The Tall Man, 80 mins, rating to be confirmed, opens 17 November 2011.


(This is my review, with minor changes, as published in the Nov 2011 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

The Tall Man of the film’s title is Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley of the Queensland Police Service: 2 metres (6’7”) in height, and 115kg. Hurley was working on Palm Island when Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee died in his custody and was the first police officer in Queensland’s history to be charged with the murder of an indigenous person. This documentary tries to piece together that story, using as its basis the book of the same name by Chloe Hooper.

Two inquests and a criminal trial have failed to make it clear exactly what happened on the morning of 19 November 2004 when Sergeant Hurley arrested Doomadgee for drunkenly swearing at him, and took him to the police station. 45 minutes later, Doomadgee was dead.

Director Tony Krawitz’s first feature film, Jewboy, premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. This is his second feature film, and his approach is interesting. He has said that his aim was to let those he interviewed take the audience through the complexities of the case. The film has no voiceover; just a few labels identifying those interviewed and three paragraphs of facts right at the end. “We didn’t want to have a narrator or outside voice telling us what to think,” said Krawitz.

Nor did the filmmakers use dramatic re-creations of events. This technique has become increasingly annoying in documentaries, especially in less-talented hands, and ABC TV’s Australian Story is a repeat offender. Instead, Krawitz either interviewed key figures in the story, or used recent footage of them.

Crucially, Sergeant Hurley did not respond to the filmmakers’ requests for an interview, and the Queensland Police Service declined to be involved in the film. Yet the lack of an interview with Hurley actually makes the Tall Man all the more intriguing. Hurley is largely absent. He doesn’t appear in the “present”. He’s only there in the “past”. There’s audio of his voice at the inquests and at his trial for manslaughter, some TV footage of his arrival at court, and, most dramatically, he appears in the police video in which the events at the police station were recreated. The video was made in the days following Doomadgee’s death, and Doomadgee’s lawyers argue that the police colluded to make sure the recreation accorded with Hurley’s version of the arrest and subsequent events. This all makes Hurley a ghost-like figure: opening scenes even paint him as a bogeyman in the imagination of the local kids.

On the other hand, Cameron Doomadgee (who was named Mulrunji after his death) is made to seem a warm, happy-go-lucky character, who liked a drink, and loved to fish. He was looked up to by his son and loved by his family and friends. His loss is palpable.

Palm Island is beautifully shot by Director of Photography Germain McMicking, who mostly works in documentary. He shot Hail (2011), Cicada (2009) and Bastardy (2008) for talented Australian director Amiel Courtin Wilson.

But shots of the shanty town make it clear that there’s another side to this island paradise – as does the resident doctor, Dr Clinton, who speaks of the high incidence of domestic violence on the island, and the fact that it has one of the highest arrest rates per capita in Queensland.

We also hear from various interviewees of the good works Chris Hurley had done in Aboriginal communities throughout Queensland. Even without the participation of Hurley and the Queensland Police Service, Krawitz does his best to be even-handed.

Legal training and experience makes us all too aware of the complexities of human behaviour and the difficulty of achieving “justice”, let alone finding “the truth”. In this case the justice system may have been unable to uncover the truth, but perhaps The Tall Man has edged closer to it than the system could.

A poignant moment occurs at the end of the film, when Aboriginal man Roy Bramwell says, “If I were a really educated man, like going to college and that, after school, we’d have justice for this, you know.”

The pity is that the system just doesn’t work like that.