Veteran documentarian John Pilger has reached his mid-70s but this vital, shocking film shows that the fire aimed at imperialist Western politics for decades is still burning bright. Purporting to represent a ‘journey into Australia’s darkest secret’, Utopia doesn’t quite live up to its mission statement – as there surely can’t be anyone of documentary-watching age who isn’t sadly aware of some of the shameful treatment of Aborigines in the land Down Under.
But what this powerful, impassioned piece does manage, is to demonstrate just how disgraceful the treatment of the indigenous has been and, more worryingly, how it’s difficult to see any chance of a solution or even a détente. We see that the Aborigines remain an abandoned, oft-ignored strata of Australian society, while reluctantly acknowledging that the British conquest of the country engendered this behaviour. We’re shown that displacement breeds poverty, poor education, crime and white malice and apathy – and that this cycle seems too entrenched to ever stop.
Named after the most disadvantaged settlement in Australia, Utopia’s a compelling film, even in its most upsetting moments, largely thanks to Pilger. Narrating the documentary and conducting interviews with his sing-song, unusual accent, he’s evidently powered by such embarrassment at his homeland that you frequently wonder if he’s going to leap out of his chair and clout the politicians in astonishing denial of Australia’s guilt.
The problems with a film about such a distressing topic are that audiences may feel bludgeoned into submission with relentlessly bleak depictions of Aboriginal plight. That said, it’s hardly much of a surprise to see Pilger on the attack throughout. But the film might feel more balanced, and more persuasive, if he played devil’s advocate a little more. You also wonder if some of the film’s budget might have been directed towards some Anneka Rice-style renovations of the distressingly dilapidated Aboriginal homes in the rural Northern Territory.
Then again, when a documentary’s examining a situation of such palpable imbalance, righteous anger is entirely fitting. Australia emerged relatively unscathed after the global financial crisis and with rich natural resources (many of which are located in Aboriginal territory, leading to the horrific government policy known as ‘The Intervention’), it’s no wonder that the nickname ‘the lucky country’ has stuck.
‘The lying country’ might be more apt, as Utopia reveals to heartbreaking effect. Australia flourishes financially while its oldest residents are subjected to racism, persecution and in the case of “The Intervention’ (a government initiative aimed at breaking up supposed – and non-existent – Aboriginal paedophile rings), a trial by media that lurches into genocidal territory. This is a staggering, furious, essential film. It will dishearten you, yet it must be seen.