THE TALL MAN. Starring: Tracey Twaddle, Lloyd Doomadgee, Elizabeth Doomadgee, Murrandoo Yanner, and Chloe Hooper. Directed by Tony Krawitz. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 79 min.
Premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival in March this year, this documentary film is based on the book, “The Tall Man” by Chloe Hooper, which has won more than four major literary awards. It explores what happened when Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-yr old Indigenous man was found dead in a Palm Island police station, with injuries that didn’t reasonably fit with tripping into the station’s step, as the Police had claimed. When they learnt of his death, Palm Islanders rioted, and burnt the police station down. Senior Sergeant, Chris Hurley, who was the arresting officer, was charged and later acquitted for his death by a Townsville jury in June, 2007. This film is about the tragic events of Doomadgee’s death, and their aftermath.
Hooper’s book deals with a highly emotional event. Her book is a painstaking, objective and tension-filled account of what occurred on the night of November 19, 2004. So too is the film, which focuses on Doomadgee’s death, legal proceedings against Hurley, and how Doomadgee’s family, and his de facto partner (Tracey Twaddle), attempt to come to grips with what happened to one of their own. Hooper herself narrates several sections of the film. How does someone arrested for swearing at a police officer end up dead forty minutes later with severe internal injuries? Did bias prevent justice being done? Did corruption blur the dividing lines between white and black in a complex community, which has a terribly brutal history? And how does Doomadgee’s family live with the tragic after-math of the events of that night, which now include the suicide of Doomadgee’s son, Eric, and the suicide of Patrick Bramwell, the person who shared Doomadgee’s cell block on the night of his death.
This is an excellent documentary that is edited very skilfully. It is educational, insightful, and sympathetic to the indigenous culture at Palm Island, and dramatically relays the awful events of that night in a sensitive way. It captures movingly the sad and frightening story of a man’s death, by examining pointedly the reaction of his family and partner to it. The film explores what justice means for Aboriginal people in remote communities, and looks at that issue with great emotional force. Carefully, it is not an indictment of Hurley, but it lays out the possibilities of events intentionally described in the film as “not directly racist”. Significantly, Hurley’s presence is conveyed through video and audio recordings, and it is disappointing that the film failed to get him to appear in it. This is a film, however, in which members of the Indigenous community speak in their own voice.
Because of the possible constraints of making a documentary about Doomadgee’s death that mixes cultural perceptions, understandable speculation, and official defensiveness, the film says very little about the police’s direct involvement with Doomadgee’s death, or responsible persons’ off-the-record perceptions of what they think happened. Like the book, the film stirs up suspicions about the night, but holds its focus on events known to have taken place.
The film is a first class piece of investigative reporting. It magnificently captures the terrible aftermath and sense of injustice experienced by Doomadgee’s family. The film ends with coroner, Brian Hine’s 2010 inquiry, called at the instigation of the Police. This inquiry concluded that the evidence was consistent with the fact that Doomadgee’s injuries were inflicted intentionally or accidentally by Hurley in a struggle with Doomadgee, but due to the unreliability of Police and Indigenous witnesses, no definitive judgement could be made. In a poignant moment, at the end of the film, the leader of the Police Union, close to tears, says “it is time to move on”.
The film is about death and life on Palm Island, and about a culture that can hardly bear the pain that history has imposed upon them.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 17, 2011.