"Utopia is one of the most urgent films i've made"

Today, Guardian Australia launched Utopia on its homepage with the below Q&A with John Pilger, as well as preview footage not seen in the film, including Whitegate camp near Alice Springs - currently facing eviction by the NT government - and the complete interview with Patricia Morton-Thomas...


Journalist and film maker John Pilger has been making films on Indigenous Australia for nearly thirty years. His new film, Utopia, revisits many of the locations and people he has been visiting throughout that time and provides a “grim and powerful” assessment on the state of Indigenous affairs. As the film is set for a January release in Australia, Pilger talks about some of its themes.

Q: You've been making films about Indigenous Australia for decades and Utopia references much of your previous work on the subject. Why did you feel the need to return to the subject now?

A: Much of journalism is only credible when it pays respect to serious human rights issues by returning to them, and examining how lives have changed, or not, and why important voices are suppressed. This is especially true of indigenous Australia. Gaining the trust of Indigenous people often only happens when they see the work you do. The making of my films on Indigenous Australia has reflected the trust of those I have filmed. That’s why The Secret Country in 1985 has become such a valued resource for Indigenous communities, leading to the establishment of the first national Aboriginal memorial in the National Gallery in Canberra.

Utopia is long overdue. The so-called “intervention” in 2007 was one of the most devastating setbacks suffered by Aboriginal people. Do non-indigenous Australians understand the pain and trauma this cynical action by the Howard government caused? I doubt it. The national smearing and humiliation, the lies and consequent tragedies – the increase in suicides, for example – rank with the worst official behaviour towards the first people of Australia.

Utopia is one of the most urgent films I have made. That Australian governments believe they can manipulate and discriminate against Aboriginal communities in a manner that has been described in the UN as “permissively racist” is astonishing in the 21century. How ironic that as Nelson Mandela was buried and venerated, another form of the system he fought against was alive and well in Australia.

Q: You return to many areas you've visited previously and interview a number of people – like the activist Arthur Murray – who you've spoken to over the decades. What changes did you observe in these individuals and locations? What has remained the same?

A: Arthur died not long after I had filmed him. He was much more than an “activist”. He was the embodiment of a civil rights and justice movement different only in scale from that of Mandela’s in South Africa and Martin Luther King’s in the US. That those like Arthur Murray are not national names in Australia is indicative of our suppressed history. The historian Henry Reynolds’ new book, Forgotten War, should sit alongside the tourist guides to Australia and be on the curriculum of every school across the country.

The Aboriginal resistance was longer and bloodier than the frontier wars in the US and New Zealand, but the Australian public knows virtually nothing about them. Moreover, the “history wars” were all about suppressing this truth of the past and its legacy today – a people dispossessed in their own country and denied fundamental rights, having never ceded their land to the invader: indeed the only Indigenous people in a territory colonised by the British repeatedly denied a treaty.

Shortly before he died I put your question to Arthur Murray: “What has changed?” He replied: “A few things have happened. A lot of people have studied us and written up a lot reports about us. Some Aboriginal people have taken back their pride and dignity and some have been welcomed into white society as long as they never rocked the boat. I don’t suppose we can be shot in broad daylight now – but that still goes on. There are other ways to attack us now – destroying us from inside. Ask any Aboriginal person in any country town in Australia; they’ll tell you how it’s done, it’s always shocking.”

Q: As with much of your work the use of direct juxtaposition features heavily throughout the film. I found this most stark during the trip to Rottnest Island, where tourists often visit without being fully informed of its brutal history. I wonder if finding that sort of moment, where the essence of the story is so readily obvious to the viewer, is perhaps easiest when making a film on Indigenous Australia?

A: Professor Jon Altman describes the two Australias in Utopia: that of those who conform to a material and ideological doctrine and those who are “different” and are effectively declared outcasts. In that sense Australia reflects the social and economic apartheid that splits much of humanity. The difference is that Indigenous Australians are so few in number and, as Shalil Shetty, the head of Amnesty International, says in the film, the inequity and injustice could be fixed if the will to do so was there.

Q: The film includes interviews with a number of high-profile Australian politicians including Kevin Rudd, who is fairly candid about the nature and effect of the apology he offered Indigenous Australia in 2008. What sort of reaction has the film had in Canberra? Has Rudd or any of the other politicians interviewed watched the film?

A: I don’t know.

Q: There's a particularly forthright interview with Warren Snowdon, previously minister for Indigenous health, where you confront him with a case study of one man, Mr Davy, who died aged 47 of a heart attack during your filming of Utopia. You accuse him of not doing enough while in office and, during this exchange, you and Snowdon appear visibly angry with one another. Can you describe the filming process during the interview?

