Rights worth fight­ing for

Ed­die Mabo’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story is not just about in­dige­nous rights but the abid­ing power of love, writes Deb­bie Schipp

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Television -

DEB­O­RAH Mail­man’s most gut- wrench­ing mo­ment shoot­ing new tele­movie Mabo came dur­ing what should have been the scene of the great­est tri­umph.

In it, Mail­man – as Bonita Mabo, wife of Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivist Ed­die ‘‘ Koiki’’ Mabo – is driv­ing a coun­try road in a bat­tered EH Holden sta­tion wagon, a ban­ner em­bla­zoned with ‘‘ Mabo fam­ily’’ cov­er­ing its multi- coloured panels.

It is June 3, 1992, the day the High Court hands down its de­ci­sion on Ed­die Mabo’s fight for recog­ni­tion of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians’ na­tive ti­tle over their land.

‘‘ I don’t think we’re gonna make it Mum,’’ says Bonita’s son, Mal, as the car sput­ters, back­fires and coughs its way into a rest stop.

As two trav­ellers of­fer Bonita a cup of tea and Mal works on the car, a ra­dio crack­les to life and an ABC news bul­letin an­nounces the case has been won.

The Ma­bos em­brace each other, then their saviours, then each other again.

It’s a tearful mo­ment – for Ed­die Mabo had died of cancer be­fore he could wit­ness his tri­umph.

But it was also a mo­ment of sweet re­lease, Mail­man says.

‘‘ For me it was the most beau­ti­ful, gut- wrench­ing and dif­fi­cult mo­ments,’’ she says.

‘‘ It’s the cul­mi­na­tion of a long fight, and I felt the depth of that. I hope peo­ple . . . recog­nise what this fight has been about.’’

Mail­man has never been a poster girl for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or in­dige­nous rights.

The 39- year- old is a proud in­dige­nous woman – the daugh­ter of an Abo­rig­i­nal fa­ther and a Maori mother. But Mail­man, through­out a glit­ter­ing ca­reer of main­stream stage, screen and tele­vi­sion roles, has al­ways cho­sen to be an ac­tor, not an ac­tivist. In an artis­tic sense, that makes this role Mail­man’s first sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic state­ment on her her­itage.

‘‘ If I wanted to be a politi­cian, I would have trained in pol­i­tics,’’ Mail­man shrugs.

‘‘ I’ve al­ways shied away from that [ po­lit­i­cal state­ments], be­cause that’s a skills set I don’t have.

‘‘ Cer­tainly I speak out when I am asked. But it’s not my place to set the agenda. That’s not me.

‘‘ That’s what our com­mu­nity lead­ers and el­ders do, the peo­ple who go in on a day- to- day ba­sis and un­der­stand on a very per­sonal level what’s af­fect­ing our com­mu­ni­ties.

‘‘ I’m away from all of that. I can’t talk from a place of au­thor­ity on that. This film is prob­a­bly the most pub­lic state­ment I have made.

‘‘ Telling it through the eyes and the heart and mouth of Bonita Mabo, def­i­nitely it’s a state­ment. It’s a beau­ti­ful story.’’

Last Sun­day marked 20 years since that land­mark Mabo rul­ing.

Mabo, which had its world pre­miere at Sydney’s State The­atre late last month ahead of its broad­cast across the na­tion on ABC1 tonight, may tell the story of Ed­die Mabo’s life­long cam­paign to over­turn the doc­trine – terra nul­lius – that Aus­tralia was un­oc­cu­pied be­fore Euro­pean set­tle­ment, but it is not an­chored in a court­room or legalese.

Ed­die Mabo is played by Jimi Bani, who re­cently starred in the ABC drama se­ries The Straits.

It is a sim­ple love story: how Ed­die and Bonita’s love en­dured the sac­ri­fices their fam­ily made for his fight.

Film­ing it took Mail­man on a per­sonal jour­ney to ex­tremes of anger, joy, laugh- out- loud hap­pi­ness ( which Mail­man does vol­ubly and of­ten) and hu­mil­ity.

The role ini­tially ter­ri­fied her. Then it hum­bled, an­gered and ful­filled her.

‘‘ When ( direc­tor) Rachel Perkins asked did I want to play Bonita Mabo, I was ter­ri­fied,’’ she says.

LOVE STORY: Jimi Bani and Deb­o­rah Mail­man as Ed­die and Bonita Mabo.

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