Tall Man Documentary Review Essay

''So we embarked on making the documentary,'' Dale says, ''and I'm happy it turned out that way, because I think the power and truth of the film is in hearing real people tell their stories.''

Hooper's book describes, with subtlety and painstaking clarity, her encounters on Palm Island, her efforts to understand what had taken place on November 19, 2004, and what lay behind it. Her narrative voice and her particular insights, Dale says, make the book so effective. The film, however, necessarily takes a different approach.

''We wanted the family and the people of Palm Island at the centre,'' he says. It came back to one of the imperatives behind Blackfella Films: ''having indigenous people speaking in their own voices, telling their own stories''.

The film speaks to Tracy Twaddle (Doomadgee's partner), to his sisters, his brother, to Palm Island locals, people who recall, unsentimentally but with still raw emotion, the person they knew.

''Tracy isn't a person who uses flowery language and she's not dressing anything up but you can see the emotions of the story written on her face,'' Dale says.

Despite their best efforts, the filmmakers found it difficult to find more than the most basic images of Doomadgee himself: they had to draw on some fading digital photographs, printed out on A4 paper, that are still stuck up on a cupboard in the house that Twaddle and Doomadgee shared.

''We scoured the island, following every lead we could,'' Dale says, ''but taking and keeping photos isn't something people do on Palm.''

There were other images of Doomadgee that they also sought, without any real hope that they would be able to use them: the video surveillance footage, taken in the police cell, which records his painful death. It is under a suppression order, Dale says, and was not released - there is no chance, he says, that it ever will be.

Yet he was, he says, amazed to discover that Doomadgee's sisters, Elizabeth Doomadgee and Valmai Aplin, wanted this material included in the film. He had showed the family the documentary at rough-cut and fine-cut stage; after a short consultation, they came back and told him: ''We want you to get the coroner to release that footage of our brother dying, so that people can really see how terrible his death was.' I was absolutely gobsmacked. I didn't think that would be their comment.''

Quite late in the day, the coroner allowed the filmmakers access to some other significant footage screened in court. It shows police interviews, conducted a day after Doomadgee's death, reconstructing what took place.

One shows Hurley giving his account of what happened, how he says that Doomadgee fell to the ground; the other is with Roy Bramwell, a Palm Islander who was sitting in an office in the jail and has a rather different version of what took place.

Dale is very aware that in a complex story with many nuances and characters, there are simplifications that a film or a TV series has to make. Compared with a book, he says, ''there's a level of detail that film doesn't allow you to have … but on the flip side … in those two images, juxtaposed, you see the very different stories that two people have come to. And that, for me, symbolises so much about the case: the collision of these two very different versions.''

As well as locals and Doomadgee's family, The Tall Man has the voices of lawyers and of a journalist who covered the story. And they did their best, Dale says, to try to include a police perspective. The filmmakers always hoped that they would be able to talk to Hurley, a member of his family or a fellow officer. Locals who knew him when he served at Burketown recall him favourably.

Indigenous leader Murrandoo Yanner paints an intriguing portrait of a man who embraced, in all kinds of ways, the role of being a central figure in the community where he worked.

But securing an interview with the police proved impossible. ''It is telling, I think, that the Commissioner of Police in Queensland still doesn't feel that he needs to talk, on the record, about one of the most important moments in race relations in our current history,'' Dale says. ''That no one felt the need to give even a simple interview.'' In the end, he adds, ''I think that mirror is too big to hold up.''

To direct the documentary, Dale turned to a filmmaker with a background in drama. He has generally worked with Rachel Perkins but after directing the high-profile, low-budget hit musical Bran Nue Dae, she wasn't ready to take up another demanding project immediately.

The next person Dale thought of was Tony Krawitz. He knew him socially and had a sense of him as ''an empathetic person, someone who has a very truthful engagement with people''. Krawitz's award-winning 2005 short feature, Jewboy, Dale says, ''is a really fantastic film made about his own community''.

