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Issue #1626      February 12, 2014

Film review


During the month of January John Pilger’s new movie has been premiering across Australia, mostly in universities and centres of political and social activism. I attended one such screening to a packed venue of about 80 people cohosted by the Nyoongar Aboriginal Tent Embassy in inner city Perth.

John Pilger meets kids in their “homeland” in Utopia.

Its underlying premise is that Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal people is akin to South Africa’s Apartheid system which attempted to formally segregate white people from black. Pilger draws comparisons such as deaths in custody and the prevalence of racism.

The opening scene sets the pace of the movie by comparing the $2,500 a week holiday apartments on the northern beaches of Sydney looking out over the Pacific Ocean, to the Aboriginal community of Utopia 250 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.

There, far too many people are forced to sleep in each dwelling, there are problems with the sewerage system which causes health problems and an absence of fresh fruit and vegetables (because of the high cost to transport them to this remote location) causes additional health and nutritional problems.

This problem is duplicated in isolated and remote communities around Australia and can also be seen amongst urban and rural town communities. Pilger also visits the small community of Mutujulu which is situated near Uluru in the red heart of Australia and contrasts the lavish eco tourist accommodation with this community’s dilapidated asbestos buildings which leave 70 percent of the dwellings unoccupied.

Utopia also takes us to police lock-ups around Australia from Wee Waa, NSW in 1981 where Eddie Murray died with a smashed sternum while in police custody to Mr Ward in the north eastern Goldfields of WA who on Australia Day in 2009 died while being transported in a poorly equipped police van where the temperature soared to an unbelievable 56 Celsius. The prison transport company and the WA Department of Corrective Services were later found guilty in a Worksafe prosecution of having failed to provide a safe workplace.

This is Pilger’s seventh foray into making documentaries on the national shame of Australia’s treatment of its First Peoples. Material is drawn from a number of his earlier films especially the first of his seven films, Secret Country (1984). The movie is also rich in archival material from other sources especially the ABC, both a 1962 black and white doco from Sydney which is laudable in its treatment of the subject material and a 2007 Lateline program.

Elsewhere in the movie Pilger explores in his dry acerbic manner what Australians think today of Aboriginal people on Australia Day (the scene shot on Circular Quay in 2013 is priceless!).

Also the snubbing by the Australian government of numerous United Nations reports on the treatment of Indigenous people to the mineral wealth ripped from the earth my mining companies which generates obscene levels of profit.

The film also visits Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth, Western Australia, where a holiday resort has been made out of a former jail used in the 19th Century to imprison Aboriginal people who were considered as trouble makers (from all over the state).

The film is also about struggle and successful resistance and points to the Wave Hill/Gurindji struggle of 1966/1975 and the strike for better wages and conditions of Aboriginal cotton field weeders and pickers who were paid slightly more than a dollar and hour and were often subjected to aerial weed spraying while doing their work.

As Australia recalls its colonial origins and considers its future nationhood it would do well to come to terms with providing justice to its First Nations People.

Real reconciliation is not possible without justice – and justice will not happen without a treaty.

The movie is highly recommended viewing. Do not wait for a TV screening unless it is on NITV, as Pilger has succeeded in offending every other network in Australia with his exposures of their deficient and biased reporting.

Next article – Downer’s history rewrite on Timor Leste

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