In his new documentary Utopia, BAFTA winning filmmaker and journalist John Pilger is taking audiences on a journey to the heartland of the oldest human presence on earth. He speaks to the Weekender ahead of presenting his film at Brixton’s Ritzy cinema.
You’ve been filming the footage used in Utopia for the past three decades. Has it been a labour of love? How did the film evolve over time?
I have made four films about indigenous Australia. The first was The Secret Country in 1985. Since I left Australia, I’ve actually been discovering and charting the uniqueness of my homeland, whose distinctions are not its sunny suburbs but its ancient land and extraordinary first people, the most enduring human presence. In many ways Australia is the model western society: modern, self-possessed and liberal in the sense that it is careless and destructive of its environment and origins. The treatment of the indigenous people is as shocking as South Africa’s apartheid.
You’ve described Utopia as a journey into the ‘secret’ country of Northern Australia. How did that area affect you when you first visited it? What did you really want to convey to audiences?
I first travelled into the red heart of central Australia in the late 1960s with an Aboriginal friend and activist, Charlie Perkins. We hired an old Ford in Alice Springs and set out with his mum, Hetti; I remember she wore a big black hat. We arrived at a government ‘reserve’ at Jay Creek, where people were living in confined, dreadful conditions. The federal government sign said, ‘Keep out’. Urged on by Hetti and Charlie, I reversed the Ford, revved it and drove straight through the gate and the sign. That’s what you might call investigative journalism.
Throughout your career you’ve continued to scrutinise Australia for its treatment of Aboriginal Australians. Do you think the country has made much –or any- progress?
There has been progress – thanks to Aboriginal resilience. The Australian public has been gradually educated about the human and cultural wealth in their midst, but there has also been regression. Australia is a provincial society with an abiding prejudice about its first people. Until this is abandoned, white Australians cannot claim their own true nationhood.
Are you concerned about the direction Australia will take under newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s leadership; are you more worried now about native Australian issues? And if so, are you planning anymore Australian-focused projects?
The two major parties – Labor and the Coalition – are virtually indistinguishable. Abbott himself seems to embody much of the prejudice I mentioned, which permeates the political elite. When the UN Special Rappoteur on Indigenous Rights, Professor James Anaya, visited Australia and the remote communities, he accused the government of racism. Tony Abbott, then minister for indigenous health, told him: “Get a life.” That’s the measure of much of Australian political life.
Now, to jump back a bit, you’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively and visit places that weren’t accessible to many as part of your journalistic career as a foreign correspondent. How do you find modern journalism -with its blogs, twitter, Facebook, news websites, Apps- compares to that time when you were one of the few pioneering reporters that went out on stories and had people waiting to read what you wrote in print? Do you feel the best years are behind us journalistically, or do you think the modern media is exciting?
The answer is no to both those questions. The best years are not behind us if budding journalists have the will and maintain their idealism and commitment. And no, I don’t find the modern media exciting. Certainly the internet is a wondrous tool; but the digital age has become cult-ish and it seems at times that the means are overwhelming the end. Phones and iPads are clever machines, but they are only machines; it’s what we do with them that matters. What makes them different is that they are addictive; we can’t put them down. I think journalists need to reduce their dependency and discover their own sense of privacy and independence and time for making sense of the world.
Utopia is showing at the Ritzy, Brixton Oval, Coldharbour Lane, SW2 1JG, on 18 December, at 8.30pm. John Pilger will be taking questions, and the event will be broadcast by satellite simultaneously to some 25 cinemas across the country. The film is in cinemas from 15 November, available on DVD and iTunes from 16 December and will air on ITV in December. www.johnpilger.com