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The Utopia controversy

by Pamela Nathan

Utopia, by John Pilger, is a controversial film.

Tim Kroenert  has titled an article “Pilger’s cheap shots won’t ease Indigenous oppression’, Eureka Street, 5 February 2014. Tim says,“it is a film for Pilger disciples, and from this perspective it feeds the copious tinder to the  flames of moral outrage”. He goes on to say, “These are appalling realities. But if Pilger is preaching to the converted, he’s not telling them anything they don’t already know”. He says, “A moral outrage can only get you so far”. “I yearned for Utopia to contribute to the debate more constructively and was disappointed that Pilger seems content simply to rage and point fingers”.

In The Sunday Age February 9 in the article, “With Utopia, John Pilger wrings the heart but objectivity is not his forte”, four notable people give their views:

Warren Snowden, former minister for indigenous health says, “Despite my distaste for Pilger’s hectoring and polemical style, the film does remind us of our national story’s shameful aspects. It highlights the saga of suffering, dispossession, alienation, racism and poverty suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. “…there is no discussion on the success of land rights…He apparently sees no value in recognising the success of community-based organisations….The film lacks balance and objectivity.”

Dr Anthony Dillon, Academic researcher, University of Western Sydney, says, “Utopia shows some clear examples of the appalling problems facing Aborigines…The naive viewer could be forgiven for thinking that most Aborigines live under such appalling conditions…..But Pilger underestimates the intelligence of the average Australian. They know there is an enormous amount of goodwill for Aboriginal people and that the majority of them are doing well; it is a relatively small minority who are not…”

Adam Goodes, Australian of the Year, says, “Utopia has shown me how, over 225 years, the Europeans, and now the governments that run the country, have raped, killed and stolen from my people for their own benefit. The total injustices that have been played out since colonisation are absolutely shameful, and now I find it hard to say I am proud to be an Australian. Australia has a very black past; Utopia shows real-life stories of what has happened over 225 years. I cried like I lost a family member on three occasions watching this film – a must see for all Australians.”

Fred Chaney , Former minister for Aboriginal Affairs 1978-1980, says, ”It is always painful to replay the story of dispossession, dispersal and continuing deprivation of the first Australians… Should we focus on lamenting on the mistakes of the past and continuing failures, or on working out what to do now, learning from the successes of the and failures of the past and present?”.

Well, dare I join the controversy. Went to see the film by myself. The girl sitting next to me asked me why I was by myself. I said, “oh, personal interest and work. I asked her the same question. She was youngish and looked intelligent. She said,”Oh, I couldn’t get anyone to see such a serious film with me”. At the end of the film tears rolled down her face. I said, “You have obviously been affected by this film”. She cried harder and then spoke to her feelings of rage and pain. The film has seemingly reached more than the converted. I think it is interesting that Adam Goodes, the Aboriginal man, amongst the whitefellahs interviewed spoke of the pain of the film and his wholehearted endorsement of it. In the same way I was struck by the way Aboriginal people trusted Pilger in the film and spoke openly with him and seemed to appreciate the space to have a voice. On the other hand the whitefellahs, ex-ministers Snowdon and Chaney, became very defensive. What I think was undeniable in the film and hardhitting were the following visual clips or interviews. (I may also have lost some objectivity and I rely on my memory):

  • Gut wrenching watching kwenmje Briscoe writhe on the floor of his prison cell unattended, with the knowledge that he became a death in custody.
  • Vince Forrester showing the appalling conditions of the house of his daughter where 23 people live in Mutijulu, alongside the five star luxury resorts for the tourists, and his declaration that this house was not unique.
  • Pat Anderson saying the Sacred Children report had been misused and abused.
  • Seeing the army roll in, the signs ‘No Grog, No Porn’ which the ex-minister Brough agreed would not be placed on whitefellah land and hearing how Aboriginal people ran away with their kids.
  • Interviews with Aboriginal people about the stolen generation and the personal stories of removal in living memory.
  • The WA minister for Corrections talking about introducing “cultural sensitivity” programs for her ignorant staff as a measure following the death in custody in the van en route where the Aboriginal inmate was “cooked to death”.
  • The disguised government worker as a youth worker who gave alleged information to the Four Corners program which preceded the Intervention and the denial of ex-minister Brough that he acted on the information despite shown written records to the contrary- alleged information that Aborigines had sex slave trading, pedophile rings etc.
  • The failure of the Crimes Commission to convict a single perpetrator following the Intervention.
  • The interview with the specialist who advised on the clear STD screenings of the 11000 children during the Intervention.
  • The appalling conditions of the clinic at Utopia.
  • The interview with Olga Havnen talking about the abolition of her position and office in the NT as Remote Services Coordination General –an independent body of scrutiny.
  • The historical scenes of Aboriginal resistance at Wave Hill and on the cottonfields and by the stockmen.
  • Interviews with Australians on Australia Day.

And so on. The trails of trauma, the trails of tears. There may be significant omissions to the story, even some distortions and manipulative juxtapositions, but there were undeniable cameos of truth – truth at its extreme. The film is an emotional experience which is gutwrenching at times and can arouse the shame and guilt of the whiteman. It shows past and present racism, intergenerational trauma – legacies of colonisation, disadvantage, disempowerment – and raises the question, “whose problem is it?”. Emotional experiences of pain and truth are important in achieving change and growth. Australia indeed has “a black past” and the past has a living presence. Whilst controversial and provocative, I congratulate Pilger, as a Whitefellah, for making this film, Utopia. I encourage everyone to see it.

Click here for an update on the controversy surrounding Utopia. 

 

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