Monday, May 19, 2014

Utopia: Australia’s Hidden Apartheid ... Some thoughts on the new film by John Pilger

“White Australia doesn’t have a sense of belonging to this land, it only has a sense of belonging to establishments, its institutions, and its cities its built here. It doesn’t understand this country.” 

So says Robert Eggington, founder of Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, a healing centre for Aboriginal people in Perth, Western Australia, in John Pilger’s important new film Utopia—to be screened across Australia on SBS on May 31st. 

From the opening archival footage discussing “the solution to the Aboriginal problem,” Pilger dives immediately into exposing the tragic dichotomy behind the common perception of Australia as a model for a democratic, tolerant, multicultural society. Pilger asserts that there is not one country of “Australia” but rather two: White versus Black Australia, and that there exists a deep, destructive fissure between them. Indeed, he goes so far as to assert that Australia is every bit as guilty of apartheid and human rights abuse as ever South Africa was. Pilger makes several, challenging comparisons to South Africa throughout the film, and ends with effectively calling for a Truth and Justice Commission to be established in Australia. The extent to which Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people can be compared with the South Africa’s Bantustan policy of creating Black Homelands is, for many, controversial, but Pilger’s assertion has certainly re-opened a public conversation about a past that has been (largely) sanitized—only in the last ten-fifteen years, for example, has a strong Indigenous Studies program been fully developed in the Higher Education sector, and certainly elementary and secondary Australian History education is one that has too often minimized the consistently oppressive treatment of Aboriginal people by colonists. One of his interviewees, Dr Jon Altman, a Professor of Anthropology at ANU, suggests positively resolving the situation can only be done through overseas aid—that the issue has become so “acerbic and politicized” that as a society “we cannot deal with it rationally.” 

These are all strong claims, to which Pilger brings research spanning 28 years; he made his first documentary on the “secret Australia” in 1985—A Secret Country—in which he exposed the appalling poverty of Indigenous people in remote Outback communities. He refers to this earlier work explicitly, and revisits those same communities only to find them completely unchanged. When Pilger presents this “Before and Before” scenario to various government officials, he is met with reactions that sometimes acknowledge the problem, but also seem overwhelmingly defeated and apathetic: “Yes, it is a regret I will take with me to my grave”  and “I’m not proud of government policy these last years.” Pilger comments to the former WA Minister for Justice Margaret Quirk: “But it [mistreatment, often fatal, of black people in police custody] doesn’t happen to white people, does it?” and Quirk replies quickly and definitively, “No, no of course not!” One of the main motifs in the documentary is this refusal of governments to face their own institutionalized racism and bigotry—Chris Graham, journalist and Associate Producer of the film, says that if they do, then they “won’t be in government very long.” 

That Black Australians are among the most imprisoned people on earth (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and that 1/3 of Aboriginal people will die before they are 45 from preventable diseases and suicide, is just as chilling as the words of both Australia’s first prime minister and one of its more recent leaders. Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton said, in introducing the act of parliament in 1901 that became known as The White Australia Policy, that “the doctrine of the Equality of Man was never intended to apply to those who were not British and white-skinned.” Decades later, in 2007, parliament, under John Howard’s conservative Liberal government, suspended the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow an unprecedented military takeover/invasion of remote Aboriginal communities to combat alleged (and unproven) pedophile rings—a move that the UN itself condemned. And as one journalist put it, “you don’t suspend the Racial Discrimination Act unless you are about to do something racist.” 

Pilger makes the strongest possible case for the urgent and morally imperative need of addressing the state of Indigenous Australians. The glaring and appalling poverty (one broken toilet and an asbestos-ridden house for 32 people, as one example) along with the way racism has seeped deeply enough into the mainstream (read: white) subconscious—so much so that the government expected and received support for the Intervention—cries out for sustained, effective national debate at every level. 

There are times in this film where Pilger’s passion and personal investment in his subject gets the upper hand—such as leading interviewees with rhetorical questions. “When you come here, do you feel sadness or anger?” Pilger asks one elderly activist as they visit the graves of his wife and murdered son. We know the answer already, and indeed it is the one we hear: “Both.” As Pilger interviews another Aboriginal man in a remote community, he remarks: “it shouldn’t be like this, should it? It’s a rich country—for some. You have a right to certain things. You’re paying your tax.” And of course the interviewee agrees. There are many times Pilger cites evidence in vague and unspecific terms, and it almost feels like some sort of visual footnote system would be helpful; on several occasions he cites “experts” or “a school textbook” or states claims and facts without explaining where he got them from. However, I don’t wish to focus on these aspects to the detriment of seeing the bigger, compelling and shocking picture Pilger is giving us. Hopefully there will be many more documentary filmmakers who investigate the state of contemporary Aboriginal experience and champion the injustices, but do so from different perspectives and introduce further research into the arena. 

Investigative journalist Jeff McMullen makes the point that White-Aboriginal relations have followed a consistent pattern of promises and betrayal. “We rounded up people,” he explains, over the visual of photographic archival images of rows of Aboriginal men chained together by the neck, “into our own concentration camps, in fact what we have done from the original invasion until now is constantly reduce Aboriginal people to a sub-human status.”  This betrayal in all its full and horrific panorama is the subject of what is not so much a documentary, but a visual thesis by Pilger; and a thesis we need to read, think on and then—undeniably, immediately and as a nation—act to change. 

For those outside Australia, Utopia can be streamed online at this location: