Four years after the John Pilger film lifted the lid on outback communities, what has changed? The horrors are still with us
Kathleen Ngale, 85 years-old, has lost five kilos in the last month. She has a mattress on a concrete floor and her blankets look as if they have never been cleaned. Photograph: Gerry Georgatos
In 2013 John Pilger’s documentary Utopia opened to rave reviews internationally, CineVue referred to it as “an examination of injustice” and “essential viewing”. Metro stated that the film was “confrontational” and “eye-opening”.
Utopia documented Aboriginal families living in the most adverse poverty you can imagine in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. A number of government officials were interviewed looking to find how such travesty can be allowed to continue. No one was willing to take responsibility.
Internationally the film was described as a “must see”, its core arguments “compelling” and “shameful” but in Australia Utopia did not have anywhere near the same reaction where we still struggle with our relationship with Aboriginal people.
Over the summer break I journeyed out to Utopia with colleague, social justice campaigner and suicide prevention researcher Gerry Georgatos, after being invited by locals to witness the living conditions of Aboriginal people.
Less than three hours drive out of Alice Springs is Camel Camp, one of the 16 Utopian communities funded by government. Nothing prepares you for the aged care witnessed there – any thought of race politics was out the window. This was a disconnection from humanity – the only question was how was this allowed to happen. Kathleen Ngale is 85 years old and living in conditions I can only describe as hell.
Gerry Georgatos wrote: “There was no ventilation, no air-conditioning, no in-house services, no anything, only dank concrete, decrepit and filthy – it is however visited by government ‘services’ and some food drop-offs, pitiful. People lay on the concrete swatting flies, holding together resilient while denied dignity and the respite that their years on this Earth should have accumulated. Indeed, sadly, I have seen better ‘aged-care facilities’ in the poorest regions of third-world nations.”
Kathleen has lost 5kg in the last month. She has a mattress on a concrete floor and her blankets look as if they have never been cleaned. I sat next to her speaking ever so quietly in my own Aboriginal language watching her melt into Ngarla Kunoth-Monks with so much love it was devastating. I was angry, confused and most of all in utter disbelief, finding myself wanting to cry.
I went outside looking for solace and, surreally, found myself in a makeshift shanty church its red earth floor swept clean. This was neglect, abuse and segregation.
I sat next to the 2015 Naidoc person of the year, Ngarla’s mother Rosalie Kunoth-Monks as we drove from one community to another in oppressive heat. Watching this strong Arrernte women, now 80 years-old, her eyes welling as once again she was forced to reveal herself to people from the outside, showing the living conditions of her people in defiance of those who wished she would stay quiet.
It was no different on the other communities we visited – the poverty, together with the alienation and scorn they face from outsiders managing their affairs, outsiders living in newly built houses and numerous satellites on their roofs with air conditioning, surrounded by high fences, some who live only 100 metres walk from the locals living in developing world conditions.
These same managers tell us the situation is so complex we can’t understand or, even worse, simply not true as you stand there in disbelief: the segregation is right there before your eyes. As if we were talking to people who are somehow blind or just refuse to see.
Meanwhile, there are locals doing what they can. ‘George Club’ who leases rubbish bails which he empties once a month in Alice Springs; ‘Freddy Dixon’ who has a front-end loader license and heavy machinery; ‘Dennis Kunoth’ who runs a local shop selling supplies.
These people have capacity, they have vision and they know what they want for their community. What they do not have is support funding and control.
The real problem in Australia is that segregation still occurs whether we accept it or not, and no matter how obvious the segregation, neither side appears willing to meet half way and start a dialogue of inclusion. You are either one or the other, right or left and we never look towards compromise. No one is willing to meet in the middle.
Talking to non-Indigenous locals in Alice Springs you hear things like “blacks receive too much money, millions from the government, they get services for free and assistance with jobs and education”, which is a common sentiment heard throughout Australia.
One local I spoke to went as far as saying,
They live like animals, worse than animals. My daughter works at K-Mart and the abuse she has to put up with the violent language and spitting from these kids and always stealing you just can’t have them in the shop… they just don’t care and are out of control. It’s frightening.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has another opinion.
The horrors of the past and our trauma today – generations of public service and government neglect, lies and lack of services allowing us to live in poverty – maintain this violence with impunity. We are reliving the pain of our people over and over again, generation to generation.
In Pilger’s film Salil Shetty from Amnesty International made the point:
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. When you consider that the total Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory is under 50,000 people, to suggest you can’t solve this problem after so many decades and with all Australia’s resources you can only assume the problem is somewhere else.
What I do know is that four years after the release of the film little has changed. Here Australia’s relationship with its Aboriginal people is lived out in extremes where you have one group not from the community living in comfort managing the lives of others living in absolute poverty. Something must be done.