlook other credible sources on the same issues, such as the then Crown Prosecutor in Alice Springs, Nanette Rogers, and Mantajara Wilson, a founding member of the widely respected NPY Women’s Council, whose views were later reiterated and defended by executive members of the council, Muyuru Burton, Margaret Smith and Yanyi Bandicha.
Graham complacently and gleefully concludes that there was “zero” evidence of the abuse of children and Pilger hammers this point with subsequent interviewees, including Brough. He fails to pursue at all the comment of Pat Anderson, who despite criticising Brough’s misrepresentation of the Little Children Are Sacred report, of which she was co-author, does say that it showed a situation on remote communities where abuse of children was “very likely” to occur. He also fails to discuss at all the serious and widespread issue of child neglect.
If the suffering of children is sidelined, so is the suffering of women. There is no recognition of the horrible rates of violence against them, mostly at the hands of their intimate partners. The victims as perpetrators? This is just too complicated for Pilger and co. Much easier to dwell on the suffering of Aboriginal men at the hands of the police and justice systems.
There can be no excuses for what happened to Mr Ward in Western Australia, Mr Briscoe in Alice Springs, Eddy Murray in Wee Waa, NSW and there are others like them. But Pilger just leaves us with their tragedy. And their apparent powerlessness. For the grand solution, pronounced sanctimoniously from the shores of Sydney Harbour, lies not in their hands but ‘ours’: we must “give back their nationhood”, whatever that means.
If you are looking for insights and a genuine focus for action, you won’t find it in this dispiriting two hour polemic.
Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine has criticised aspects of the John Pilger documentary, Utopia. Mr Mundine said that Australia “is no more racist than anywhere else” and suggested that some of the film’s themes are no more than baseless conspiracy theories. Mr Mundine’s comments outraged high profile Aboriginal leaders who work at the coalface of Aboriginal impoverishment. One said that Mr Mundine “wears rose-coloured glasses” and all of them said he does not represent the interests of Aboriginal peoples.
Mr Mundine’s criticisms of the film were published in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Nick Galvin. Mr Mundine was quoted agreeing that the documentary “raises a lot of good issues that need to be discussed, particularly housing in remote communities.” But he refuted links that were made in the film that the Northern Intervention was underwritten by a drive from the resources industry to expand mining in the Territory.
“Unfortunately, (John Pilger) went off on some conspiracy regarding the mining industry, which I though trivialised the thing,” said Mr Mundine.
In reference to racism, Mr Mundine said “of course” it exists “but I don’t think we are worse off than any other country.”
“Painting Australia as some sort of apartheid racist country is, I think, a bit of an insult to South Africans. That was a real apartheid system.”
Mr Mundine said that change for Aboriginal peoples in Australia will come not from goodwill and the “wanting something to be done” but from “processes and outcomes.”
Chair of the Narrunga Peoples of South Australia, Tauto Sansbury called on Mr Mundine “to start listening to his people.”
“I think Warren went and saw the documentary but missed the big picture,” said Mr Sansbury.
“Unfortunately I feel a little bit sorry for Warren Mundine, because I think he has taken on a position that he is incapable of chairing or leading or achieving anything worthwhile with. I think at the end of the day this position will destroy him or the Liberal Party will – one or the other.”
“He is not representative of the Aboriginal population, he is not representative of what Aboriginal people are seeking.”
“Another thing is that he doesn’t believe that Australia is a racist country, unfortunately it is and I think he is walking around in rose coloured glasses.”
Western Australia’s Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Robert Eggington was a significant presence within the documentary who alongside his wife, Selena counsels families grieving from the loss of loved ones to suicide.
“I knew the Government propaganda machine would go to work however these comments made by Warren Mundine really need to be challenged. He is has obviously never spent a night in the communities presented in the documentary. “
Both Mr Eggington and Mr Sansbury said that the Indigenous Advisory Council is a “flawed process.”
Mr Eggington said the Council’s expertise is in “commercial enterprise economics” and not in the social and cultural health aspirations of the people. He described the Council as “elitist” and that it has been appointed “to carry out the Government’s will for the continued dispossession of Aboriginal peoples.”
“The spokespeople that are clearly identified in the film may not be elitists however they are leaders who have bled with their people, who understand the pain and suffering of their peoples.”
Mr Eggington said Mr Mundine should move fast to ensure running water, fresh water for the communities depicted in the documentary, and to ensure that families do not continue to live in shanty towns of corrugated iron and asbestos.
“His hypocrisy and deceit towards his own people will be his downfall.”
Mr Eggington challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott to keep a promise he made, which he has already broken, that he and his ministers spend a week each year in an Aboriginal community. Prime Minister Abbott had promised to spend the first week of his Prime Ministership in a community. Mr Eggington said that both Mr Mundine and the Prime Minister should spend a couple of weeks living at Mutitjulu.
Mr Eggington said they should sleep in either one of the condemned asbestos shacks “where 12 people sleep in one room, sharing one mattress.”
