Unfortunately this review is going up rather late, as we had a few problems with the site over Christmas. I hope some of you still manage to catch Utopia:
Review: John Pilger’s Utopia
The late Nelson Mandela may have outlived apartheid in South Africa but his entire life coincided with another apartheid, one still very much alive. Incidentally, in his July article for the New Statesman, John Pilger illuminates a not so broadcast legacy of Mandela. There was no irony when the ANC’s politics were boasted of as Thatcherite by one of Mandela’s ministers, or when Mandela himself simply stated that “privatisation is the fundamental policy” for South Africa.
Just as Mandela’s endorsement of neo-liberalism may disappoint many, and stand in contrast to the popular conception that emerged of the man, in his latest documentary, Utopia, Pilger portrays an Australia alien to the collective imagination’s idea of down under. The country’s grand medical advancements, some incredibly sensible laws (fireworks are considered explosives, for instance), their impeccable emergency services and immense wealth, kept apartheid far from my mind as I sat in the Glasgow Film Theatre foyer, waiting for the only screening of Utopia to commence. After the disappointing announcement that Pilger would not make his planned introduction and Q and A via web-link, the curtains parted and within a minute or two the numbing of the audience became palpable as the preliminary scenes were projected. Images of a young black man, who committed no crime, being violently swung into a wall by police officers and then dragged to a cell where he would later die, occupied our attention. The blood which dripped from the young man’s mouth after his head was carelessly smashed against the police station wall was cleaned by the pair of offending officers, who footed around some cleaning paper as one remarked how unglamorous the job is. No officers were held accountable for the young man’s negligence and avoidable death. The screen cuts to black and Utopia titles over a harrowing climbing noise, similar to that which opens There Will Be Blood, and blood there was.
John Pilger appears soon after, and takes us to Utopia, an Aboriginal homeland in the Northern Territory, which ranks as the poorest and most deprived region in Australia. This is the first of many bitter ironies the film exhibits. With no gas, no electricity and no water, a typical Utopia resident half jokes that his wealthier white neighbour could have given him one of his eleven air conditioners. Like many of the Aborigine interviewed, easily treatable glaucoma stains the eyes of this resident, who cooks his meals over an open fire outside his derelict home. Glaucoma is just one of many extremely treatable diseases the Aborigine population suffer. Medical professionals expect to treat the most medieval of illnesses when they visit the likes of Utopia, and, hauntingly, nearly one third of all aborigine die before the age of 45. This fact is all one needs to appreciate the simple truth of the native population’s maltreatment.
Interviewing the government minister responsible for indigenous health standards since Pilger’s reporting of the Aborigine’s treatment in the 80’s, the shameless lack of satisfactory answers and denial of the grave injustice inflicted upon the native population is evident. Before any questions, the minister is already seen to be breathing heavily, testament to Pilger’s still formidable presence and also a reflection of the Australian government’s indefensible inaction in refusing to fund the most basic of health treatment to the poorest in its otherwise wealthy nation.
Indeed, inaction is putting it lightly. The persistent racist policies and actions of the Australian government are astounding. Myths of paedophilic circles entrenched in Aborigine tribes are concocted in order to launch organised military evictions of entire communities, not, as the government suggests, to solve the supposed problem of immoral Aborigine genetics, rather to harvest the rich minerals resting under their impoverished homes. An old story perhaps, but one ever horrifying. The national media’s dedication in pedalling mass propaganda concerning the rights of Aborigines, promoting their subordination and their lack of land rights and self-determination, is again exposed in a society which fundamentally refuses to recognise its own history.
Pilger portrays an Australia where the struggle of the Aborigine appears similar to the struggles of Mandela’s South Africa. The persistent oppression and exploitation of the oldest human presence on Earth is truly appalling, and one Pilger has relentlessly documented since his 1981 book on the subject, A Secret Country. Australia will have to wait until January to see this film, the UK on the other hand is its first eyes, it screens on Thursday the 19th on ITV. It is a crucial, solidly argued film that demands to be seen. One that got laughs in the audience I was a part of – there are ironies that can only produce laughter, a dark nervous laughter of despair and paralysis but I, and I suspect the rest of the audience, left Utopia with hot blood.
After viewing Utopia, Harold Pinter’s assessment of Pilger as a man who “unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth” still rings entirely true.
Utopia was broadcast on Thursday the 19th of December on ITV
For all articles by John Pilger visit his website johnpilger.com
Words by Liam Doherty