As I watched the film Mabo at its premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday June 7, I felt both ashamed and proud.
Ashamed at how white Australians had treated the Aboriginal people after expropriating their land and claiming it was ‘terra nullius’ anyway, and proud that when Eddie Mabo sought to fight for land rights, he found white supporters like Henry Reynolds, Brian Koen-Cohen and Ron Castan.
Try as I might to write dispassionately about the film, I find that my feelings for the issue are too strong. I laughed and I cried during the movie and was blinking back tears when the Mabo family took the stage at the end.
With them on stage were director Rachel Perkins, writer Sue Smith, and actors Jimi Bani , who played Eddie (Koiki) Mabo, Deborah Mailman (Bonita Mabo), Rob Carlton (Paddy Killoran), and producers Miranda Dear and Darren Dale. Charles Passi, who played Mabo’s father, told the festival audience that the Mabo decision had signalled the beginning of a new Australia.
This film is a dramatised version of the Mabo story, a journey from Murray Island in the Torres Strait at the northernmost tip of Queensland to the high court in Canberra where it finally ended in 1995, three years after Eddie Mabo died of cancer.
Rachel Perkins, who conceived the idea and directed the movie, conscripted Sue Smith to write the screen play. Together they shaped the story and interviewed the family members and the lawyers who took part in the courtroom drama 20 years ago.
The central roles of Eddie and Bonita are portrayed by Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman, both successful indigenous actors who bring strength and sensitivity to this intensely personal and political saga.
That Perkins was able to attract such names to the film as Colin Friels (Judge Moynihan), Rob Carlton (Paddy Killoran), Miranda Otto (Margaret White) and Ewan Leslie (Brian Koen-Cohen) is a tribute to her talent as a director.
The film brings events of momentous importance in recent history to people who may know little, or even nothing, about it. It inserts the land rights question into the Australian narrative once and for all.
While some may claim that the film sanitised Eddie the man, he is not portrayed as a saint who could do no wrong. In one of the opening scenes as he tries to woo Bonita, he is embarrassed when a bottle of whisky falls out of his trousers and smashes to the floor.
There is violence too, and Bonita takes the kids and leaves home. He goes to fetch her back and she returns. There is also tenderness as they dance in the kitchen, and when Eddie gathers his children into his arms after an absence from home to announce he is going to make history.
And history he makes. The landmark Mabo decision formed the basis of land rights legislation introduced by Paul Keating and passed into law after a tough fight in the federal parliament.
That I have written such a personal review is not a matter of shame for me. I am as proud of Eddie Mabo as any indigenous Australian.