A: Warren Snowdon was telling me how “proud” he was of what the Australian government, of which he was the minister for Indigenous health, had done in Aboriginal communities. The only point in interviewing a politician who makes this claim is to challenge him with evidence. Clearly, the word “proud” has become a kind of on-message jargon in Canberra; almost every politician I interviewed said they were “proud” of what they had done for Aboriginal people. I sometimes feel, during interviews like the one with Snowdon, not anger but a sense of the surreal – as if the absurd is being offered up as rational explanation.

Q: There's been much discussion about the timing of the release of Utopia – it was screened in the UK first. Is the film intended for an Australian audience or an international one? I ask also because there are many cases and examples from history that you'd expect most Australians to be aware of already.

A: Utopia is intended for both an Australian audience and an international audience. Some Australians can pretend they “already know all this”, but they usually don’t know or have no interest, or they prefer to remain wilfully ignorant or indifferent. Certainly, that’s the view of Indigenous people whose communities I have been visiting for more than thirty years. A friend of mine, a Scottish film director with a great deal of experience in Australia, was shooting a film about Indigenous communities in Western Australia. Wherever he filmed, he asked non-Indigenous people what they knew about the Indigenous past and Indigenous culture. He told me, “I quickly realised I had learned more about the original people of Australia in my small school in the Scottish Highlands than these Australians had been taught, or wanted to find out. They knew next to nothing. Amazing.”

Q: There's a lot of discussion in Australia about who should be able to tell Indigenous stories. Do you have a position in this debate? What efforts did you make to include Indigenous Australians in the production of Utopia?

A: Indigenous people have a right to determine their culture and this should not be usurped, used and translated by non-Indigenous people unless invited. Reporting their situation is different and consultation is vital. Utopia is the sum of many Indigenous views, consultations, permissions, approvals and respect.

Of course, there is not a single “Indigenous view” and it’s patronising of white people to suggest there is – as if there is a single “white view”. When the distinguished Elder Rosalie Kunoth Months, who appears in Utopia, saw the film, she said, “It’s everything we knew was happening, but we didn’t know how to put it out there. We are more determined than ever to fight.”

Q: There's also much discussion in Australia about promoting Indigenous excellence. Given there have been relative strides in Indigenous excellence in recent years, the number of university applications from Indigenous Australians rising, for example, do you think the film does enough to promote excellence and highlight some of the successes within Indigenous Australia?

A: Is there really “much discussion in Australia” about promoting Aboriginal excellence? Certainly not in the communities I have seen. The “successful” people you are referring to are notable because they are exceptions. There is indeed good work done with Indigenous graduates at, for example, Shenton House at the University of Western Australia. In the same state, the Indigenous artist Peggy Patrick was rewarded for her “excellence” with an Order of Australia – and went straight back to her homelessness and ill health.

You ask if Utopia does enough to promote Indigenous excellence? Almost every Indigenous person who appears in the film is a shining example of true excellence – courageous truth-tellers like Noel Nannup, a teacher, and Bob Randall, a film-maker, and Patricia Morton Thomas, an actor and film producer, and Rosalie Kunoth Monks, leader and historian, and Arthur Murray, and Robert and Selina Eggington, whose healing centre is the epitome of excellence. These people of course don’t fit the western notion of individualised, often money-based “success” because each dissents from the system imposed on them. But excellent they are in every way.

Q: Tony Abbott has made much of being a prime minister for Indigenous Australians – he's been a huge backer of the Recognise campaign – but has also cut Indigenous legal aid at the same time. What do you make of Abbott and his commitment to Indigenous Australia?

A: Gestures like Recognise are familiar, empty rhetoric unless backed by true consultation with all Indigenous people and evidence-based public policy. Abbott has made much of his engagement with issues regarding Indigenous people and his boastful, personal interest is deceptive. His “volunteering” in Cape York, for example, was paid for with public funds, as was recently revealed. As the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) cuts demonstrate, he has no interest in funding public programmes that might truly change indigenous lives for the better.

Also, prior to the election, Abbott’s director of policy, Dr Mark Roberts, made a throat-cutting gesture to the director of an indigenous education foundation. When this was seen and reported, Abbott “demoted” Roberts. But Abbott’s cuts to the ALS show Roberts was right.

Personally, I thought Abbott’s true attitude to Indigenous people, and that of many of his colleagues, was summed up when the UN special rapporteur, professor James Anaya, visited Australia in 2009 and was shocked at what he saw. Abbott, then the shadow minister for Indigenous health, told Anaya to “get a life” and stop listening to the “victim brigade”.

Those Abbott called “the victim brigade” include Australian children who go blind and deaf eventually from entirely preventable diseases.


This interview was first published in the Guardian, Australia - http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/08/john-pilger-utopia-is-one-of-the-most-urgent-films-i-have-made

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For more information about the films and journalism of John Pilger, visit www.johnpilger.com