The picture John Pilger paints of Australia’s Aborigines population in his film Utopia is one of isolation, poverty, hopelessness and ostracism. It’s a piece of journalism first, a documentary film second in that Pilger’s talents lie in assembling facts rather than in presenting them creatively or affectingly, and so we are left at times wondering just how true some of what is expressed in the film actually is. This is a result of Pilger’s going Michael Moore with his film when he should have gone Marcel Ophüls.
Mister Pilger’s deficiencies as a filmmaker damage his message sometimes as he strives towards attention-grabbing sensationalism. For example, drunk, ignorant, racist white Australians are shown celebrating Australia Day as Pilger demands of them “what about the first Australians? Where do they belong? Don’t they have a place in Australian history?” It comes across as deceptive because it works only towards gauging the opinions of white Australians for whom a day of unthinking blind patriotic celebration is a good thing, and what percentage of the population is that?
This struggle between truth and embellishment permeates the film for much of its first part, but there are moments in the latter parts that are indefensible no matter what way the camera is pointed at them. Once the government gets involved in the story we are in different territory. An outrageous deception on the Australian government’s part and a heinous smear campaign by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is revealed, in which an entire race of men are branded as paedophiles and child abuse facilitators.
Even through the hazy focus of Pilger’s camera, the truth is discernible. We see images from the Northern Territories which we are told are nearly identical to those filmed there twenty-five years previously. But what the images really look like are the humanitarian crisis images of Ethiopia and Sudan that have been piped into western homes for the last twenty-five years. Images of asbestos-ridden houses without running water or adequate sanitation in a democracy as rich as Australia suggest that such shameful treatment of a minority must be either a major act of neglect or completely intentional on the part of the government.
Despite its conceptual and production issues Utopia is at times a fascinatingly morbid account of the travails of an oppressed people. For any non-Australians watching the film it might also be worthwhile remembering one need rarely look to the other side of the world to find an unjustly suffering people who “civilised society” has deemed unworthy of safe housing and education.
Utopia is released exclusively at the IFI from 15 November 2013.