In his new film, Utopia, journalist and film-maker John Pilger retraces the steps he took in his 1985 documentary, The Secret Country, screened by ITV, which explored the persecution and deprivation endured by Australian Aborigines. Almost 30 years later, little has changed, argues Pilger, who exposes the widespread denial of basic civil rights, the dire living conditions and poor sanitation. The health problems haven't gone away, recurring conditions like trachoma which causes blindness, and otitis media, which causes partial deafness.
Pilger travels throughout the continent, meeting squirmy government ministers and the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. He talks to representatives of the Nyoongar people and to other Aborigine elders. The Aborgines have benefited from a mere fraction of profits in the mineral-rich Western Territory. A proposed tax on the trillions of dollars involved was eventually voted down, following a campaign mounted by vested interests, including the richest woman in Australia.
Profits from that tax would have yielded 60 million dollars, enough to clear up all the recurring health problems, the diabetes, gastroenteritis and diarrhoea. Most Aboriginal men are dead by the age of 45.
Pilger recalls the disturbing case of 21-years-old Eddie Murray, who lost his life in a prison cell in Wee Wan, about 400km north-east of Sydney. Eddie was a brilliant footballer, strongly tipped to be selected to tour New Zealand with the Redfern All Blacks Rugby League team. When he was arrested at 1.45pm on June 12, 1981, he had been drinking with some friends in a park. He was taken to Wee Waa police station, and held under the Intoxicated Persons Act. His blood alcohol level was 0.3.
Within one hour of his arrest, Eddie was dead in his cell. The coroner recorded an open verdict, finding that he had died by hanging, at the hand of 'person or persons unknown". He declared there was no evidence that Murray took his own life.
Pilger talks to Eddie’s distraught parents who spent their lives trying in vain to discover the truth about their son's death. Eddie’s mother, Leila, died broken-hearted, in 2004. Arthur Murray would die in 2012, aged 70, shortly after his last meeting with Pilger, still without answers as to how his son died, despite all his efforts.
The crusading film-maker asks if his native country has in fact inherited South African-style apartheid. Aborigines are imprisoned at five times the rate of blacks in apartheid South Africa. Moreover, no country since apartheid South Africa has been more condemned by the UN for its racism than Australia. Utopia is released at the IFI.