About three quarters of the way into Mabo - Life of an Island Man, the metaphoric defacement of' 'Mabo' that the film seeks to compensate for is suddenly literalised in the shocking image of a racist attack on Eddie Mabo's grave. This attack occurred in June 1995, immediately following a Torres Straight Islander tombstone unveiling ceremony held in Townsville to commemorate Eddie Mabo and to celebrate the High Court judgement.xiv We learn that while indigenous and non-indigenous members of Mabo's community joined together with representatives from federal and state governments in a cultural celebration, unknown attackers spray-painted Mabo's grave with racist graffiti, including two large swastikas and the racist epithet, 'Abo'. The attackers also prised a life-size bust of Mabo from its central position on the headstone, leaving in its place a large gash in the otherwise smooth, black marble surface. In an interview after the release of the film, Graham describes his personal response to the attack thus: '(I) was ... absolutely horrified and devastated ... I fell into a crumbling heap'.xv He also explains that the desecration of the grave is the 'real reason' for making the film: 'Bonita (Eddie's wife) was pestering me to go and film the tombstone opening ... so I got a crew together who went up to Townsville to film the tombstone opening and the celebrations. Then, of course, the day after the grave was trashed ... the real reason for making the second film was a sense of outrage about his grave being trashed.xvi At this point in the film we discover that the defacement of Mabo's grave is in fact the true origin of the film. And in the light of this image of actual defacement, the film's stated aim of 'giving the name a face' takes on deeper significance.
As an attack on the sacredness of the dead, defacement of a grave is a powerful act of hate. In 1990, graves in the Jewish cemetery at Carpentras, France, were attacked by a small group of anti-Semitic demonstrators. One hundred thousand people gathered in Paris to protest. They marched through the streets of Paris, joined by the then president, Francois Mitterrand. But while in France the racist attack on Jewish graves sparked widespread direct action, here, in Australia, the attack on Mabo's gave was swiftly subsumed in a struggle of competing ideologies or what Graham aptly describes as 'a media battle of symbols'. In The Daily Telegraph Mirror conservative columnist Piers Akerman claims that the defaced grave represents 'a wedge between black and white', the embodiment, in his mind, of the Native Title Act.xvii The Australian takes a more personal approach, using a large photograph of Bonita Mabo and her two grandsons crouched on the edge of the defaced grave to complete its neoliberal point of view of the family as tragic victims. What we might call a 'metropolitan' point of view, The Australian report takes a strong moral stance only to locate the cause of the attack 'elsewhere', namely in rural Australia, in the deep recesses of the psyche's of 'a handful of racists'.xviii
Graham's film actively engages in this battle of symbols. In its documentation of the unveiling ceremony, the commanding, black marble headstone is framed as a symbol of the national project of Aboriginal Reconciliation.xix The post-colonial dream of a unified nation is captured in the figures of Bonita Mabo and Anita Keating (the latter representing the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating) reflected side by side in its shining surface. The reflective surface of the headstone serves as a mirror in which spectators can narcissistically insert themselves into a positive vision of the future. Following the attack, however, this image of unity becomes an impossible point of view. The slow pans and jerky camera movements across the disfigured grave mimic the dazed faces of those at the scene. No longer able to reflect the symbolic space of a unified nation, the defaced headstone is, literally, bereft of messages. De-metaphorised, the headstone is visible for the first time in its literal sense - that is, as a marker of the site of death. This confrontation with the physical fact of death is most powerful in the sequence of images that document the disinterment of Mabo's coffin: the sounds and images of the manual labour required to exhume the casket, the hole in the ground in Townsville's cemetery where Mabo's body once lay; the carrying away of the casket on an open trailer. From this point onward, viewing is not simply an act of social recognition but a rite of bereavement.
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