News
– John Pilger's Utopia

Posted on Jan. 10, 2014

Acclaimed journalist and filmmaker John Pilger writes of his journey to Utopia ahead of the Australian release of his new documentary.

Growing up in Sydney after the Second World War, I knew almost nothing about the strange people whose caricatures appeared in newspapers, but never their true story. Aboriginal people were figures of mockery and fear about whom we knew nothing. In my own family there was empathy of a kind; my mother would shake her head and say the “poor Abos” were “tragic”.

One of my boyhood adventures was to catch a rattling tram to LaPerouse on Botany Bay, where Captain Cook had planted the Union flag and the wind skidded across a boiling surf. I would sit on the sandhills and look down at the human silhouettes framed in the doorways of shacks made from fruit boxes. When I ventured closer, the silhouettes became faces and eyes that stared back. It was as if a glass wall separated us. Flies clung to the children’s eyelids; several infants had one eye closed. This was surely confirmation they were “dirty”, as I had been warned. That many had difficulty seeing and hearing and were racked by preventable diseases was unknown, or ignored. I was like a bystander in my own country.

Filmmaker John Pilger

Journalist and filmmaker John Pilger

The Aboriginal boys of my age wore ragged army-disposal shorts. The girls wore dresses made from hessian sugar bags. The only time I saw them laugh was when they dived for pennies, which tourists would throw. A large white man, who sold boomerangs made into ink stands, would bring the tourists to watch the diving. He would hand out the pennies and wave his arms angrily at black men and women who approached and seemed drunk or sick, or both. Shouting abuse at Aboriginal people seemed acceptable behaviour.

At school, I was told only that the “Abos” were dying off, although evidence of this Darwinian demise was hard to come by; unlike Australia’s sheep, the first people of Australia were not counted, just as their country had been declared an “empty land” when the British invaded in the late 18th century. In truth, wrote the historian Henry Reynolds recently, it was “the greatest appropriation of land in world history”.

A 1950s textbook was Triumph in the Tropics by Sir Raphael Cilento. This compared Aboriginal people with “half-wild dogs” whose “primitive reactions were common to many feral jungle creatures”. In The Squatting Age, Professor Stephen Roberts wrote: “It was quite useless to treat them [the Aborigines] fairly, since they were completely amoral and usually incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.”

These lies were epic in scale; and many years passed before I learnt the truth – that the colonisation of Australia had brought slaughter and dispossession, small pox and other rampant diseases to an extraordinary people, the oldest, most continuous human presence on earth. In the state of Queensland, more Australians died on the battlefield defending their own land, resisting a foreign occupation, than were killed in the wars in Korea and Vietnam combined. The difference was that the former were black-skinned and their often heroic struggle became a national secret. An anonymous Aboriginal poet wrote these lines in 1971:

At the white man’s school, what are the children taught?
Are they told of the battles our people fought,
Are they told of how our people died?
Are they told why our people cried?
Australia’s true history is never read,
But the blackman keeps it in his head.

Like many of my generation, I left Australia for Europe and London in my 20s. I became a war correspondent and a documentary film-maker, reporting on the struggles of poor and indigenous people all over the world. The editor in chief of my newspaper, the London Daily Mirror called me to his office and assigned me, as he put it, to discover my own country “behind the sunny face”.

I flew to Alice Springs in the great red heart of the continent. It was here that I first saw the kind of shocking poverty I had reported in Africa and India. My guide was Charlie Perkins, only the second Aborigine to graduate from university, who had led courageous “freedom rides” into racially segregated outback towns, a campaign based on the freedom rides in the Deep South of the US in the 1960s.

Charlie and I hired an old Ford Falcon and with his mother, Hetti, in the back seat, wearing a big black hat, we headed for Jay Creek. An elder of the Aranda people, Hetti had kept Charlie as a baby tied to her back – lest he was snatched by the authorities looking for mixed race children. The family, infamously, was to “breed out the black”. This was Australia’s stolen generation.

Jay Creek was a “native reserve”. We found the gates locked and an official sign, “Trespassers WILL be prosecuted”. Hetti nodded. “Knock it down,” she said. So I reversed the Ford, revved the engine and drove through the gate and the sign. The white administrator appeared in shorts and a vest. “Where’s your bloody permit?” he said. “Lost it, mate,” said Charlie.

I had never seen or imagined anything like this: a community living on a rubbish tip, a Hobbesian world in my own country. The administrator had complete control over people’s lives and could divide families and reward or “banish” people and send their children to institutions where they would never be seen again.

In 1985, I returned to indigenous Australia make a documentary film for the ITV Network in Britain. This was The Secret Country, which became, along with Alec Morgan’s Lousy Little Sixpence, among the first of a number of films I made from a largely unseen Australia as deserving of the notoriety as apartheid South Africa. My latest ITV film, Utopia – the backing needed to make productions like this is rarely available in Australia — measures the changes by presenting places and people I had known 30 years earlier: people who had somehow survived conditions that seemed barely to have changed. Today, more than a third of Aboriginal people are dead by the age of 45.

As my colleagues and I edited the hours of footage, we were struck by the similarity with the 1985 film; at one point, we confused them. There were the same shacks, the same lack of basic services and rights; the same diseases straight out of Dickens. Moreover, in 2013 I found a new “stolen generation”. The number of indigenous children removed from their families is higher than at any time during the past century. In the Northern Territory, $80 million has been spent on surveillance of impoverished indigenous families and the removal of their “neglected” children compared with a derisory $500,000 to support them. In the town of Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, indigenous women have fought for the return of 38 removed children, and most have won. Such is the remarkable resilience and courage of a forgotten people who were never “dying off” but denied basic social justice in one of the world’s richest countries.

Like many indigenous Australians, the renowned artist Albert Namatjira was imprisoned unjustly and died with a broken heart. His paintings now sell all over the world for a lot of money. His son Oscar was also an acclaimed water colourist and he, too, is dead. Once, when I was filming in Alice Springs, I sat with him in the shade as he painted. He told me, “There was a war between whites and blacks a long time ago, and the whites won. We’ve had to accept we lost, you know. What I don’t get is that the winners want the war to go on.”



The MCA hosted advance screenings of Utopia on 21, 22 and 23 January 2014. A panel discussion will followed the final screening on 26 January, including panelists John Pilger, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Amy McQuire along with guest chair, award-winning journalist and filmmaker, Jeff McMullen.

Listen to the panel discussion, which begins with John Pilger describing his time in South Africa.


Discover Australia’s hidden past in this Australian premiere of acclaimed journalist and filmmaker John Pilger’s major feature documentary Utopia.

Screening

John Pilger’s Utopia
– Australian Premiere Season

21 January 2014

free

Veolia Lecture Theatre

Discover Australia’s hidden past in this Australian premiere of acclaimed journalist and filmmaker John Pilger’s major feature documentary Utopia.

Screening

John Pilger’s Utopia
– Australian Premiere Season

22 January 2014

free

Veolia Lecture Theatre

Discover Australia’s hidden past in this Australian premiere of acclaimed journalist and filmmaker John Pilger’s major feature documentary Utopia.

Screening

John Pilger’s Utopia
– Australian Premiere Season

23 January 2014

free

Veolia Lecture Theatre