One morning in 2004, an Aboriginal man named Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at a police officer; forty-five minutes later he lay dead on the floor of his cell. Something had gone badly wrong, though the white senior sergeant on duty, the towering Chris Hurley, denied he was in any way at fault.
What happened before and after is told in Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, first published in 2008, a remarkable and harrowing book that will be read in Australia for a long time (David Trigger reviewed it in the September 2008 issue of ABR). Hooper is also a novelist, and The Tall Man is a work of imagination as well as reportage: she never knew Doomadgee, and Hurley declined her request for an interview. This doesn’t stop her from speculating freely and productively on both men, and on the wider forces that led to their fatal encounter.
The Tall Man is also a book about a place: Palm Island, forty miles off the coast of north Queensland, the site of a former mission where members of the ‘Stolen Generations’ were sent until the 1960s, and still home to one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia. To many readers, local as well as international, the landscape described by Hooper may seem violently exotic, with its stark racial divisions and its extremes of beauty and squalor. Yet in her hands it becomes something close to a microcosm of the nation; whether we like it or not, she implies, this is where we live.
Although Hooper is generally a disciplined writer, her underlying rage finds an occasional outlet in zestful caricature (a lawyer for the wrong side has ‘a small gut protruding from his thin frame’). Throughout The Tall Man, she asks us to see truth as a battleground; to reflect on the power dynamics that determine the value of different forms of ‘evidence’. As a writer-for-hire – originally recruited by the lawyer Andrew Boe, acting for the Palm Island community – she doesn’t pretend to stand above the fray.
Billed as an adaptation of Hooper’s book, Tony Krawitz’s interview-based documentary is much closer to the willed objectivity of Old Journalism; aside from the absence of a narrator, it could almost be an extended episode of Four Corners. Hooper herself appears on camera as one ‘expert’ commentator among others, a youthful-looking woman with a low voice and a steady gaze; Hurley, again, refused to be involved.
Krawitz’s own way of seeing asserts itself most plainly in the scattered shots of Palm Island used to punctuate the interviews: the hills rising behind the dilapidated houses; the children playing around wrecked cars. These images tend to be more clichéd, less revealing, than their literary equivalents: Krawitz gives us a romantic shot of a rider silhouetted against the sunset, but Hooper goes into detail about the mistreatment of the island’s wild horses, which have ‘sores like dinner plates’.
Still, Krawitz fully acknowledges the nightmarish side of life on Palm Island – the everyday violence, the alcohol-fuelled despair. Both the book and the film memorialise not one tragedy, but many; arguably the film is the sadder of the two, because the camera lets us see its subjects as individuals in a manner beyond even Hooper’s vivid prose. Most wrenching is the footage of Doomadgee’s teenage son Eric, who committed suicide in 2006, nineteen months after leading the Palm Island community on the funeral march for his father.
It is tempting to think that Krawitz can show us the reality that Hooper can only tell us about, but often the line between showing and telling is deliberately blurred. Shot on location, the accounts of Doomadgee’s arrest and its aftermath make ingenious use of limited depth of field: as witnesses gesture towards the spots where events took place, the focus shifts as if the past were springing back to life. A similarly complex effect is produced by videos shot the day after Doomadgee’s death, in which Hurley and others re-enact their own versions of the incident; these are both second-hand testimony and firsthand evidence, authentic images of probable falsehood.
In either incarnation, The Tall Man is a story constructed around absences – the absence of both Hurley and Doomadgee, and of any certain knowledge about what occurred in the few seconds they spent alone together. Although the most recent inquest, in 2010, offered some kind of ‘closure’, a sense of abiding mystery is surely part of what drew Hooper to the material in the first place. Writing in a modernist tradition, she sees Doomadgee’s death as a flashpoint where competing narratives cross one another and consensus reality starts to crack; in its more orthodox way, Krawitz’s film likewise makes us aware of the gaps in its story, the offscreen spaces we each must imagine for ourselves.
The Tall Man (M), written and directed by Tony Krawitz, based on the book by Chloe Hooper. 80 minutes. Released November 17.