Monday, 9 June 2014

Considering "Utopia" and Australia's history

A friend told me that I had to watch "Utopia", John Pilger's film about black Australia. (I was about to write that it was a film about the current situation in black Australia. I feel like the current situation has existed for a while.)

While I was emotionally engaged by "Utopia", I had a niggling question throughout and that was about balance, objectivity and notions of "truth" in journalism. I'm not sure what I think about that. I am well-read on the history of Australia, black and white, and struggle to understand the intentions behind government policies, both in the past and now. I've concluded that this film is not objective and is a construction meant to tell a particular story. Is it propaganda? I don't know - probably because I sympathise with the view presented - but I think it's certainly a pretty important piece of activism.

I remember believing in the ideals of balance, objectivity and truth. There was a moment of youthful naivety when I actually thought I could achieve it. I no longer believe those things are possible. The best thing that we can do is sample widely and seek out as many viewpoints as we can.

Despite having these misgivings, "Utopia" is worth watching as part of the search for viewpoints.

Vox pop interviews on Sydney streets on Australia Day confounded me. How can any adult truly believe that Aboriginal people like to live in extreme poverty and deprivation? That actually they choose it?

CCTV footage of the mistreatment of an Aboriginal man in police custody, shows the rough handling by police dealing with a sleepy drunk man who inconveniently leaves his blood on the floor after he is thrown to the ground by police. We then see him left alone in a cell as he dies. The film reports that he had been taken into "protective" police custody and his life could have been saved. He basically died from neglect.

We then hear about the death of an Aboriginal man in the back of a jail transport in Western Australia. He died in the metal mobile cell after temperatures reached over 50 degrees Celsius. The coroner said he had basically been cooked to death. The Corrective Services Minister at the time seemed to be sorry for what had happened and that she had considered resigning. She said she hadn't resigned because she wanted to do something. She organised cultural sensitivity training.

What does cultural sensitivity training have to do with a failure to respect another human being? It seemed to me that this Aboriginal man in custody was viewed as so different from us, that he must not have been viewed as human.

Over to Rottnest Island and we discover that the resort rooms were once the cells of an Aboriginal concentration camp. The tourist leaflet about "historic" Rottnest Island does not mention the prison history, the hangings that took place and the mass grave nearby.

A man at the Australian War Memorial is asked why wars fought on foreign soils are commemorated, but the "frontier wars" where Aborigines fought to defend their homelands from colonial takeover are ignored, as if they never happened. It's a good question.

Stories of the Wave Hill strike where Aboriginal workers and their families went on strike for over 7 years in an effort to be paid and fed properly, made my own struggles for fairness as a union official seem inconsequential. Another tale of exploitation of Aboriginal workers is told about cotton chippers at Wee Waa in northern New South Wales. One of the activists talks about the planes spraying pesticides flying over and spraying while he and his fellow workers were working in the fields. Not even human, kept going through my mind as I watched.

I don't know how this happens. How can we regard other human beings as less than ourselves? How can empathy fail us so completely? And of course, I write this as a relatively privileged white woman who has access to what I need - more than  I need, actually. Is it comprehensive brainwashing? That the so-called history wars have been successful in separating white Australians from our awful history?

I spent three years of my primary schooling at Moree Public School. Moree is a town in northern New South Wales with a large Aboriginal population. I remember being terrified at the prospect of going to school with blackfellas. Fresh from Canberra Grammar, I had met one Aboriginal boy. He was the adopted son of the minister at our Anglican Church. I wonder now where he came from. Had he been stolen? Of course, pretty soon, we were all just kids together and colour didn't  matter so much in the classroom.

Corporal punishment was used liberally and certain teachers had a fearsome reputation as wielders of the cane. I was in grade 4, Miss Hoolihan was taking an art class. Eddie Pitt flicked paint at me. It was friendly play. I painted his arm. We were warned. We didn't listen. Both of us were reprimanded and told to go to see Mr O'Connor. Mr O'Connor was known to have broken several canes on the hands of badly behaved children and I was terrified. For this minor transgression, play really, we were to be caned by Mr O'Connor!

Eddie Pitt taught me something about courage as he led the way. I really didn't want to go. We arrived at Mr O'Connor's classroom to discover that he wasn't there. Eddie Pitt comforted me and said not to worry about it. He was probably used to being regularly physically punished by the ripe old age of about 8. My mother was furious and advocated strongly for me telling me that I was not to receive the cane. Ever.

Eddie Pitt's mother might have advocated strongly for him too. Or she might have wished she could, but didn't know how. Or she might have been so subjugated by the white men that she accepted that her son would be beaten regularly at school as part of all they could expect from their lives.

I know that Eddie Pitt is probably dead. Statistically, it's likely that many of my Aboriginal classmates, especially the boys, are not longer with us.

I found myself ashamed to agree with one person interviewed in the film who said he thought that foreign aid was probably required to help us all. I don't know what the answer is, but I suspect that educating all of us and facing our history is part of it.

What do you think? Have you seen the film?

I was able to watch "Utopia" on SBS on demand TV. It expires in 5 days.

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