New doco on Black death in custody denied footage

Rally against Black deaths in custody in Brisbane.

The Tall Man
Screening SBS ONE,
Feb 5, 8.30pm.

The director of a documentary about the death in custody of Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee says the family wanted him to use footage of the death, but he was blocked from accessing it.

"We tried and failed to get access to it," Tony Krawitz tells Green Left Weekly. "So I've never seen it — it screened in court, but can't be released."

Krawitz's multi-award winning film, The Tall Man, is based on the critically-acclaimed book of the same name by journalist Chloe Hooper.

In the book, Hooper describes footage filmed by a surveillance camera in the Palm Island police cell where Doomadgee was held after being arrested by sergeant Chris Hurley in 2004.

The footage shows Doomadgee lying on the floor of the cell and crying out for help, then falling silent. Hurley later enters the cell to check on Doomadgee, then calls for an ambulance. When an ambulance officer arrives and ascertains that Doomadgee has died, Hurley slumps down the wall of the cell with his head in his hands.

A coroner's report later showed Doomadgee's liver had been almost cleaved in two.

"We were dealing with the coroner for a while, and that's how we got permission to use the footage that is in the film," says Krawitz. "But there's a suppression order on that footage [in the police cell].

"Even from when I was writing the scripts I was thinking of having slashes of it throughout, I think it would have been incredibly powerful, just some key moments, the terrible conditions in which they were left in the cell, Hurley slumped on the wall, yeah, but we couldn't get it.

"I really wanted to include it or to have a look at it, to see whether it was worth including it, to see if it was past the balance or out of place, or against the family's wishes. The family liked the finished film, but had a similar comment — they wished they could have included some of the footage."

When asked why the footage is suppressed, Paula Campbell, office manager at Queensland's Office of the State Coroner, tells Green Left Weekly: "The Deputy State Coroner made the non-publication orders on 28 February 2005. These orders remain in place. I am unable to advise of the reasons for the Deputy State Coroner's decision."

Krawitz’s film also omits police footage of Hurley re-enacting his arrest of Doomadgee in which, as Hooper describes it, "Hurley laughs with the investigating officers — they joke about not tearing Inspector Webber's shirt the way Hurley had torn Cameron's faded Hawaiian shirt".

Why was this scene of them joking not included?

“In the footage I saw they didn't joke as much as it seems in the book — it didn't come across as strongly,” says Krawitz.

“It was a real fine line, because we didn't want to demonise Hurley — that would have been the easy way out. There's much more complicated reasons that emerge about policing in these communities. It's easy to say cops are bastards, but issues are complicated and there is a role for police in them.

“So we wanted to keep your opinion of Hurley as open as possible, and think what kind of man was he and what happened at that moment and how these things can just happen.”

Hooper won wide praise for her even-handedness in the book, which reveals Hurley to be a complex character. Despite Hurley refusing to speak to her, she created some vivid imagery in trying to get inside his mind.

Reflecting on the moments before Hurley arrested Doomadgee, Hooper writes: “Perhaps his uniform was sticking to his skin in the heat and he could feel the sweat in the roots of his hair and this whole island was vibrating, the whole place out of control, and it was up to him to still it.”

Similarly, Krawitz has captured the dizzying heat and intensity of the island with woozily soft focus and super-saturated colours.

“It sort of came organically from the process,” he says. “I was living in Sydney and going to Palm Island, and whenever I got there I was really struck by the colour. Rugby league is huge there so there's lots of bright rugby league T-shirts and jumpers, and that really contrasted with the hot environment.

“Part of the larger idea for this was in the Western imagination of islander paradise. Palm Island was a paradise set up as a prison for wayward Aboriginal people back in the day. So as a visual contrast we thought then to set the upsetting details of the story against the beauty of the island.”

The film also neatly avoids treading in the footsteps of Adrian Wills’ stylish documentary Boxing For Palm Island. Was Krawitz keen to distance his film stylistically?

“No,” he says. “I can't remember when I saw Boxing For Palm Island, but they're just two different films that tell very different stories.

“We met a lot of those boxers. There's so many stories on Palm Island, there should be more — some of the happy stories as well as some of the more tragic ones.

“I'd read Chloe's book and I was expecting something much bleaker. I'm a white person, but I was working with Black Fella Films, so I was going into the community with Aboriginal people, so a lot of my first impressions were based on the people I was meeting, who were warm, generous, friendly people.

“There are social issues, I saw that more as I was there longer. But I met a lot of really smart, funny, warm people and saw a thriving community.

“It's a really complex place. From the time of the burning of the police station, Palm Island has had a reputation that is much worse than it is.

“We went up five times. The longest we spent was about three or four weeks at a stretch. We got to know people really well and we filmed over a year.

“I suppose my impressions just got more complex, in some ways. Any place you go as an outsider, you don't see the true place. We did see people being arrested, living under the yoke of a police force with that feeling of power.

“By virtue of being such a small town, it feels like a Wild West sheriff town — the police have so much more control than in a place like Sydney.

“We saw the social unease, some of the problems, knew about the high rates of suicide, but also some of the more inspiring things that have changed -— there's been a lot of things changing.

“I don't feel like an expert. I don't have a deep understanding of Aboriginal communities across far north Queensland.”

Krawitz, who directed the AFI Award-winning Jewboy, also admits to being intimidated by having to film a book as lauded as Hooper's.

“It was daunting because I'm such a big fan of the book, and it did such an incredible job, so it was daunting to put it together.

“Chloe was there when it [the trial] was happening, so she writes about what it was like being in court. A lot of the power of the book was it was told from her point of view as an outsider.

“When we filmed, it was about getting inside people's lives and letting them speak in their own voice. We tried not to give the filmmaker’s view, but instead treat the audience like they're a jury, giving the facts and keep going over the facts. That was important because the facts are murky.

“I was really relieved that Chloe, who was consulting during filming, was really happy with the film too.

“It was daunting, but at the end of the day, they were to sit together as companion pieces. That was a lot of the feedback we got, whether you saw it and read it first or second, they go together.”