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The Tall Man Documentary Review Essays

Earlier in the year, I read The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper as part of the Brennan Program at UTS Law. Coincidentally, like the old Justice Game text, The Tall Man also fits well into the Advanced English Module C: Representing People and Politics (previously Conflicting Perspectives). Although the module name has changed, it appears roughly the same. You examine how people and political issues are represented, and how the form and methods of representation can shape meaning. In other words, it’s all about how language and “spin” can manipulate and alter the “truth”.

As always, everyone has a different story.

What is it about?

The Tall Man is a non-fiction true crime telling of the death in custody of a young indigenous man, Cameron Doomadgee. In 2004, on Palm Island, Cameron was arrested for swearing and placed into custody by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Within less than an hour, he was dead in the police cell block, with injuries akin to being in a fatal car crash (he had broken ribs and his liver was cut in half).

In Hooper’s account, she follows the events following Cameron’s death as well as the events leading up to it. It provides background into life (and death) on Palm Island, the backgrounds of the various “characters” involved including Chris Hurley, the subsequent coroner’s inquest into Doomadgee’s death and the criminal trial of Hurley for manslaughter. Despite being “non-fiction”, Hooper writes in a narrative, engaging style, which involves the reader in her investigations into the people and politics behind Doomadgee’s death and Hurley’s involvement. What she uncovers and reveals to us is a complex and volatile situation that has no simple legal remedy.

Representations of people and politics

When reading and reflecting on The Tall Man, it is not difficult to identify and analyse the various people and political issues at play. What is perhaps most interesting is that Hooper has to piece together a story centered around two people, who were unavailable to give a direct account of what happened. Doomadgee, whose death is the center of this piece, was obviously not able to reveal what truly happened. Instead, Hooper has to craft an idea of who he was through the emotional recounts of his family and friends. Likewise but for different reasons, Hurley refused to speak to Hooper and she relies instead on newspaper and other public accounts of Hurley, his appearances at court, and the history she is able to dig up about his past and the people he spoke with then. In doing so, the ambiguity and discrepancy between how a person is represented (through the accounts of others, newspapers and official reports etc) and who a person actually is or was is all the more apparent.

Beyond the specific people that Hooper describes and observes in The Tall Man, we also get representations of groups and communities of people. Who are the residents of Palm Island? The legacy of the Stolen Generation, Hooper does not shy away from the social and health issues, which afflict them – alcohol use, domestic violence, suicide, diabetes. On the other side, we also see the policemen and authorities, who are charged with patrolling and regulating life on Palm Island – we see the isolation, challenges and lawlessness of working there.

In turn, there are also representations of significant political issues and in seeing this, we have to ask – what message or conclusion, if any, does Hooper draw? What perspective does she adopt and how are they influenced by her direct experiences (during her investigation), racial and social stereotypes, and her position (as an observer brought by the lawyer representing the Aboriginal community). Some of the political issues, which you could discuss are:

  • Aboriginal deaths in custody – how does Hooper represent this death, and also how do the people within the story (e.g. the media, Aboriginal communities) represent it?
  • The legacy of the Stolen Generation and the difficulties faced by Aboriginals – how are social, health and legal issues portayed?
  • The legal system – do we see the legal system as being an adequate means of dealing with Aboriginal deaths in custody, and also with dealing with conflicts and issues on Palm Island itself?
  • Police corruption and the collusion to protect Hurley – how does Hooper represent the prevalence and cause of police corruption and collusion?

You should also consider what the medium or form of The Tall Man is – is it strictly non-fiction? Creative non-fiction? Literary journalism?

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Tags: aboriginaldeath in custodyindigenousnon fictionpalm island

Chris Hurley is 6 ft 7 in. (2m) tall and weighs 115 kg, an imposing figure who was known as 'The Tall Man" by the 3,100 or so indigenous inhabitants of Palm Island north-east of Townsville.

Senior Seargeant Hurley arrested a drunken Cameron Doomadgee one day in 2004 after he allegedly swore at him. Some 45 minutes later Doomadgee was dead. He was 36, three years older than Hurley.

Writer-director Tony Krawitz’s superb documentary The Tall Man tells the disturbing story of that death-in-custody and its devastating impact on the Palm Island community while raising troubling questions about the administration of justice in Queensland.

If you’ve followed news reports of the death, the ensuing riots, Coronial inquests and Hurley being charged with manslaughter, you’ll probably be familiar with the bare bones of the case.

But, like me, you may be shocked and even outraged by the doco’s revelations as Krawitz skilfully uses video footage of Hurley re-enacting his version of that day’s events, court transcripts, interviews with Doomadgee’s family and fellow residents and material gleaned in Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man, to shed light on a controversial chapter in Queensland’s history.

The film outlines Palm Island’s troubled past as a penal colony, church-run mission and leper colony, where racism was rampant, culminating in a community blighted by alcoholism, domestic abuse and suicide. It looks like a slum on the edge of a tropical paradise.

The police video footage shows Hurley demonstrating how he and Doomadgee fell or slipped as they were entering the watch house cell. The officer insists the prisoner’s only injury was a minor cut and he was upset when Doomadgee was found dead in the cell.

Krawitz interviews a witness who says he saw Hurley’s elbow going up and down in a punching motion as he stood over Doomadgee, but the witness was drunk and the prosecutor decided not to call him at the trial.

Nowhere is it explained precisely how Doomadgee sustained the injuries described by the Coroner, which included four broken ribs caused by a 'compressive force" and a liver that was so badly ruptured it was nearly cleaved into two.

The Coroner found that Hurley had assaulted Doomadgee but the Director of Public Prosecutions decided there was no case for a prosecution, describing the death as a 'tragic accident". After a public outcry, then-Premier Peter Beattie asked the Attorney General to re-examine the DPP’s files and in June 2007 Hurley went on trial in Townsville for manslaughter, the first time in the State’s history that an officer had been charged over the death of an indigenous prisoner.

Hurley was acquitted, prompting one of Doomadgee’s sisters to tell Krawitz, 'That rotten bastard just got away with fucking murder."

To the filmmaker’s credit, he takes an even-handed approach to the case, devoting a much screen time to Hurley’s supporters including Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers, who describes the officer as 'very kind, compassionate and caring," and including a quote from Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson.

Residents in Burketown, where Hurley served before he was posted to Palm Island, speak fondly of him and say they doubt he was capable of such a crime. Hurley has always protested his innocence.

Among others interviewed are Doomadgee’s former partner Tracy Twaddle, his son Eric, Cameron’s eloquent pro-bono lawyer Andrew Boe and The Australian’s chief Queensland reporter Tony Koch.

The doco concludes with the findings of the final inquest conducted in March 2010, which includes an audio recording of Hurley’s statement.

The simple score by Antony Partos and David McCormack is a beautiful and haunting counterpoint to Germain McMicking’s vivid camerawork.

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