The persistent, heart-on-his-sleeve John Pilger is back again with, I think, his third film on Australia’s total failure to achieve a solution to the Aboriginal problem. From the era of disease and massacre via assimilation times to The Intervention, both governments and individuals have done their utmost to fail to understand The First Australians “ with their 40,000 + years of experience of living here “ and therefore failed to find ways in which we could all benefit from that experience by sharing this land more equitably. That failure has, quite naturally, distressed the dispossessed to the point where they don’t see much point in offering their experience any longer.
The trouble with Pilger is that he too fails to understand. His is an entirely superficial political view of Indigenous Australia without any cultural underpinning. And when he comes to the end of this looooong documentary, his thoroughly reasonable proposal for a treaty is justified on naÃ¯ve Capitalist grounds that we should all share this rich country, its land, resources and opportunities.
Of course there are Aborigines in the cities who would happily take that deal; but there are plenty in remote Australia who would say that the land is about far more than its resources. Sadly, far too few of these remote elders appear in a film dominated by well-meaning white activists showing off disgusting housing conditions in desert communities while the inhabitants look on.
Why on earth wouldn’t Pilger’s researchers have pointed him to someone like Dajambawa Marawili in a functioning Arnhemland outstation to explain how ceremony is the key to his relationship to the land? If only the media generally made Australians aware of this level of Aboriginal thinking, then the Australia Day vox pops picked up so easily by Pilger in Sydney might have managed a level of comment more helpful than, They should go out and work to be one of us!
Mind you, Pilger did come up with the sort of archival history that explained where that 2013 viewpoint originated “ with the great Lang Hancock, whose scientific approach to assimilation was simply, Sterilise all the full-bloods. The miners generally come in for a fair bit of stick “ blamed for precipitating The Intervention after discovering nice quantities of uranium around Alice, causing Bob Hawke to abandon his Land Rights legislation, and steering Julia Gillard away from an effecting Mining Tax. All possibly true. But how can Pilger possibly justify the statement, And the Mining Tax would have ended Aboriginal poverty, when everyone else was telling him that money alone has never been the solution.
There are some pretty crass juxtapositions throughout the film “ the particularly disfunctional Ampilatwatja in the Simpson Desert versus luxuriant Palm Beach, Sydney; Rottnest Island as a concentration camp and Rotto as tourist paradise; Uluru’s Longitude 131Â° eco-resort versus the much-maligned Mutijulu community whose traducing on the unrepentant ABC’s Lateline program lead directly to The Intervention; and finally Barton in Canberra and the Utopia of the title.
Pardon? Didn’t hear you! ‘Utopia‘ did you say?. Well no, we didn’t actually go to Utopia in the film of that name (or get any references to Sir Thomas More)! Perhaps it looked too neat, or images of Aboriginal men with their cattle and women producing an excess of art, or the history of a successful land rights claim might have cheered up the chosen story too much! And Ampilatwatja isn’t part of Utopia.
Where we did get some meat was on The Intervention. The picture that Pilger developed at the heart of his film was started with the Lateline furphy involving one of Minister Mal Brough’s political advisers pretending to be an anonymous youth worker who’d seen paedophile rings at work. This was followed by a co-author of the key ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report saying that it never mentioned the word paedophile, though it did certainly comment on neglect of children in impoverished communities. The heavyweight Australian Crime Commission failed to find paedophiles either “ to which Mal Brough could only say that no one would give them the evidence to prosecute; to which I’d have responded that this was a calumny on the women I’d met in remote communities, quite capable of standing on their own feet.
Most worrying was the suggestion that, under The Intervention, Child Protection has become the new Rabbit-Proof Fence “ with up to 200 children a year being ‘taken’ in FNQ, and a subsequently sacked Olga Havnen revealing that the NT Government spends $80m. a year that might have gone to functional housing on this ‘Child Protection’.
No wonder the ANU’s Prof Jon Altman speculated that it was now beyond the capacity of Australia to address a problem that has become so politicised – by, amongst others, John Pilger himself!
Four thousand reportedly turned out in Redfern for the film’s Australian premiere; the MCA in Sydney is showing the film on Australia/Invasion/Survival Day; cinemas around the country take up the baton as revealed on the film’s website; and eventually SBS will show a film it co-commissioned.
Gallery: Museum of Contemporary Art ,