On 18 November, Picturehouse Cinemas will stage an extraordinary event. My film, UTOPIA, will be beamed by satellite from The Ritzy in Brixton, South London, to more than 20 cinemas across the country.
UTOPIA has been more than two years in the making. It is my fourth film about indigenous Australia, in my homeland.
More than any other colonial society, Australia consigns its secrets, past and present, to an almost wilful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts often dismissed the most enduring human entity on Earth: the indigenous first Australians. “It was quite useless to treat them fairly,” wrote the historian Stephen Roberts, “since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.” His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: “We are civilised today and they are not.”
That Australia has since changed is not disputed. To measure this change, a visit to Western Australia is essential. The vast, richest state is home to the world’s biggest ‘resources’ boom: iron ore, gold, nickel, oil, petroleum, gas. Profits are in the multiple billions. When Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to impose a modest tax, he was overthrown by his own party following a $22 million propaganda campaign by the mining companies, whose friends in the media uphold the world’s first Murdocracy. At airports, visitors are greeted by banners with smiling Aboriginal faces in hard hats, promoting the plunderers of their land. “This is our story,” says the slogan. It isn’t.
Barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited Aboriginal communities, whose poverty is an enduring shock. In Roeburne, in the mineral-rich Pilbara, 80% of the children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media that causes partial deafness. Or they go blind from preventable trachoma. Or they contract Dickensian infections. That is their story.
The Nyoongar people have lived around what is now Perth for many thousands of years. Incredibly, they survive. Noel Nannup, a Nyoongar elder, and Marianne McKay, a Nyoongar activist, accompanied me to Rottnest Island, which is described in brochures as “a favourite tourist destination”. Locals call it Rotto.
Noel Nannup’s protective presence was important to Marianne. Unlike the jolly tourists heading for Rotto, they spent days “preparing for the pain”. “All our families remember what was done,” said Noel.
What was done was the torture, humiliation and murder of the First Australians. Wrenched from their communities in an insidious genocide that divided and emasculated the indigenous nations, shackled men and boys as young as eight endured the perilous nine-hour journey in an open longboat. Cold, sick and terrified prisoners were jammed into a windowless ‘holding cell’ like an oversized kennel.
In the prison known as the Quod, as many as 167 Aboriginal prisoners were locked in 28 tiny cells. This lasted well into the 20th century. I booked a room there. The prison is now called Rottnest Lodge. It has a spa, and there are double bunks for children: family fun. The window looked out on where a gallows had stood, where tourists now sunbathed. None had a clue.
Rotto is not the past. On 28 March, Richard Harding, formerly Inspector of Custodial Services, declared Western Australia a ‘State of Imprisonment’. During the boom, Aboriginal incarceration has more than doubled. Interned in often rat-infested cells, almost 60% of the state’s young prisoners are Aboriginal – out of 2.5% of the population. While their mothers hold vigils outside, Aboriginal children are held in solitary confinement in an adult jail. A former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me the state was now “racking and stacking” black Australians. Their rate of incarceration is five times that of apartheid South Africa.
And yet the most remarkable feature of the ‘secret’ story of Aboriginal people is their resistance. UTOPIAdescribes a forgotten history of a people who have stood against the might of invaders and the cultural and social invasions that followed. The ballad I chose for the film is the haunting No More Whispering by the indigenous singer Glen Skuthorpe. That is the aim and spirit of this film.