The Rights Stuff

6 June 2012 | 12:20 pm | Kris Swales

"Gail spoke to us on set at one point when we were showing the domestic violence that happened in the relationship and she was very moved by that and very upset by that," Rachel Perkins discusses the making of the new Mabo telemovie.

It's been a long time since Indigenous land rights dominated Australian airwaves and column inches, but in the past month two Native Title cases have found themselves in the media spotlight. Perhaps not coincidentally, Queensland premier Campbell Newman completed the handover process of Cape York land to traditional owners in late May after a 38-year struggle, and the Arabana people won their 14-year Native Title battle over the Lake Eyre region just as Rachel Perkins' much-anticipated Mabo telemovie is set to premiere.

The respected Indigenous film-maker – whose 2009 feature film adaptation of the musical comedy Bran Nue Dae was a rare homegrown cinematic smash – has largely left political skullduggery and courtroom debate at the door, with Sue Smith's script focusing on Eddie 'Koiki' Mabo and his wife Bonita's struggle to keep their family together while he battled for ownership of his family's land on Murray Island north-east of Queensland.

“We always thought that the love story was the vehicle to tell it,” Perkins says while on a break from pre-production for forthcoming ABC TV series Redfern Now, “because it's a more universal story because it's about a family. There's been three documentaries made about the case: [Perkins' production company Blackfella Films] did one ourselves and there was two other very important films made by Trevor Graham [most notably 1997's award-winning Mabo – Life Of An Island Man] about the subject. And in a way people are more familiar with the political side of it than they are with the personal, so we wanted to thematically talk about the price of activism on a family, which is how we portrayed it.”

A top-heavy Australian cast (including Colin Friels and Miranda Otto) are headed by Jimi Bani (last seen in The Straits) and Perkins regular Deborah Mailman in the roles of Koiki and Bonita, with Bani particularly convincing in portraying the evolution of the title character from his departure from Murray Island in 1956 to his January, 1992 death – just five months before the High Court ruled in favour of his land rights claim after ten years of court battles.

Perkins says the real life Bonita and the couple's children found Bani's performance a little too close to the mark. “I think they found it a little disturbing to find someone who physicalised their father's presence so well,” she explains. “Particularly when he was in costume and some of the still photography, they found that disturbing and at times upsetting. I think it must be strange to have your family life dramatised in that sort of way, because it must seem sort of close to the truth but actually not real at all – because of course it isn't, it can't be.

“The Mabos were very involved and [oldest daughter] Gail spoke to us on set at one point when we were showing the domestic violence that happened in the relationship and she was very moved by that and very upset by that because it took her back to that time. And Bonita wept at the end of the film when Jimi is reading the letter verbatim that her husband wrote to her before he died, saying how much he'd love their life together.”