Tall Man on the big screen


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

The Queensland Aboriginal community of Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville.

NATIONAL: On Palm Island, the Tall Man is legendary. He has feet as big as a giant’s. His eyes are red, he smells of stinking things, and when you are asleep, he will come down from the mountains and watch you.

To the outside world, this Tall Man is mythical. To the people of Palm Island, he is reality. But there is a different Tall Man, which both black and white can see. And for the past seven years, he has cast his long shadow over this community of 3000 people.

The death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee is perhaps one of the greatest injustices to happen to Aboriginal Australia in recent times.

It is a story that should inspire outrage from all sections of Australian society. Pieced all together, it seems like as tall tale. Sadly, it is not.

On November 2004, Mr Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, a man of considerable height, while walking drunkenly down the road.

Forty-five minutes later, he was lying dead on the floor of the police watchhouse, his ribs broken, his face bruised, and his liver cleaved in two.

This tale could have ended here, where the tales of countless other deaths in custodies have ended.

But it didn’t, and it was largely due to the tenacity and strength of the Palm Island community.

When the then mayor of Palm Island Erykah Kyle read out the findings of the coroner’s report to a crowd of residents soon after, the community reacted with outrage.

How could the police not be at fault, with the extent of the injuries akin to a car crash victim? They staged an uprising, burning down the police station and Snr Sgt Hurley’s house. The nation’s papers went crazy, with headlines screaming “riots” characterising the Palm Islanders as deviants.

Seventeen participants were arrested. One – Lex Wotton – was convicted of leading the uprising, is still not allowed to speak in public forums or to media.

What happened after is a tragic tale of how the white justice system continues to fail Aboriginal people, the most vulnerable section of Australian society.

First, the state Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), decided against laying charges.

After a public outcry, that decision was overturned. Snr Sgt Hurley was put on the stand, charged with manslaughter in 2006. An all-white jury acquitted him.

Those are just some of the sordid facts laid out bare in Tony Krawitz’s new documentary – The Tall Man. The Tall Man illustrates how the tragedy still taints the community.

The film does not uncover anything new.

But pieced together, it is a devastating reminder of a great injustice.

It also humanises the man at the centre of the story. It makes him more than just a statistic, or a concept to be used to fight against black deaths in custody.

The story is told solely through the voices of those involved, with no narration, and is an emotional portrait from the people who have too often been forgotten.

The majority of people who now know his name, did not have an idea who Mulrunji really was. In this film, you see him through the eyes of people that loved him.

It is something that, regrettably, hasn’t been done before.

Whether it’s through Mulrunji’s sister Elizabeth, or his partner Tracy Twaddle, or his cousin, prominent Aborignal leader Murundoo Yanner, the Aboriginal voices shine through.

One of the most impacting moments of the film is the testimony of Mr Doomadgee’s son Eric. He appears in the film, speaking words laced with heartbreak. Only a few months after his father died, Eric had committed suicide.

The man who comforted Mr Doomadgee as he writhed in agony on the floor of that cell – Patrick Bramwell – also committed suicide.

I believe every Australian should see this film. But perhaps I’m being optimistic. In the darkened Sydney cinema I saw it in, there were only 17 in the audience.

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