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Mabo: Life of an Island Man
Mabo: Life of an Island Man. Filmmakers: Trevor Graham, Denise Haslem, and Sharon Connolly. 87 minutes, vhs, color, 1997. Distributors: Film Australia and First Run/Icarus Films. Sale video US$440; rental video US$100. Awards: Australian Film Institute, Best Documentary, 1998; Sydney Film Festival, Best Documentary, 1998; New South Wales Premier (Literary) Script Writing Award, 1997; Brisbane Film Festival, Most Popular Film, 1997.
In June 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in what is commonly known as the Mabo case, ending a ten-year battle for Eddie Koiki Mabo and four other Mer elders. They claimed that the [End Page 300] Mer people had lived on Mer and the surrounding islands since time immemorial and that they are the owners by custom of the islands and surrounding seas and seabeds. This case overturned the doctrine of terra nullius (meaning land belonging to no one), which justified the British invasion and dispossession of Australia's indigenous population. The High Court decision recognized that the Mer people held property rights in the islands prior to their annexation by the Queensland government in 1879, and that these rights constituted a form of customary ownership or native title that had not been extinguished after annexation. The principles of this case could also establish claims for Aboriginal people in mainland Australia.
The film Mabo: Life of an Island Man is the story of an extraordinary man from a small island in the Torres Strait. This island is called Mer by the Islanders, while most Australians would know it as Murray Island. The man is Eddie Koiki Mabo. The Islanders call him Koiki. The filmmaker, Trevor Graham, founder of Yarra Bank Films, Melbourne, and writer-director of Land Bilong Islanders, a 1989 film on the Mabo case, spent a number of years with Eddie Koiki Mabo until his death in January 1992. He developed a close relationship with family members, including Benita Mabo, Koiki's wife. In Mabo: Life of an Island Man, Graham has produced a moving and personal story of a family who have become a public name in Australia. The film includes a number of interviews with Torres Strait Islanders, politicians, lawyers, and academics who have been associated with the Mabo family. Old film footages and interviews with Koiki have also been captured by Graham. However, the strength of the film lies in the portrayal of Eddie Koiki Mabo as seen through the eyes of Benita Mabo and the adult Mabo children.
The film highlights Koiki's political activism in Townsville, north Queensland, with the victory of the 1967 referendum, which allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted in the national census and directed the federal government to take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs after years of neglect by state governments. Koiki's political battles were numerous, one being the opposition to the first Black Community School, which he and others established so that black culture could be part of the learning experience for black children. Opposition to the Black Community School came from many groups and organizations, such as the Queensland Education Department, that could not accept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children could learn in an environment where their culture was part of the school curriculum. There was also opposition from Aboriginal people who had lived in missions and reserves where they had been taught in "special" black schools where the education was inferior to that available in schools in the wider Australian society. Koiki was not afraid to challenge the authorities. Not surprisingly, Koiki, like many indigenous activists at the time, came to the attention of the Special Branch of the Queensland government, a section of law enforcement that specialized in surveillance of people who opposed the government.
Koiki lived most of his life in exile, [End Page 301] where he remained emotional and homesick for his homeland of Mer. His outlet was in his paintings of the seas and islands and in his writing, which filled numerous...