Forthright director John Pilger’s previous incendiary documentary, 2010’s The War You Don’t See, was a brilliant and eye-opening examination of the media’s handling of conflict as well as its dubious relationship with various warmongering governments. Grand in both scale and ambition, Pilger’s one-man assault on injustice and military expansion spanned the globe. His latest film, Utopia (2013), is a far smaller, much more personal project focusing on the country of his birth, Australia. Here, Pilger explores the history and continued maltreatment of its indigenous population, even borrowing its ironic title from the name of a poverty-stricken settlement in the Northern Territories.
Pilger first visited Utopia 28 years ago during the making of The Secret Country – The First Australians Fight Back (1985). The filmmaker now returns to find conditions haven’t improved, with families living in poorly sanitised, corrugated iron shacks plagued by easily curable diseases that blind the old and deafen the young. Pilger, always a passionate interviewer, comes face to face with various government officials and interrogates them about the years of failed health policies, the suspicious deaths in police custody and the furore surrounding the suspension of racial discrimination which was instigated by false claims made by the media that numerous native Australian settlements were riddled with paedophile rings.
The responses Pilger manages to cajole out of some of those interviewees are often so incredulous you can’t help but laugh at their ridiculous replies. Arguably Utopia’s strangest scene is the visit to Rottenest Island, a former British concentration camp for native Australians. Illegally filming in one of the former prison cells that had been converted into a suite within a luxury hotel and spa complex, Pilger’s guide paints a gruesome picture of the kind of appalling condition inmates would have suffered in the very room they’re standing in. This entire sequence serves as an immensely powerful example of Australia’s denial of its past, as well as its disrespect for the modern ancestors of a people subjected to ethnic cleansing by colonial land-grabbers which continues in a far more insidious fashion to this day.
Pilger stands apart from the crowd as a documentarian. He might not be as visually accomplished as Alex Gibney or as bombastic as Michael Moore, but when it comes to experience and gravitas, he’s second to none. Some will argue his method of focusing on cold hard facts rather than storytelling trickery is low on entertainment value, but it’s the bluntness of his approach that gives his work its power. Utopia might lack the shock and awe revelations of The War You Don’t See, but as an examination of forgotten injustice it’s quite simply essential viewing – sure to cause ripples throughout Australia and beyond upon its theatrical release.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.