Went to see John Pilger’s documentary Utopia yesterday, which  argues that nothing has changed in the apartheid treatment of First peoples since his 1985 book and film, The Secret Country,  and been reflecting on it ever since. At the end of the film, which was applauded by the audience at Mount Vic Flicks, a woman stood up and suggested we sign up to ‘do something’. I put down my name and joined some of the discussion on the street outside, all of us shamed and enraged.

But overnight, unease has crept into my response.

Reading The Secret Country  was part of my preparation for coming to Australia, so the content wasn’t entirely new. Since then I’ve seen much better, more forensic journalism on issues such as deaths in custody, like The Tall Man, a shocking case mentioned in passing by Pilger but not examined.  On the other hand, I had never seen the interview with Lang Hancock, mining magnate and father of Gina Rhinehart, Australia’s richest person, in which he advocates sterilising the water in Indigenous communities so they would ‘breed out’ – a tactic practised by early settlers who poisoned wells to clear land for their own use – but shocking to see in colour TV.

Nor was I aware of the role of the ABC news programme, Lateline, in generating the panic about abused children in Aboriginal communities that triggered the armed Intervention in the Northern Territory – an issue I would like to know much more about as one problem with this film is you can’t quite trust Pilger as a reliable source.  He does take a position and then gather interviews and footage that support him – and yet, and yet, I don’t want to join the ranks of those accusing him of failure to be objective, the sin of partisan journalism, as in this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald,

Partisan or advocate journalism has an important role in exposing the horrors Pilger finds in neglected communities, lacking electricity, water and basic amenities in the heart of one of the world’s richest countries. And because he seeks them out, he finds wonderful people with moving stories to tell, like Arthur Murray and his wife who spent their lives seeking explanation for the death of their young son decades ago. These stories are not on Australian TV and they should be – indeed it will be interesting to see what happens when – if? – Utopia is broadcast here. I know it created shock waves when shown in the UK, as everyone I spoke to in the following week or so mentioned it. Clearly the plight of many Aboriginal communities was news to those whose views of Australia are grounded in posters of beaches and Neighbours (just as many Aussies would be horrified at life on Britain’s sink estates, after gorging on a diet of Downton Abbey).

But, but, but. Another part of me thinks First Australians deserve better coverage than this. Instead of the generalised overview of Aboriginal-European relations since 1788, closer investigation of particular incidents might have shed more light. A minister, Warren Snowden, is harangued not interviewed, so his points regarding policy impacts for the future are lost not refuted. The SBS series, Dirty Money, Inside Australia’s mining business spells out much more clearly than Pilger does how government and industry contrived to evict peoples from mineral-rich lands over the past century and into the present, using interview, archival film and high research standards. It also documents the courageous resistance which actually led to the reversal of some of these land grabs. This voice of Aboriginal agency seems underplayed in Utopia. The documentary on Aboriginal history which moved me most was 88, which records activism and collectivity, including solidarity from white workers and other supporters.

One remark which hit home was the scathing comment about a Bradford woman who thought her experience with Pakistani communities would be relevant in the Western Australian prison system ( an enormous holding operation for Aboriginals) – at which the local movie audience laughed. It was assumed this meant she thought people of Pakistani origin shared cultural issues with First Australians –  but what if she meant that any public servant in the UK has to deal with institutional racism in its structure and processes and that this experience had made her more aware of her own prejudices and those of the systems she was operating in? The point is not about similarities between oppressed minorities but similarities among the systems of oppression and those that operate them. Now that’s a debate that’s barely started.

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