“I challenge Warren Mundine and Tony Abbott to visit this community, immediately, and as Mr Abbott once promised, to live on the same basis as the rest of the community. He should therefore live as all the other people affected by the Intervention. Warren and the Prime Minister should be given a Basics Card and only be able to purchase on it what the local people can.”
NATIONAL: Award winning investigative journalist John Pilger’s new film Utopia will be a powerful weapon to raise awareness about Aboriginal Australia, according to Arrente writer Celeste Liddle*.
On flicking through the UK reviews of John Pilger’s new documentary film “Utopia”, one thing quickly becomes apparent: Pilger has created a hard-hitting film that is of extraordinary importance.
Utopia, which was released in the UK in November, has consistently received rave reviews. CineVue refers to it as “as an examination of forgotten injustice it’s quite simply essential viewing”. Metro states that the film is “confrontational, eye-opening and saddening viewing”.
As someone who has been lucky enough to see the film, I cannot say I am at all surprised that four-star ratings have dominated, with the slightly lower ratings seemingly limited to criticism about the length of the film and Pilger’s interruptive and bombastic-at-times interview style.
It is frequently described as a “must see”, its content as bleak, confronting and disturbing and its core arguments as compelling and shameful.
In short, since its release, it has shaken viewers in the UK and awoken them to some unspoken truths in this country.
That the film may not have the same reaction in Australia is not a surprise to me. The content, after all, covers the appalling situations and vast injustices facing many Indigenous Australians.
It’s been historically well-established that these things are not items of interest to the majority of people living in this country.
Whilst some independent cinemas have come on board to screen Utopia, it looks like additional screenings are going to have to be held in places such as universities and activist organisations, as well as on SBS TV.
In other words, what should be mandatory mainstream viewing about what’s happening in the proverbial “backyard”, particularly if people take the democratic process of voting seriously, is probably going to end up preaching to the converted.
It’s nothing new that other countries are expressing shock and outrage over this film, whilst Australia tries to ignore its content. For further information, check out the mounting pile of political denials following reports from visiting UN officials.
It’s a crying shame, because Australia NEEDS to see this. They need to sit down and absorb the realities of the “Aboriginal situation” and they need to start responding if they actually do believe in the “fair go for all” they’re so fond of espousing as a core value of this country.
They need to start acknowledging the history and addressing the current issues if they do actually believe this country is a place to be proud of.
In Utopia, Pilger takes the viewer on a journey through some of the most horrible human rights abuses affecting Indigenous Australia.
It’s a journey that started 28 years ago with his film The Secret Country – The First Australians Fight Back and Utopia shows that little has changed.
Powerfully, at the beginning of the film, Pilger highlights some of the exorbitant wealth certain sections of Australia are currently enjoying to the point where they can afford the rent on a $30,000 per week beach-side property.
He then takes the viewer to Ampilawatja, where shanties are lodgings and kids have to be bathed under a communal outdoor tap. He juxtaposes the wealthy Canberran suburb Barton, named after the orchestrator of the White Australia Policy, with the region of Utopia, the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country.
Basic services such as sanitation and transport are lacking in Utopia’s communities. Trachoma and glue ear are still health issues running rampant. The differences between Barton and Utopia are stark, yet the differences between 1985 and 2013 Utopia are almost non-existent.
Pilger then delves into the years of historical denial. The lack of acknowledgement of the frontier wars at the Australian War Memorial; the demonising of a people to justify the building of an empire; the “history wars” of the Howard years where actualities got shoved aside for national pride.
It’s particularly poignant when Pilger visits a former prison camp and place of torture and murder for Aboriginal men called “The Quad” on Rottnest Island.
He finds this place has been turned into a luxury resort.
Ignored historical facts are delivered thick and fast throughout the film and each one lands like a punch in the gut, but none more so than the idea that Australians just do not want to hear it.
White Australia definitely appears not too keen to hear it, at least.
As already mentioned, many appear to think Australia is a nation to be proud of. They show this in a scene where Pilger takes a camera down to Circular Quay to speak to the flag-shrouded masses there celebrating Australia Day.
As Pilger works his way through the jingoistic hoards asking people whether they thought Aboriginal people had a right to be offended regarding the meaning of Australia Day, he is greeted by everything from the perennially boring “we’re ALL Australians” to hearing some of the most enduring stereotypes of the “uncivilised Aborigine”, to being told that he’s “full of s**t”. Certainly some realities of the country’s National Day rain on the parade of the festival-goers and they simply don’t wish to know about it.
The criticism of the collective Australian amnesia and avoidance continues as John Pilger delves into black deaths in custody and the imprisonment rates of First Peoples.
He shows footage of the final hours of Kwementyaye Briscoe; locked in his prison cell as police neglect to seek proper medical assistance.
Pilger speaks to the parents of Eddie Murray: a 21 year old man who died in custody in 1981 by hanging after being arrested for public drunkenness. There have been serious doubt cast on this official reasoning for his death – police records had been falsified and there was evidence that there had been cover-ups.
