Australia’s colonial and racist underpinnings are revealed in the penetrating and stylish crime docu “The Tall Man.” Helmer Tony Krawitz (“Jewboy”) creates a vivid portrait of an Australian island enraged by the death of an Aboriginal man while in custody of the local, predominantly white-run police force. The event and its aftermath were widely reported nationally, but pic delves deeper, encapsulating the tragedy with force and compassion in equal measure. Docu is skedded for broadcast on Oz pubcaster SBS later this year, and more TV slots will follow, but artful presentation makes it a must for fests and theatrical release.
Palm Island is a small, troubled Aboriginal community that sits on the edge of paradise in the Great Barrier Reef. Once a dumping ground for indigenous people considered problematic by white authorities, the community is an amalgam of different tribes. However, the white-black power imbalance is the most pronounced division.
In 2004, Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for drunkenly swearing at police Sgt. Chris Hurley and was taken to jail, where he died a mere 45 minutes after his arrest. An eyewitness account by another prisoner contradicted Hurley’s later testimony that Doomadgee’s fatal injuries were sustained in an accidental fall.
Doomadgee’s death had an explosive effect on the Palm Island community, triggering a rare full-scale riot. Eventually, Hurley — previously decorated for his work with indigenous communities — became the first policeman in the history of Queensland to be charged with manslaughter.
Footage consists predominantly of talking-head interviews, blended with news reports and police video. Subjects express a wide range of views, from Queensland police union official Ian Leavers (who speaks without irony about the police and the Aboriginal people as “two minorities”) to Palm Island community members, while interviews with Doomadgee’s family give the film a compassionate depth that contempo mainstream media broadcasts had little time for when the tragedy happened.
More detached views come from charismatic pro-bono lawyer Andrew Boe, seasoned Oz journo Tony Koch and the writer of the pic’s source material, Chloe Hooper, as they place the crime in a wider historic context and reveal how standard legal protocols were ignored. Marrundoo Yanner, a local activist who was previously amicable with Hurley, keenly notes the ramifications of police corruption when he quips that the force isn’t just racist, but should give “whitefellas” pause as well.
Original interviews are lensed in a tunnel-vision style that gently blurs the periphery of the frame. Initially, it’s a distracting technique, but as the narrative gains momentum, the visual conceit disturbs less, distinguishing the pic from standard tube fare and offering a distant echo of Errol Morris’ stylized presentation. Overall, “The Tall Man” plays well and strongly on the bigscreen; TV viewing will diminish its rich visuals.
Krawitz otherwise eschews flashiness as the docu follows the Doomadgee-Hurley case up to its final inquest in 2009. Narrative approach is measured and deliberate, maintaining drama as it unfurls sometimes shocking and paradoxical twists with a strong sense of suspense.
Composers Antony Partos and David McMicking make a vital contribution to the pic’s sustained tension with a score that ranges from discordant feedback during the riot to more genteel piano for contemplative interviews.