Discussing Mabo: Life of an Island Man

BY JOHNNY MILNER

WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In celebration of NAIDOC Week, this month’s Deep Dive looks back at the brilliant documentary Mabo: Life of an Island Man (1997). The NFSA presented a livestreamed screening of the film in June 2020, followed by a yarn with our Indigenous Connections Manager Tasha James and director Trevor Graham.

Trevor talks about his personal connection with Eddie Mabo and the importance of Mabo’s work in the historic High Court decision of 1992 that bears his name. Watch the livestream Q&A:

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Eddie Mabo

Eddie' Koiki' Mabo was born on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait in 1936. Losing his mother shortly after his birth, Eddie was adopted by his uncle and aunty – in line with Islander custom. As discussed in the Q&A and documentary, he started life like so many other Indigenous people in this country, deprived of basic rights and adequate mainstream education. Queensland authority law controlled every aspect of island life, from dictating wages to regulating private lives.

At the age of 16, the islander council (overseen by the Department of Native Affairs) accused Eddie of being drunk – and also of being in an illicit relationship with a girl. The council presented him with an impossible choice: do hard labour for no pay for a year or go into exile. Eddie chose exile and spent most of his adult life on the mainland, where he met his wife Bonita and raised 10 children. As we can see in the clip below, however, his cultural identity remained deeply rooted in the Murray Islands and Meriam custom:

The Mabo Case

The legal decision universally known as Mabo refers to the landmark 1992 High Court native title ruling which overturned the nation's founding myth of terra nullius – meaning the Australian continent, before white settlement, belonged to no-one. In a 10-year legal battle, the Mabo case successfully proved a system of legal ownership of land predating white settlement and thus representing a turning point in Australian jurisprudence.

The documentary and Q&A are brilliant in showing context. We hear of Eddie's time working at James Cook University and of his devastating realisation that his inherited family land belonged to the Crown. As shown in the excerpt from the film below, Eddie could not accept this proposition and identified ways to use the 'whitefella system' to enact change:

It is fascinating to learn how the plaintiffs and the legal team expose the fiction of terra nullius – and the filmmakers (who initially spent many weeks on the island with Eddie) interview the Elders in a way that captures the complex system of land ownership and inheritance. We also learn about the protocols of the god Malo, who is said to have given the people laws and ceremonies to govern their lives.

While the legal defence was quick to seize on land disputes among claimants, the High Court ruled that these disputes were of no consequence. The two pertinent questions were said to be whether the community of Mer had a system of land ownership that predated white conquest and, if so, whether that system still existed. The court answered yes to both questions.

Watch a clip on australianscreen from Graham's 1989 documentary Land Bilong Islanders (a kind of prequel to Mabo: Life of an Island Man and the only film record of the Mabo legal proceedings) which introduces the Murray Islands and further expands on the plaintiffs’ claim to land.

Aftershocks

As Graham and the documentary clearly lay out, the principles and repercussions of the Mabo case extend far beyond the shores of the Murray Islands. The case profoundly changed the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. We are also reminded of how partisan Mabo became and how it exposed the fault lines in the race relations of this country.

In this clip on australiasnscreen, you can watch Prime Minister Paul Keating outline the basic principles of native title legislation in the wake of the Mabo ruling.

The documentary After Mabo (John Hughes, 1997) shows the response of conservative politicians and the mining industry to the decision. In this clip on australianscreen, then opposition leader John Hewson, for instance, describes the passing of the bill as a national day of shame.

Mabo: Life of an Island Man also features the horrific racist desecration of Mabo's grave – which followed a commemoration of his life. Trevor Graham describes this incident as being 'one of the saddest moments he had ever experienced'. As a result, and as seen in the below excerpt from the film, the family decided to return Eddie's remains to the Murray Islands, his homeland –  where he was finally accepted after many years in exile:

Crucial to the emotional reach and scope of Mabo: Life of an Island Man is the manifest personal involvement of the Mabo family, who help paint an honest and intimate portrayal of Eddie's life – showing him as determined political activist and family member, but also a flawed man. 

Trevor Graham – a writer, producer and director of several documentaries, many of which focus on Indigenous stories and issues – develops a long-lasting friendship with the family and gathers footage spanning many years and stages.

Mabo: Life of an Island Man won Best Documentary at the AFI Awards and the Sydney Film Festival and has become a critical educational recourse on the topic of native title. It has also inspired dramatisations of Eddie's life, such as Mabo (Rachel Perkins, 2012 – watch the trailer).