That his parents fought for decades and both ended up passing away before seeing any justice makes this case even more tragic. Eddie’s case was the first one examined in the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, yet years later these deaths continue with little public outcry or even acknowledgement.
When the film investigates the installation of the Northern Territory Intervention, the injustice highlighted goes up another notch.
The ABC Lateline report that led to the Howard government declaring a “state of emergency” in the NT was exposed by journalist Chris Graham (formerly Managing Editor of Tracker and a contributor) as having fabricated stories and falsified documents; using old and inaccurate footage in some cases to construct their untruths.
The findings from police departments,the Central Australian Specialists, the Australian Crime Commission and other experts that there was little to no evidence to support the claims made by the Lateline programme and the then government has not caused public outcry. Six years after the Intervention was instituted and the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) suspended to bring the policy in, the Intervention continues, albeit in a modified form.
There are two huge points Pilger investigates through this section of the film.
One is that the greater Australian public has been more than happy to accept the intervention because they readily accept horrible and racist stereotypes of Aboriginal people as fact.
Another is that when it comes to a country generating billions of dollars worth of income through the mining of its mineral resources, the demonisation of Indigenous Australia is a small price to pay.
It’s almost completely impossible to deny the truth of Pilger’s assertions here. Pilger has already so poignantly highlighted many layers of Australian racism by this point, and has juxtaposed this racism with wealth generation repeatedly.
Indeed, the continual spectre of the mining industry looms throughout the film.
The diminishing of land rights by governments and the fear campaigns that have been run by the media are highlighted.
Taxes upon mining and the resources that these funds could have injected into severely disadvantaged Indigenous communities are shown as being vehemently opposed by some of the wealthiest and powerful mining magnates in the country.
Mining interests have continually been at loggerheads with the interests of traditional owners, and at the end of the day, the magnates have almost always won.
Most Australians have remained apathetic to the reality that whilst Gina Rinehart earns almost $1 million every 30 minutes on natural resources in this land, Australia remains the only first world nation to not have eradicated trachoma.
Indeed, the minority government formed in 2010 by the ALP following the toppling of Kevin Rudd from leadership suggests that, in part, Australians felt taxing mining companies was actually a bad thing. That the media continually pumped this information through to the voting public is undeniable. When it boils down to it, a fairer distribution of wealth, particularly for Indigenous Australia, is not a consideration for a population who are conditioned to think that black Australia already get too much.
Pilger also delves into the Stolen Generations and how they are continuing today via the high rates of removal of Aboriginal kids by government authorities. The Apology given by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 is revisited and Rudd emulates the Artful Dodger when asked why things have not improved and why compensation was denied to members of the Stolen Generations and their families immediately following The Apology.
Pilger’s final argument; that a treaty with Indigenous Australia needs to happen is a very poignant note to end on. I particularly commend him for this.
In an endless and well-funded campaign for Constitutional Recognition, which to me is a form of “practical reconciliation”, the point that it’s not a true negotiation and redistribution for the proper benefit of black Australia needs to be made.
What will truly change if black Australia is merely written into a coloniser document, and why is it considered so important at this point in time for this to happen? Why was a treaty on the table in the 1980s yet is not being talked about now when we are told so frequently that many gains have been made?
Pilger doesn’t even mention Constitutional Recognition and I can only garner from this that he, like so many of us in the community, has reservations regarding this push and cannot see what the true benefit of it will be beyond yet another symbolic gesture.
Throughout the film, you see Pilger completely setting politicians and other officials on the back foot when questioned on how they have dealt with Aboriginal issues, and the few gains that have been made.
You see medical practitioners, journalists and researchers highlight the many miscarriages of justice and human rights abuses that have been inflicted particularly on the most vulnerable members of the community.
You see Pilger bring the evidence of all this to the table over and over again for the audience to ruminate upon.
Yet here’s the rub for me: as an Aboriginal woman in this country, very little of what he has presented to me is information I did not already know. Nor would it be information a fair chunk of black Australia wouldn’t know. It’s affected our families, it’s denied our heritage, it’s been right there in front of us our entire lives. We know it because it is a part of us.
This is why I have little sympathy when I see opinion pieces criticising John Pilger for releasing this film to the UK before Australia because they feel that this is an Australian story and it needs to be discussed here first.
The evidence has been there for Australians for a very long time, and Australians have chosen; through socially-embedded racism; through personal greed; through manufactured national pride, to ignore it over and over again.
If Utopia causes outrage in other parts of the world and casts a very stern global spotlight on Australia with regards to the situations facing Indigenous Australia, then perhaps this might actually lead to some more positive outcomes for a change.
We can only hope.
*Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte Australian woman living in Melbourne. She is the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Celeste blogs personally at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist and is particularly interested in education, politics and the arts.
** The community premiere of Utopia will be held at the Block in Redfern at 7 pm January 17th. It will be introduced by John Pilger. All are welcome to attend. Please click here for other screenings across Australia.