Near enough to 30 years ago, expat journalist John Pilger filmed "The Secret Country", a documentary detailing the less than cohesive relationship between Australia's indigenous community and mainstream society. This hour-long TV production used liberal doses of subtleties in pushing the cause of an oppressed race.
On the contrary, Pilger's new release follow-up "Utopia" takes to the cause with a sledgehammer. Just feel the air light up during the interview with Warren Snowdon, long-time political power broker in the Northern Territory.
The title alone is irony on steroids. Utopia is a region of off-the- grid wasteland in the heart of Northern Territory. It is home to officially the poorest citizens of "The Lucky Country". Pilger's portrayal of this mother of all squalor is the precursor to his chronicling of the general subjugation of Australia's indigenous population. His juxtaposition of stark 3rd world living conditions against the opulence of their white counterparts underpins the theme of the entire documentary.
Depending upon which side of the blurred divide you sit, Pilger is a journalist revered and reviled in equal measure. What cannot be questioned is his provocative determination. Since the release of The Secret Country in 1985, little if anything has improved in the lives of Australia's indigenous population and Pilger wants blood.
Following the opening in Utopia itself, the film jumps seamlessly from scene to scene. Pilger employs archival and new footage, interviews, case studies and stats to promote the injustices perpetrated on Australia's first people. Join the group eye-roll for example at Lang Hancock's proposed solution to the "black problem".
This documentary is certainly not without its flaws. Forget a balanced approach for starters. If ramming home a point meant some liberal doses of editorial skulduggery then so be it for Pilger. His tone and questioning when dealing with the "enemy" was invariably confrontational and accusatory. Over in the blue corner and he was sympathetic, conciliatory and leading. His narration of purported injustices was laced with a patronising lilt. The interviewees during Australia Day celebrations by Sydney Harbour were cherry-picked in an attempt to promote the impression of workaday Australians' ignorance. Balance? He'll leave that for gymnasts.
If you can put that to one side, this is a film with genuine bite. It unleashes the types of home truths capable of taking the sting out the tail in national day festivities.
Having said that, I have the feeling that the overall impact will be negligible. The production is set for scant release, showing only in selective cinemas. Even then the audiences are most likely to be made up of that section of the population already convinced and sympathetic to the issue.
It deserves better. Australians should be informed of unsavoury chunks of our history. Take the ruthless deficiencies of John Howard's Intervention in 2007 or the Rottnest Island resort insensitively sitting atop an aboriginal burial site. Then just try not to shake your head at the deplorable living conditions of marginalised indigenous communities. And so it goes on.
Utopia offers no solutions. It's a finger-pointing shock-fest that warrants viewing if just for that reality check. However, there is minimal box office appeal in this film for a conservative majority unable or unwilling to confront our own history. Pilger can shout from the rooftops all he wants but this film will probably come and go in a blink. The sad part is that if someone from that conservative side of the ledger decided to film a counterpunch documentary to Utopia, it would probably be a rip-roaring, if highly controversial box office hit. At least then the issue might receive the front page attention it warrants.