Utopia is the latest documentary feature from renowned Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, whose work on social justice issues spans over 40 years. The film broadly examines the shocking history of suffering by Indigenous Australians since white settlement, from the earliest days of colonialism to the squalid conditions of contemporary outback settlements. A sequence half way through the film shows Pilger interviewing Australia Day revellers at Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Pointing his microphone at a selection of white, middle class people – from drunken youth to middle-aged women, young families to tourists – he casually asks what they are celebrating and what they love about Australia. Each interviewee talks enthusiastically about celebrating the diverse heritage of Australia and the privileges we enjoy as compared to the rest of the world. However ineloquently put, there is a note of genuine nationalistic affection in each of their responses. The interviewees are clearly under the impression that Pilger is there to make a film about the positive dimensions of contemporary Australia. After all, the filmmaker puts himself in the middle of a party-like atmosphere in a public space on a national holiday, and approaches people in a casually interested way. We see the social desirability effect – people acting in ways to gain approval from those they interact with. Each interviewee gears their response to emphasise their patriotism, thinking that’s what Pilger is searching for.
Instead Pilger follows up his initial question with a pointed barb, asking each interviewee whether they think the First Australians have anything to celebrate on Australia Day. He makes the point that this public holiday commemorates Indigenous Australians’ land being invaded and taken from them over 200 years ago.
The awkwardness, discomfort, and occasional aggression of the responses to the filmmaker’s second question highlight two things. Firstly, that this particular selection of interviewees (and we don’t know who else was interviewed but didn’t make final cut) hadn’t thought too deeply about what Australia Day might represent to Indigenous Australians, or at least didn’t see their present celebrations through that lens. In a nation with such deep and lasting scars tracing through its history highlighting this fact is a stark reminder of how far from an inclusive society we are. Those scars implicitly define our present with an underlying current of guilt, desperation, denial, and misunderstanding, which is why the issues Pilger’s film tackle are so important. The gulf of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians represented in this sequence is undeniable, even if it is only partially representative of general sentiment.
The second thing that this sequence highlights, however, is the disingenousness of Pilger’s approach. By setting these people up for ridicule – people for whom the past is still a place of denial – Pilger undermines the possibility of the film helping to heal the scars of the past and present. By deliberately flipping the script of his line of questioning he also negates his own credibility. Pilger comes off as a practiced interviewer winning a game of ‘gotcha’ with interviewees unprepared and ill-equipped to answer his challenge.
When these revellers give a less than eloquent answer, Pilger restates his question in increasingly demanding tones, making a spectacle of the ‘ignorance’ of these unthinkingly patriotic people. I use inverted commas here because there is some measure of truth in Pilger’s point. There is a problem with the ignorance – often willful ignorance – many Australians harbour about the dark history of Indigenous relations. (As a relatively politically engaged viewer, I still learned a lot from Utopia about the specific horrors faced by particular Indigenous communities.) In that willful ignorance lies a degree of complicity in perpetuating many of the problems Indigenous communities continue to face. But the obvious hoodwinking of the people in front of Pilger’s camera sits horribly uncomfortably alongside his professed aim to change that situation.
In the preview screening I attended, uncomfortable laughter rippled through the audience at these scenes. The laughter was of the ironic kind. It expressed disbelief and dismay at the lack of awareness and lack of concern about Indigenous issues that these interviews highlight. The discomfort, however, lay in recognising that we in the audience were being positioned above the people on-screen. That we were being encouraged to both judge them in their lack of awareness, and to pat ourselves on the back for our own concern. In short, the scene drew a line between a new ‘us’ and a new ‘them’: ‘us’ in the cinema sitting on the other side of the intellectual divide to ‘them’ in front of the camera.
The burning question this scene leaves, beyond the question of how that intellectual divide came about, is how to bridge that divide. To this question, however, Utopia doesn’t offer an answer. Instead it compounds the problem. Inviting the audience to laugh at (or at the very least judge harshly) these interviewees cheapens the issue and draws more lines of division – this time between the ‘educated’ viewer and the ‘unthinking’ wider public – rather than bridging gaps in understanding. It is an angry view from the inside scattering outwards. I don’t want to suggest repressing the right to feel or to express anger. In the context of the critical issues Pilger explores and the stories he profiles, anger is completely justified. But when anger is justified it needs to be carefully directed, and when reconciliation is the aim, the target should not be those invited to reconcile. The people on the street should not be those targets. If this is the section of Australian society furthest away from engaging with the issues of Indigenous recognition and reconciliation, how can belittling them – catching them off guard in the name of journalistic point scoring – possibly contribute positively to changing that situation? Demanding guilt does not engender empathy, and pointing out past failings without offering some kind of common ground does little to advance discourse.
Further divisions are drawn in other sequences of the film. Pilger dominates his interview with former Indigenous Minister Warren Snowdon, often cutting short Snowdon’s responses to his questions and launching his next barbed comment before allowing the former Minister to finish a full sentence. As an interviewer, Pilger’s approach goes beyond holding Snowden accountable for political excuse-making and strays into territory far more akin to shouting from the gallery. And rather than opening up a constructive conversation about Indigenous issues, this approach draws deeper lines between politics and the people it governs. As a man who has committed so much of his life to trying to expose issues of injustice and exploitation, Pilger’s frustration with the slow and often counterproductive machinery of politics is understandable. By not tempering that frustration in this interview, however, the filmmaker not only disrespects Snowdon but also erodes his own ambition to reignite genuine and honest dialogue about these issues.
Because of the absolute necessity of reigniting that dialogue, I found it particularly hard to come to terms with the film’s shortcomings in delivery. Clumsy framing of the issues should not determine our response to them, and focusing excessively on the flaws in Pilger’s film risks undermining the social problems represented. Yet this is exactly what critics of the issue will do. It is a desperate shame, then, that Utopia is intent on drawing divisions as much as on advancing the discussion.
There is a deep and distressing current of racism that runs through this country, and it has been buried under bureaucracy and masked by systemic issues. The more that current is brought to the surface the better. But for all the arresting images it shows us, for all the utterly horrid conditions Indigenous Australians have suffered and continue to suffer it highlights, and for all the valid points it makes about the despicable politicising of the issue in favour of actually addressing the problems, Utopia builds up divisive binaries that undermines the potential of the film to contribute to positive change. Pilger’s target in this film is important, but his aim is less than true.