For Australian audiences, this emotional documentary about the life and death of a Torres Strait Islander who fought the Australian federal government and the State of Queensland for the right to own his land will be a revelation. Elsewhere, pic will have understandably less impact, but this well-made and absorbing biography of a man of humble origins who came into conflict with a powerful political system, and died before his battle was won, is a natural for quality TV slotting in many territories. In Oz, successful limited theatrical exposure is likely. “Mabo: Life of an Island Man” was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation at its Sydney film fest world preem.
The Mabo case rocked Australia, and the repercussions are unlikely to diminish for years to come. When the Federal High Court of Australia found in favor of Eddie Mabo’s argument that he and other inhabitants of Murray Island had, for countless generations, a concept of land ownership, with land handed down from father to son, the decision negated the principles on which Australia was colonized by Britain in the 18th century.
The British contended that Australia was “terra nullius” — that, despite 50 ,000 years of occupation by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the vast land was “unoccupied” because the indigenous people had no concept of ownership. The Mabo decision, handed down in June 1992, five months after Mabo’s death from cancer, decreed this was a false assumption. Its implications applied to the mainland also, with dramatic ongoing results as aboriginal people fought to regain title to their land and farmers and miners bitterly opposed them. The current race debate in Australia stems largely from this issue.
Documaker Trevor Graham previously made “Land Bilong Islanders” (1990) in which Mabo, an avuncular, well-educated man, was prominently featured. Footage from that film, along with propaganda footage from the ’30s, is incorporated in the new pic.
Mabo was born on Murray Island in 1936, though since he was adopted into the Mabo family, there was later contention about his right to inherit the land he claimed. The Torres Strait Islands, off Australia’s north coast, were at the time administered by white-controlled councils on behalf of the State of Queensland, and, in the ’40s, lawbreakers were subject to expulsion to the mainland. At the age of 16, Mabo was expelled for dallying with a young woman. Cut off from his island roots, he found work on the railways, as a cane cutter and as a longshoreman, eventually settling in the city of Townsville, where he married and raised a family.
He became politically active, and was prominent at the time of the 1967 referendum which, for the first time, gave Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders the vote. In the ’70s, he became obsessed with establishing his family’s land on Murray Island as his own, and in 1982 he filed a writ with the High Court claiming traditional ownership of the land. Years of government opposition and obstruction followed, with Mabo branded a communist agitator by some conservatives.
Mabo emerges from the film as an engaging character, with a feisty wife (who doesn’t flinch from speaking about the times he drank too much and became violent toward her, blaming it on stress) and delightful children and grandchildren. Family scenes are touching, funny and candid. Lawyers, repping both sides in the case, lend a Euro perspective to the conflict.
Pic climaxes with Mabo’s funeral in Townsville, attended by the wife of then Prime Minister Paul Keating, a high-profile event that was followed by a disgusting example of racism when, on the night of the burial, vandals painted swastikas and racial slurs on the tombstone. Mabo was eventually exhumed and reburied on his beloved island. Graham paints a vivid portrait of this very political, very determined man who lived most of his life exiled from the island he loved (he was even prevented from returning to see his dying father) and whose fight for justice has had, and will continue to have, far-reaching implications.