I was there at the State Theatre last night on my feet applauding, tears in my eyes, utterly moved. Bonita Mabo had taken the stage alongside her family. It was an important event and I felt proud to be there.
I spoke in a previous post about a distinction between form and content. In the instance of the film Mabo, content is everything. It is a retelling of a massively significant part of Australian history, and for that the film achieves its worth.
Biopics are a tricky beast. They must span so much chronological history in only 90 minutes. That’s difficult to dramatise. Also, they tend to force themselves to be the definitive adaptation of the story. There’s pressure on the filmmaker to not be too creative, too personal, too original. When making a biopic, there is pressure to not take too big an artistic risk. They want to reach the broadest audience possible. They want to romanticise and glorify the figure, give the watered-down PG version, offend nobody. I feel that Rachel Perkins’ film Mabo fell into this trap.
I cannot judge this movie on its content. To be fair I’ll choose to look at this film as though it were made for a high school audience. It’s a great story – the hero’s struggle to fight for justice against all adversity. Sacrifice, honour, faith, love, integrity. I love these stories. But this one simplifies everything, like a Disney movie. It romanticises, sentimentalises, and unfortunately does not delve deeply into the details and into the drama. I felt it skimmed the surface. I wanted to be thrust more into the dilemma, be given a greater sense of Eddie’s struggle and the impact it had on both himself and his family. This film chose to represent these themes, through music, montage, meaningful close-ups and other cinematic cliches. This could have been so much more.
Is it a question of funding? I don’t know. I believe it begins with the script. In spanning the history, like most biopics, it played out as a series of set pieces – this happened, and then this happened. I knew how every scene would end. The struggle is merely presented not lived. Look at films like Serpico, Ghandi, Land and Freedom. They tackle real events with greater craft, detail to the human struggle, and avoid the broad-strokes pastiche. They put you into the story, not keep you passive.
I guess this film is a step forward. We need to be making more, telling these stories. There should be more money contributed, more awareness made. This film should be seen by all, and not necessarily unpicked by the likes of me. But I don’t see this film impacting the world stage. And that’s unfortunate, because this story certainly should.