Directed by Tony Krawitz
Starring Murrandoo Yanner, Lloyd Doomadgee, Elizabeth Doomadgee
Writer/director Tony Krawitz has made a masterful documentary based on the events described in Chloe Hooper’s book of the same name. The film examines the events preceding and following the death in custody, of a Palm Island Aboriginal man, who was arrested for swearing at a policeman and was found dead in his cell 45 minutes later. This, for those not in the know, is a true story which shamefully occurred less than 10 years ago and unfortunately is but one instance of a regular occurrence which happens all too often in Australia’s modern day justice system. The latest and arguably most scandalous, taking place in Perth, in early 2008.
This film is not a sensationalised account of the Palm Island tragedy, but rather, is a commendably balanced work, which draws the audience towards the characters in the story and holds the attention very well over its entire course. Most of the narrative is told through those directly involved in the case, lawyers, family members, government bureaucrats and other community members who were either drawn in, witnessed the incident or were affected by the terrible repercussions the tragedy had on the community.
The film has hints of Errol Morris’ first masterpiece The Thin Blue Line (1998) as it presents the story being told by the participants and doesn’t suggest the outcome for the uninitiated. There is some truly beautiful camera work and both the people of the island and Palm Island itself are shown in the true style of the living paradox in which they exist, caught halfway between some sort of man-made hell and a tropical paradise. There are powerful images of the idyllic landscape with residents diving for turtles, galloping horses across open beaches all alongside burnt out cars, dry dusty backyards and streets filled with filth and rubbish. Palm Island as is told through the film, was originally a penal colony where a remote mission was set up by the paternal government of the day, to house the recalcitrants and ne’er-do-wells of early 20th century northern Queensland. The result is a population of Aboriginal people, all from different areas of Queensland, who have lived over three generations under punitive government rule and have amounted to a population of over three thousand people, living in a resulting state of squalor and near chaos.
Director Krawitz, who grew up in Apartheid era South Africa, said the inspiration for the film came when he observed striking parellels between the conditions of black South Africans and the conditions of the Aboriginals of far north Queensland - both of whom encountered systemic racism on a daily basis and both of whom have been disempowered for generations. What this film does very well, is it manages to maintain and in turn enrich, the much needed conversation between white and black Australia in order for Australia to truly come to terms with itself as a people. Famed and outspoken academic, Marcia Langton declared in the powerful documentary series First Australians (2008), that the history of modern Australia has not been told honestly by white authorities, as the practices of the past were simply too shameful, and in a similar sense, this documentary of the Palm island tragedy reveals a history, and the modern consequences of that history, that needs to be acknowledged by all modern Australians.
This film is one of those extremely rare, incredibly well made pieces, that is both thought provoking and both tragic and ultimately inspiring. It is an important Australian film and works such as these are the paths to Australia’s cultural future. A future where Australians will hopefully raise their collective identity above shallow boganry and absurd notions of colonial romanticism. I never thought I’d write this in a review but if you only see one film this year...