Director: John Pilger
Cast: John Pilger
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Watch online: iTunes
In 1516, Sir Thomas More published Utopia. A novel describing a perfect society while satirically criticising modern civilisation, the title – meaning “good place” or “no place” (depending on how you pronounce it) – was packed with irony. In 2013, John Pilger’s documentary takes that title, also the name of the northern region of Australia, and delivers a portrait of a society that is far from perfect. Sadly, it’s not a satire at all.
The journalist’s investigative nose uncovers a prejudice against Aboriginals in Oz that continues today. Effectively a string of vox pops cut together with shots of him driving, the documentary covers people at all levels Down Under, from the guy in the street to officials behind desks.
Pilger’s candid cameras show us first hand the conditions that Australia’s poorest residents have to live in – almost one third of Aboriginal people are dead before 45. With no government investment in remote communities, they face squalor while Australians build brand new luxury homes on land seized from them.
It’s a shocking sight to behold – and that’s only the start of a large catalogue of cruel truths. Reports of police tasering an Aboriginal boy is hard to hear, not least because it only happened last year. Meanwhile, one resort in Rottnest welcomes John’s crew with rates of $240 a night, only to be informed that the land they’re on used to be a work camp for natives.
The look on their face when they find out makes the revelation even more surprising: they’ve never been told these things by authorities, who appear to spend their time covering up the country’s history and pretending that everything is now equal and far. Compared to South Africa’s treatment of apartheid, Australia’s approach to the past is appalling.
Some Australians firmly believe that it is all the Abroginals’ faults: “They get offered a lot of things – I think that’s how they like to live,” says one stopped during celebrations of, appropriately enough, Australia Day. Another responds indignantly: “We’re all Australian! Everyone walking past me! Are you Australian?” he asks one person behind him. “I’m Irish,” comes the reply.
One of the most disturbing tales is of an ABC news programme, which accused people in Mutitjuli of hiding paedophiles, a claim then used as pretext to kick the families out and modernise the area. Is it true? With no one from ABC agreeing to be interviewed, it’s hard to disagree with Pilger’s passionate presentation.
His message is made more effective by his blunt factual style. Essentially a two-hour long news special, Utopia feels like an extended report on TV – indeed, the movie premieres on ITV this week after its DVD and VOD release. While that makes for an ultimately dry watch (it could surely have been edited down to become more accessible), the documentary’s contents outweigh any concerns of length, particularly when contributors so willingly hoist themselves on their own petard.
One confrontation with the Minister of Indigenous Health, who has held the post for 23 years, sees Pilger ask why the situation hasn’t been fixed.
“What a stupid question,” the Minister responds. “What a puerile question.”
There’s nothing puerile or stupid about it. Almost 500 years since it was coined, Utopia gives the word a whole new level of irony.
Utopia is available to watch on ITV Player here until Wednesday 8th January – or is available to buy and rent on DVD and VOD.