Saturday, January 25, 2014


The other night I saw John Pilger's film "Utopia" at The Block in Redfern. Arriving late, I was wondering whether I'd find anyone to sit with or whether I would miss the beginning, but I needn't have worried. It seemed that Sydney's entire progressive community had turned out to see the film. The movie itself didn't get started until I was well and truly settled into my picnic spot surrounded by people I knew.

Photo taken by my friend Costa

At the beginning of the documentary we learn of the price people are willing to pay to stay one night in a luxury apartment by Sydney's breathtakingly beautiful harbour. This opulence is then juxtaposed with Utopia, a remote desert community just a few hundred kilometres north of Alice Springs, where a health worker describes the appalling conditions that people live in. In one particular house, the only toilet doesn't work most of the time meaning that raw sewage collects in the back yard, and they don't have the basic medical supplies for immunisations or to prevent diseases that are non-existent in the rest of Australia. Oh, and cockroaches have been found in children's ears.

The description reminded me of an incident in Balgo, another desert community set on the intersection of Warlpiri, Kukatja, and Ngarti lands a couple of hundred kilometres further north, where I journeyed in 2009 to attend The Kapulalungu Aboriginal Women's Association Law Camp. Arriving in town, I remember one of my travelling companions commenting loudly about the state of the sleeping quarters, citing cockroaches, dog poo and unwashed dishes scattered about the place as unacceptable, perhaps unaware that while our new room-mates might have been too shy to speak English with us, they understood the gist only too well. We were perpetrating again the shame we place on First Nations people because they are not like us, or because they don't have access to the basic sanitation facilities that we take for granted.

In that community I formed a bond early on with one lady who had recently lost her son to suicide. He was the third young person to die that way in the space of 12 months. As we shared snippets of our very different lives, I marvelled at her resilience. Some of her older female relatives remembered a time pre-invasion, before the middle generation had been raised in a Catholic mission school away from their families and prevented from speaking their language. These women were now teaching their traditional laws and customs to the younger and middle generations with the hope that re-connecting to culture would make a difference to self-confidence, cultural pride and a sense of healing for the community as a whole. Even after sixty short years, "settlement" had clearly been very destructive to the mental health of young people, evidenced in the high rates of suicide.

One of the buildings used for health and community work, Balgo

Rates of youth suicide amongst First Nations people was highlighted in the movie, with Robert and Selina Eggington from the Nyoongar Nation speaking about their own experience of grief losing a son to suicide, and then talking about a space of remembrance that they created for other grieving parents in the Perth area. I wished the movie had included more positive stories like this, and perhaps more from urban and rural experiences as well as remote. But I did find it valuable to hear about successful strikes and union activities that had led to increases in wages, improved standards of living and safety for workers. Stories of resistance movements and urban survivors could have been more prominent.

The irony in the connection between the Northern Territory Intervention and the Stolen Generation was explored. John Pilger reminded us that the Intervention was supposedly implemented because of John Howard's concern about rape of children by Aboriginal men in Northern Territory communities following the "Little Children are Sacred" report. Yet, such allegations were a complete misrepresentation of the report. Even more frustrating is the irony that it was the rape of Aboriginal women and girls by white men that resulted in the "half-caste" children who were stolen as part of a racist policies to breed out the black. Some of the books that tell the stories of the stolen children are so powerful, and I remember tears streaming down my face as I learnt of each person's unique but similar heartbreak. Since I was aware that my grandparents had fostered an Aboriginal girl in the 1960s, believing they were doing a good thing, I imagined with some discomfort every story taking place in their house.

The racism of newcomer Australians is evident in interviews with former politicians, people celebrating Australia Day, and countless stories of unnecessary deaths in custody and massacres that have gone un-noticed in history books. I am also disappointed by how this country has handled Australia Day, almost completely oblivious that our day of pride represents nothing less than invasion day for First Nations people. My sister-in-law tells me that she was shocked by the racism she noticed amongst settler Australians when she first moved here. As I continue to struggle with my own racism and privilege, I am filled with love for the First Nations people in my life who have opened their hearts to me over the years. I have a number of "uncles" who continually forgive me as I stumble and offend. They gently nudge me in the right direction.This movie is another step on my journey. I hope it is seen by those who need to see it, rather than only those of us who are "the converted" -  those of us well-intentioned lefties who want to be supportive, but still need a great deal more educating, mind you! And I hope this story will spark vigorous discussions. I reckon it's okay if we don't all like the style of journalism or the choice of content, as long as it gets us talking about our embarrassing history, the change we want to see in the future, and maybe even taking action in our own lives to be that change.

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