By Glenn Dunks
May 22, 2014
Is there a more ironic film title this year than John Pilger’s Utopia? Rather than the idyllic paradise the word suggests, the notoriously prickly British journalist has taken the central Australian indigenous township of Utopia (a real place that has no roads or electricity to support its poverty-stricken inhabitants) and uses it as the focal point to look at Australia’s history of being terribly misinformed about – and, for many, blatantly racist towards – Aboriginal culture and heritage. He reflects on this nation with an unflinching harshness that will preach to the converted and turn off the masses in equal measure.
It’s hard to picture all that many people unfamiliar with John Pilger viewing Utopia on a whim. If they do, the harsh tone of Pilger’s narration will surely raise an eyebrow and probably anger them enough to turn it off. But while much of Utopia won’t be shocking to the extreme left-leaning audience it appears tailor-made for, if the abuse Pilger has documented here makes just one unsuspecting viewer look at race relations a little differently then it’s worked.
Through shocking archival video, interviews, and one hilariously devastating scene of Australia Day vox pop racism, Pilger has crafted a heavy-handed yet powerful documentary. Having originally aired on British television, it seriously wants for much of the cinematic vitality that we are finding more and more regularly in the documentary artform. That the movie lacks the refreshingly unique qualities of, say, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, or The Missing Picture is surely Pilger’s way of getting to the heart of the issue without distracting from his message with what he would consider unnecessary excess.
That’s perhaps a nice intention, but when viewed in the context of other recent political cinema, it feels decidedly rote and simplistic. Utopia is powerful stuff indeed, and the type of feature that one shouldn’t enter into lightly, but it’s also blunt and one-note. Pilger manages to get a nice moment out of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, though sometimes even the very important message can feel like its drowning in its own significance.
Utopia is available on Quickflix.