When history is contested, it is never only about what has happened in the past but about what is happening in the present. For years “History Wars” have raged in Australia, with Aboriginal Australians, alongside activists and academics, contesting an official history that denies the massacres and genocide Australia was founded on – what John Pilger describes as “the propaganda of empire to justify the stealing of land and the banishment of its people”.
In this film Pilger demonstrates how this history of denial justifies and reproduces the continuing violence and debasement thrust upon Australia’s first people.
Utopia relentlessly pursues the dark, uncomfortable and violent reality that is the legacy of Australia’s colonial settler past. It takes Pilger back to many of the towns and people he met 25 years ago during the making of Secret Country. And it reveals that the same racism, poverty and exclusion inflicted on Australian Aborigines persist. It’s a story that those on the other side of the history wars would like to keep secret.
According to a report from Credit Suisse, in 2013 Australians had the highest median wealth per adult in the world. Yet in this rich country, some people live in overcrowded houses that have no electricity and no running water. People die of “third world” diseases like rheumatic heart disease – a disease which can be almost eliminated with sanitation and antibiotics. One third of Aboriginal people die before they are 45.
Australian Aboriginal people are also the most imprisoned people on earth. In Western Australia, the term “rack em and stack em” has entered the vernacular and describes its over-populated prisons and the criminal justice system’s general strategy towards Aborigines.
One of Australia’s best kept secrets is that in 2007 the Howard government declared open war on Aboriginal people. The army was sent into townships in the Northern Territory based on trumped up claims of widespread child sexual abuse, for which no convictions have ever been made. The Northern Territory “Intervention” displaced people, saw their control of townships removed and their benefits quarantined.
Throughout Utopia, Pilger shines a light on this hidden Australia but also on the property, tourism and mining interests that directly benefit from its racism.
He also highlights the struggles that are so often obscured by official history – like the eight-year strike by the Gurinji people against their use as cheap labour. It paved the way for Aboriginal land rights and was the longest strike in Australian history. Or of the women of Lightning Ridge who campaigned to have their children returned after they were removed by the state in a disgraceful act of racist paternalism.
This is journalistic reportage at its most powerful. No one could walk away from Utopia unaffected and without seriously questioning what kind of world we are living in and asking what they can do to change it.
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