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Friday, June 8, 2012

Directing might behind Mabo movie


 This is particularly true of the quality television biography, the small screen's version of the cinema's biopic. The trick is to discover what you are able to, tell what you can and speculate intelligently about the rest. It is more easily said than done. It is extremely difficult to cram a life into two hours of TV.

Well, with Mabo, director Rachel Perkins (First Australians, Bran Nue Day) and her equally accomplished writer Sue Smith (Bastard Boys, RAN) deliver a biography that not only presents a compelling historical narrative but a love story, a courtroom drama and a political thriller. They do it with bravura and a cinematic style that is often mesmerising. Mabo is produced by Perkins, along with Darren Dale and Miranda Dear in innovative production company Blackfella Films.
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Marking the 20th anniversary of the historic High Court decision on June, 3, 1992, that recognised Aboriginal native title over land, the film's subject is Eddie Koiki Mabo, played brilliantly by Jimi Bani (The Straits).

Mabo is a name we all recognise whenever land rights or native title are raised in conversation, but most of us probably have little real knowledge of this national hero. I certainly did not, to my shame. Just as I knew nothing of the other heroic figures Perkins celebrated in her remarkable TV documentary series First Australians, the history of the effects of white settlement told largely from the perspective of black Australia. There, she told us of lives fiercely carved into our historical story, of battlegrounds marked by bones and the part played by indigenous people in events that are part of our inherited imagination, or should be.

Mabo - fluent, stylish and lucid - is engrossing television. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, a story of courage, resilience and eventually tragedy that illuminates the indigenous experience, especially for those of us who know so little of it.

Eddie Mabo was the relentless, sometimes fractious Torres Strait Islander who, despite leaving school at 15, spearheaded the challenge to the long-held fiction of terra nullius. This was the presumptuous notion that Australia was an empty place when first occupied by white people; that it was a legal desert before 1788 so title to the land could be annexed by occupation.

It was an old story that became fiercely contested by a man so passionate about family and home, and so unfazed by the intimidating protocols of the courts, that he fought an entire nation and its legal system.

Mabo, always considered a troublemaker by the white authorities, came from Murray Island, the easternmost of the rocky bits of land that break the turquoise surface of Torres Strait. For many of us it has always possessed the aura and romantic promise of a Robert Louis Stevenson South Seas adventure, but for Mabo and his Meriam people it meant far more. They worked their gardens and fished their waters as their families had for centuries, and believed the island belonged to their ancestors and to them.

That pressure hit home when the telemovie was originally slotted for last week, until programmers realised that was also the return date for Downton Abbey "which was just about the highest-rating show on television last year".

"We originally planned it to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision, but putting it back a week just made more sense in the end," she says.

"The upside, as one journalist reminded me, was that as a nation we get to see this story unfold at the same time, and that's a tremendous opportunity, to share something like that."

Nerves aside, Perkins has tremendous faith in the story of Eddie Mabo, the Torres Strait islander who took on the Australian Government and won a historic High Court decision on native title. It's a story she first dealt with in documentary form but always felt deserved the wider audience that a movie would attract.

"We had the idea for a while and always thought it would appeal to a large audience. I found that many people aren't aware of the story ... one of the actors even thought that Mabo was a place, not an actual person -- so telling the story became important."

Despite the numerous hurdles that Mabo confronted in his lifetime (the most heart-breaking, being when authorities wouldn't allow him to return to his native home on Murray Island to see his dying father), the tele-movie manages to remain upbeat and humanise his struggles over four decades and incorporates his love affair with wife Bonita and their family of 10, some of whom pop up in cameos.

Perkins says whenever the production ran into problems, the crew took inspiration from Mabo. "I really think it helped, after what Eddie went through, it inspired everyone on the set and the lead actors (Jimi Bani and Deb Mailman) are such class acts," she says.

"It's a real test to have people age so much in roles, just the make-up is a nightmare ... and one bad beard can ruin the whole thing ... but it all came together thankfully." For Perkins it represents another labour of love from her production house, Blackfella Films, with her next project being a TV series that includes the writing skills of gritty Englishman Jimmy McGovern, though she says she is keen to do more movies.

The daughter of pioneering indigenous activist Charles Perkins, she says she is still learning, even though she has been in the industry for more than half her life. "I was 18 when I started and now I'm 42, so it's been a long time , but I feel I'm still learning ... even making this movie I realised I knew very little about the life of people in the Torres Strait ... I think that is one of the most satisfying aspects of this job, there is always more to learn.

"I sort of fell into this business to begin with, I got a traineeship (with Imparja Television, an Aboriginal-owned TV station in the Central Australian Desert), but it didn't take long for me to realise this was what I wanted to do."

Since then Perkins has forged a career as a writer, producer and director though you get the idea she prefers the creative process to producing. She says there will come a time when she will not focus solely on indigenous stories but for now is happy in that role "because there are so many stories to tell".
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