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Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Rachel Perkins’ 2012 film Mabo

Rachel Perkins’ 2012 film Mabo tells a deeply important Australian story: of an individual battle; of a family who struggle to hold together through difficult times; of the love between a husband and wife, and whether that love can survive the pressures of external commitment to social activism; of inheritance and chosen heritage; of legal precedent. That it is also a story of Indigenous Australian history should not need emphasising, but it does. It does because Indigenous narratives in the Australian literary and cultural canon are in the minority, despite the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history far exceeding the post-colonial non-Indigenous history in terms of chronological extent. Koiki ‘Eddie’ Mabo and his ground-breaking legal rights case was a significant turning point in the history of Australian race relations – the High Court decision was, as Paul Keating described it at the time, an ‘historic decision’.

The value of this text for students, however, is not limited to a narrative of historical significance regarding Australian race relations. This is one of the things that makes Mabo a particularly productive text for VCE study. The theme of racial discrimination and equality is only one of several central themes and perhaps not even the main one. Rather, this is a text about activism and idealism versus survival and living a quiet life. It is a text about navigating loyalties to family (not only immediate family, such as Eddie’s wife Netta and his children, but also the extended Mabo family and community on Murray Island in the Torres Strait) and loyalties to wider causes (whether the labour unions Eddie fights with in his early days in Queensland, or the Indigenous rights issues he later takes up in the court system).

The text asks many questions, such as whether it is possible to sustain allegiance and energies to both of these: to both small and large causes. Importantly, while it offers evidence in support of either perspective, the text does not impose answers to these questions. While its plot is relatively simple, it manages to avoid being too didactic, meaning that students are likely to feel encouraged to form their own interpretations and readings of the themes, ideas and values in the text. This is such a valuable element of a study text, as it allows students practice at demonstrating how a text supports their particular reading of the themes presented. If they chose to argue that Mabo shows the incompatibility of responsible family membership and political activism, then there is evidence available, in terms of Eddie’s regular conflicts with Netta, and his late regrets that he barely knew his children when they were growing up. On the other hand, if students decide to argue that the text celebrates the importance of both interpersonal relationships and social responsibility, then they could cite evidence such as flashbacks and voice-overs (cinematic language), as well as the sequence of numerous shots towards the end of the film, alternating family love and support with the eventual High Court success. In fact, the two causes are regularly linked throughout, suggesting that it is difficult to separate them completely and therefore reminding students that such questions are rarely simple binaries. For example, it is the death of Eddie’s father (an important emotional event for the family) that initiates Eddie’s discovery of the legal status of ‘his’ land on the island, and this in turn is the beginning of his historic legal journey.

Similarly, Sue Smith’s script, while unquestionably celebrating Mabo’s efforts and successes in setting legal precedent, never glorifies or simplifies the characters, frequently portraying Eddie’s faults and imperfections as well as his stamina and commitment. Again, this encourages students to really engage with the filmmakers’ decisions and to analyse how the characters are constructed and conveyed, and how texts can present characters as being at once sympathetic yet flawed. This is particularly true of Eddie, who is both a remarkable fighter and yet sometimes a self-aggrandising man of an almost childish single-mindedness. In portraying the shades of grey with these characters, Mabo also invites discussions about the presentation of real historical figures as textual characters. This is another valuable area for students to explore: in analysing the film they will be challenged to identify the filmmaker’s decisions (rather than existing facts about the real people portrayed), and how these decisions shape not only the characters presented but also the perspectives therefore offered on the themes and ideas raised by the narrative.

Essay questions:

  • How does Perkins use early events to establish and foreshadow the themes and relationships of the film?
  • How does the cinematic language communicate the narrative of Mabo in a way that a written text could not do? (Consider film techniques and language as well as plot and character portrayals.)
  • Is this film about a political history or a personal history? What elements of the text support your answer?
  • What does Mabo suggest about the value of fighting for one’s beliefs?

Need help getting to grips with Mabo? Click here to purchase our Mabo Text Guide, written by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With scene-by-scene analyses, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Mabo provides clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis on the whole text.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, your independent, Australian educational publisher.

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