Indigenous Law Bulletin
Directed by Trevor Graham
Distributed by Film Australia
Reviewed by Suzanne Christie
His family and friends called him Koiki; other Australians knew him as Mabo. Or did we? The very point of this highly moving and entertaining documentary is that most Australians knew very little of Eddie Koiki Mabo, a man whose name had been splashed across newspaper headlines for substantial parts of the early 1990s, and whose personal struggle had been a national, public and political one. Trevor Graham, the director of Mabo - Life of an Island Man, addressed a crowded State Theatre at the 1997 Sydney Film Festival world premiere of this documentary on 13 June 1997. Graham told the audience that part of the motivation for making this film, his second about Eddie Mabo, was to offset the way in which the name 'Mabo' had become a negative symbol for some people. (His first was Land Bilong Islanders, made in 1989.) He hoped that through explaining something about the manbehind the court case, this problem might be addressed.
When the subject under examination is criminal law, the media have a tendency to personalise their representation of issues through a focus on the victim, the victim's family, or a profile of the criminal. Native title posed a far greater political and theoretical problem for a media who were used to simplistic interactions with the law. In the process of covering the Mabo cases, the personal story of Eddie Mabo himself was lost, or replaced with the personal stories of paranoid city folk and concerned farmers or miners.
The portrait of Eddie Mabo which is developed by this film counteracts the symbolic Mabo - the notion or idea that the man had come to represent. For even at its most positive, the legal significance of 'Mabo' had robbed the individual of his own meaning. The film functions to restore his meaning.
It does this through dealing with Eddie Mabo's life both in terms of its public significance and its private import, as well as tracing his upbringing on the island of Mer. Much of the film is given over to interviews with the Mabo family. Their tales reveal a devoted family man, loving husband and father, and a dedicated campaigner for indigenous rights. It is, thus, the chronicle of the personal life of a political activist through the eyes of his family and friends. Historian and author Henry Reynolds recounts Mabo's dedication in fastidiously recording all correspondence, thoughts and activities. The wealth of material in the papers of the late Eddie Mabo has yet to be fully explored, but if the material in the film provides any indication, it is sure to yield invaluable personal and socio-legal information.
The film also outlines the history of Mer and its relationship with the Queensland Government. Students of legal culture should not miss the scenes which depict the Supreme Court of Queensland come to sit and gather evidence on Mer. The wigs and gowns of the makeshift courtroom are counterposed with the witnesses waiting outside under the palm trees to give evidence. The finer points of Torres Strait land law are explained for the lawyers and cameras, and the intricacies of customary adoption are explicated.
While the print, television and radio media have focused mainly on the legal implications of the Mabo [No. 2] decision (Mabo v Queensland [No. 2]  HCA 23; (1992) 175 CLR 1), Graham's film turns its attention to the extra-legal implications. It explores the personal conflicts between Eddie Mabo and the other residents of Mer. It also examines the impact of protracted legal struggles on the family of Eddie Mabo, a family who were rightly concerned about the fact that nobody knew the man behind the name.
It is film maker Graham's personal relationship with the subjects of his film which gives it legitimacy and warmth. Far from the realms of exploitative docu-drama, Graham records the Mabo family as would a friend, in all their fragility and humour. Yet, Graham's contribution is far from sentimental. The film does not gloss over Bonita Mabo's frustration at her husband's sporadic use of violence, nor does it shy from revealing the horror experienced by the family when their father's grave is desecrated.
The ABC has bought the documentary, which is scheduled to be broadcast on 15 October 1997 at 8.30pm. I commend it highly as a fascinating contribution to Australian legal and cultural history. Through its television premiere, hopefully it can reach the wide audience it so richly deserves.