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