Dale also thought that The Tall Man needed ''a more sophisticated view of racial complexity'' and that Krawitz's background, growing up in South Africa, prepared him for this. He sent Hooper's book to Krawitz, who read it overnight, ''was blown away'' and immediately keen to make the film.

At the first meeting to discuss the project, he was too shy, he says, to ask Dale and Perkins why they had thought of him. ''I was curious at first but then I kind of went with it and thought, let's just make it.''

Writing the script, there were a couple of ground rules for him, he says. He didn't want any re-creations. And he didn't want a narrating voice. It was important to him that as many people as possible gave their accounts.

''To let the Palm Islanders tell their story, the police, whoever would speak to us. And to treat the audience like a jury, in a way.''

The Tall Man opens on Thursday.

Amid the tropical islands dotting the Great Barrier Reef off Australia lies one that goes unmentioned in vacation brochures. Called Palm Island, it boasts golden beaches and blue waters surrounding an interior of lush green. It was, a government official declared in 1916, “the ideal place for a delightful holiday.” Instead, it became a prison for Aborigines where, for some 50 years, the state of Queensland sent those it sought to punish — “ ‘troublesome characters,’ ‘larrikins,’ ‘wanderers’ or ‘communists.’ ”

In November 2004, the 36-year-old stepson of one of those “troublesome characters” was found dead in a police cell on the island. He had four broken ribs; bruising on his hands, back and face; and a liver that had been “almost cleaved in two.” His name was Cameron Doomadgee, and in her new book, “Tall Man,” Chloe Hooper sets out to tell his story.

It is not an easy one to tell. From the time he was found unresponsive in that concrete cell, Doomadgee came to bear the unbearable weight of black Australia’s grievances against white. In turn, the policeman accused in the case would be tried not just for this sin, but for all. The facts would prove elusive, swimming in and out of focus, filtered through the murk of prejudice, anger, despair, and gallons and gallons of booze. Witnesses changed their stories (one committed suicide, as did Doomadgee’s son) and positions hardened as politicians, lobby groups and the national news media joined the parade.

Hooper followed the case and its main characters for two and a half years, and she does their complexity a remarkable justice. She became involved a few months after Doomadgee’s death, when a lawyer representing the island’s Aboriginal community said he needed a writer. Hooper’s first book, “A Child’s Book of True Crime,” was a novel — arguably a curious grounding for a work like this one. Or perhaps it set the stage perfectly, with its clever and penetrating account of a gruesome murder. Yet Hooper surely could not have foreseen the tempest into which she was stepping with the Doomadgee case. “I had never heard of Palm Island,” she writes, and “like most middle-class suburbanites, I grew up without ever seeing an Aborigine, except on the news.”

About 2,500 people live on Palm Island, many of them, like Doomadgee, descendants of those banished from the mainland. Doomadgee’s stepfather was sent to Palm in leg irons in the mid-1950s “after knocking out all the teeth of a missionary who’d flogged his uncle to near death.” Officially a mission, this “tropical gulag” was one of around 20 set up in Queensland to “protect the natives from the violence of the frontier” and bring “light to the darkness” of their lives. Now, the missionaries are gone and the communities they left behind have become “impoverished ghettos of alcoholism, petrol sniffing, brutality, arrests and early deaths.”

Senior Sgt. Chris Hurley, the officer who locked up Doomadgee, seemed attracted to these brutal settlements. “Do the things that draw a missionary to savage places also lure a cop?” Hooper wonders. “Does the cop get the same rush from lawlessness that missionaries get from the godless?” While Hooper was embraced by the Doomadgee family, she had no access to Hurley — a limitation she tries to overcome by visiting places he worked and talking to people he knew. She meets Murrandoo Yanner, an Aboriginal activist from the tiny northwest Queensland settlement of Burketown, where Hurley was posted for four years. “All kids in town, he spent a lot of time with them,” Yanner said of Hurley. “On his weekends off, rather than chase the nurses and go drinking, he’d actually go along with the school trip, throw some kids in his car.” Which is not to say Hurley was averse to chasing nurses and drinking — women Hooper spoke with described him as a sleaze. But on one thing, Yanner is adamant: “He was definitely no racist.”

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