Utopia, by John Pilger

Utopia, by John Pilger

A comprehensive and impassioned denunciation of Australia's policies towards its aboriginal people.

A Dystopian Walkabout. Television review - Tom Jennings

After The War on Democracy (reviewed in Freedom, 17th November 2007), on the USA's pivotal role in South American repression, and The War You Don't See (2010) about mainstream news complicity in Western government propaganda about Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, John Pilger's new feature-length documentary Utopia returns to the veteran journalist's native country to revisit the appalling state mistreatment of Australian aboriginals. His The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back (1986; also directed by Alan Lowery) highlighted the growing indigenous rights movement; yet, from comparisons with thirty year-old footage, things clearly haven't improved. The new film explains how, in the richest country on earth (in overall per capita income), brutal policing and bloated bureaucracy still administer wholesale incarceration, quasi-fascist eugenics and outright apartheid. Meanwhile the starkest, most primitive racism sustained in institutional practice, political and media legitimisation and public opinion ensures the First People's persistent grinding poverty and ill-health - including in the community called Utopia - with average life expectancy under 50, while their ancestral homelands are progressively enclosed and despoiled for corporate mineral wealth.

There's no space here to do justice to Pilger's cataloguing of unbroken litanies of horrors for two centuries dealt to those the imperialists originally encountered. But awful ironies certainly abound in this story, like the vast disjunction between the title's geographical and literary references, or the former concentration camps for natives now grand-designed into luxury holiday resorts. A supreme case - since so many of their ancestors were British convicts who had also done little or nothing to deserve their fate - is that the white celebrants interviewed on 'Australia Day' betray complete ignorance of this whole history as well as contemporary variations. Suffice it to say that, where possible, aboriginal informants or advocates are consulted for explanation and elaboration, and emphasis consistently focuses on organisation and resistance to each era of colonisation's genocides, pogroms, repressions and exploitations up to the present - including inspiring victories for workers' campaigns fought in the most disadvantageous circumstances, and recent attempts to combat continuing murderous treatment by the authorities and their staggering penal statistics (3% of the population; up to 60% of prisoners). No wonder the elders say: "The 'Lucky Country'? Lucky for who? We're refugees in our own country".

Not only do ordinary European Aussies parrot the most regressive slurs and stereotypes. Upon questioning, high-ranking government functionaries and politicians with particular responsibilities or interests in 'indigenous affairs' either shed crocodile tears about their failure to impact on the human tragedies outlined or are unrepentant in malign complicity. The former's pseudo-progressive hypocritical handwringing hides the dishonesty of a realpolitik encouraging the latter racketeers and nourishing the general calculating cynicism of the ruling classes - nowhere more apparent than in the 2007 'Intervention' in the Northern Territory. Here an entirely fabricated media moral panic about paedophilia in aboriginal villages legitimised military occupation, withdrawal of already paltry land rights, and a massively punitive 'culture war' paving the way for further profitable environmental catastrophe - a stark reminder of how the exigencies of primitive accumulation now dovetail with industrial production and postmodern biopolitics in the global neoliberal extraction of maximal political and economic value from the destruction of the lives of 'surplus populations'.

Unfortunately, however, Pilger doesn't make such connections, preferring intelligible historical allusions to South Africa and Native Americans. Similarly, he concludes - though none of his aboriginal interviewees mention it - by calling for a formal national treaty regularising their relationship with the state, along with an infinitesimal mining tax to effortlessly alleviate destitution. The strategic utility of these rhetorical and pragmatic choices is debatable, given that begged-for rights and welfare can be withdrawn on executive whim, but pandering to discourses of charitable morality sadly misses the opportunity for resonance with current experiences of the increasing immiseration of millions - including among primetime television viewers at home and abroad.

Utopia screened on ITV on December 19th, 2013, and is available now on DVD.

For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
Freedom magazine, 2003-2013

Posted By

Tom Jennings
May 21 2014 16:19


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May 21 2014 20:26

This documentary film by Pilger serves a purpose in informing the uninformed I suppose but is it just me that thought his whole tone and manner of presentation came across a tad patronising?
The reviews conclusions are surely correct and not even debatable. The original Aboriginal way of life has long since lost (through theft) it's material base and was always incapable of assimilation into the capitalist system of wage labour and commodity production and consumption, but perhaps today's Aboriginal youth in struggling with the reality of capitalism might gain something by way of inspiration from the finer aspects of Aboriginal culture and infuse that into the wider struggle of the Australian and international proletariat?