In 2009, despite serious misgivings, filmmaker Tony Krawitz decided to venture onto Palm Island, off the Queensland coast, with a mission – to reverse a coin of common perception; to tell the lesser known side of a tragic story that began on November 19, 2004. On an ordinary day, a drunken Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, was arrested for a minor infraction by towering white police officer Christopher Hurley, referred to by the locals as “the tall man”. Some 45 minutes later Doomadgee was dead in the local police station.
A subsequent post mortem report made reference to a slew of internal injuries – including an almost split liver – that are usually equated with those suffered by car-crash victims. In the ensuing weeks these startling medical facts reached the wider community. The reaction from the locals inspired a predictably primal encore. Both Hurley’s house and the police station were effectively reduced to cinders as seething resentment took shape in the form of destructive retribution.
The Tall Man (2011) is compiled of interwoven, affecting interviews with family, friends and other figures pertaining to the court cases that contorted the Queensland courts over a number of years. A sobering context, which details the blighted history of Palm Island itself, is also provided as a necessary counterpoint to its ailing current condition. The director, using Chloe Hooper‘s book of the same name as the basis for his investigation, may be accused of blatant proselytising in orchestrating a campaign that refutes the innocence of Hurley. But by broadening the coverage of this tragedy he confronts the many ambiguities, allowing room for conclusions that any average person would naturally arrive at. Till now, it’s been the simplified newsworthy outcomes that form the basis of public knowledge – a flawed, semi-blind perception reducing nuance to footnotes that require concerted digging to make sense of them and their ramifications.
The murky morality surrounding the guilt or innocence of this officer is complicated by dubious testimony from a drunken local, Hurley’s own untainted past record working in Aboriginal communities and the high probability of conspiratorial manipulation by the Palm Island officers and their superiors – the kind of behaviour that magnetically draws suspicion when brought to light. All of these elements are organically integrated into the narrative by Krawitz in a compelling manner.
The Tall Man is a first-rate documentary, offering an impassioned, humane perspective of Doomadgee’s tragic story whilst keeping away from the emotional fuse that, once lit, might unnaturally skewer audience reaction. The failings of the legal system are rightfully put under the microscope: who does it really serve and why? Krawitz has constructed a compelling real life tale that, reduced to its basic components, whether factual or inferential, underlines most emphatically a sense of its pervasive sadness.