John Pilger hopes to open eyes to plight of Aboriginals with Utopia

John Pilger hopes to open eyes to plight of Aboriginals with Utopia

John Pilger first got a taste of indigenous Australia in 1969 in a tour to Jay Creek in central Australia with Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. The journalist and filmmaker likened what he saw to apartheid South Africa; "they were like prisoners of war," he said.

In 1985 Pilger made the film The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back on the history of the persecution of Aborigines in Australia. After revisiting Central Australia in recent years to see little had changed, he set about his latest project.

John Pilger (right) hopes to change minds with <em>Utopia</em>.

John Pilger (right) hopes to change minds with Utopia.

The film Utopia is named after the indigenous homeland in the Northern Territory, which is anything but utopian, chronicles what he describes as a denial of justice to the first Australians.

The film starts screening at Palace Electric cinema on Thursday, a Canberra run that Pilger says is ''vital'' if anything is to change. ''It's as if blaming Aboriginal people for atrocious policies and privations and discrimination is almost a political sport in Australia,'' he said.


He interviewed a number of Labor and Coalition politicians in the film, although Tony Abbott declined to be included.

''The impression they gave me was that they had seldom felt 'pressure from below' to change this shaming situation. It was clear they had rarely been asked tough questions. Bizarrely, several ministers told me how 'proud' they were of what they'd done for Aboriginal people.''

Financed in Britain, the film was released there last year before making its local debut at a January screening in Redfern, the urban Aboriginal heartland of Sydney.

Pilger describes it as an epic. Reviews describe it as ''shocking'', ''eye-opening'' and "blood-boiling''. ''Unlike other western countries with indigenous populations, Australia has never recognised the rights of prior ownership of indigenous Australians, or their basic human rights,'' Pilger said.

''That one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world should tolerate the world's highest rates of Dickensian diseases such as rheumatic heart diseases and preventable diseases, like trachoma - which causes blindness in children - is a disgrace. There's no other word.''

When asked if he was hopeful things will improve in the next 30 years, Pilger said hope was not good enough. ''People can hope without doing anything. I suggest non-indigenous Australians listen to the extraordinary range of Aboriginal voices in Utopia - those people who have achieved so much against overwhelming odds - and ask themselves why we, the majority, are not supporting them.

''I have one hope - that Australians don't wait much longer before delivering justice to the first Australians … the world is noticing.''

Fleta Page is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a sports and general news reporter at The Canberra Times.