This article is part of our June theme, which focuses on Indigenous People and their human rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.
Indigenous filmmaker Rachel Perkins, best known for her light-hearted musical Bran Nue Dae, has now turned her talents to the telling of a different type of Indigenous story. Her latest work, Mabo, which premiered on 7 June 2012 at the Sydney Film Festival, is the true story of Eddie Mabo, the man behind the ground-breaking Mabo case that first established native title rights in Australian law.
The State Theatre red carpet screening marked the 20th anniversary week of the Mabo verdict, which changed the course of recent Australian history. Present were most of the cast and crew, lawmakers of the day, as well as Bonita Mabo and other members of the Mabo family.
The film charts Eddie Mabo’s life, from the early years in the Torres Strait Islands, to the day he meets Bonita, his future wife, and, eventually, on to the High Court to challenge the notion of terra nullius.
… [In] 1992, when the High Court heard the Mabo case … [n]ative title rights, long-recognised in comparative countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and long-denied in Australia, were finally born into the Australian common law.
Terra nullius is a Latin term that, in international law, means land belonging to no one. When the British colonised Australia in 1770, they used the concept to declare themselves entitled to the “newly discovered” lands, in spite of the presence of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants.
It was not until 1992, when the High Court heard the Mabo case, that the declaration of Australia as terra nullius was determined to be incorrect. It was thus finally recognised that the Indigenous peoples of Australia had an interest in the land taken by the British Crown upon settlement. Native title rights, long-recognised in comparative countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and long-denied in Australia, were finally born into the Australian common law.
Mabo is most powerful in in its portrait of an Indigenous hero – rarely seen on Australian screens.
The case took ten years, during which time Eddie couldn’t work, and was often away from his family for extended periods of time. Tragically, he died before getting the chance to hear that the High Court had ruled in favour of his claim.
Films based on real people are often difficult to make effectively, especially when some of those people are still living, as is the case with Bonita (played beautifully in the film by Deborah Mailman). Nevertheless, the film is successful because it paints a seemingly realistic picture of the man who was Eddie Mabo. It shows his struggles and his failings, as well as his triumphs. Mabo is most powerful in in its portrait of an Indigenous hero – rarely seen on Australian screens. Mabo is in fact an archetypal hero, overcoming great odds to achieve his goals.
A story of great importance to all Australians, with great heart and great triumph …
Mabo was made for the ABC, where it will air for the first time on Australian TV at 8:30pm on 10 June 2012. Ultimately, the film was made for television, and it does have that “TV movie” feel to it. It is not particularly cinematic, and some large unexplained jumps in the narrative leave things a little confused at times.
A celebration of the man behind a case that changed Australia’s law forever, and the significance of the decision’s 20th anniversary, nonetheless warranted the State Theatre screening. And the love story at the film’s core, portrayed beautifully by the two leads, carries it through. A story of great importance to all Australians, with great heart and great triumph, Mabo is a must see.