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Mabo - Life of an Island Man
A Film by Trevor Graham
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film stillEddie Koiki Mabo was born on Murray Island in the Torres Strait (between Australia and Papua New Guinea), but lived most of his life in exile on mainland Australia. Only after his death did the island wholeheartedly welcome him home. By then the island and Eddie Mabo had changed the legal and political landscape of Australia.

On June 3, 1992, after a ten-year legal battle, and five months after Eddie Mabo died of cancer at aged 55, the High Court of Australia upheld his claim that Murray Islanders held "Native Title" to three islands on the eastern fringe of the Torres Strait. This ended the theory of "terra nullius," or land belonging to no one at the time of white settlement.

Aboriginal and Islander communities across Australia greeted the Mabo judgment with jubilation. The legal fiction that Australia was an empty land when first occupied by white people had been laid to rest. After more than 200 years, European law had to recognize pre-existing indigenous law.

MABO - LIFE OF AN ISLAND MAN traces the story of the life of an extraordinary man, one whose struggle for land rights, and his remarkable life in general, had a profound effect on indigenous rights in Australia. It tells the story of an island man so passionate about family and home that he fought an entire nation and its legal system. Though he died before his great victory was won, it has forever ensured his place on Murray Island and in Australian history.

Eddie Mabo effectively challenged the notion of terra nullus which asserted that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders did not have a system of legal ownership predating white settlement. He devoted his life to a fight to gain legal recognition of his right to own ancestral land on Mer, his family home in the Murray Islands. Mabo died of cancer just five months before the High court's historic decision.

© 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

"Both sad and fascinating…a very important film…Recommended for high school and beyond in sociology, anthropology, history, and indigenous affairs."—Anthropology Review Database

"An engrossing film about courage, vision and passion. It earns these accolades by telling with great poignancy the story of Eddie Koiki Mabo, whose love of his ancestral land and his outrage at injustices meted out to his people drove him to achieve what seemed impossible. "—The Sydney Morning Herald

"A gripping story about heroism in the face of impossible odds A classic story of a man battling The System for his rights."—The Sunday Age

"A moving and personal story…. The strength of the film lies in the portrayal of Eddie Koiki Mabo, [who] challenged the myths of invasion and colonization through Australia's own legal system and won."—The Contemporary Pacific

Best Documentary, 1997 Australian Film Institute Awards
Best Documentary, 1997 Sydney Film Festival
1998 Margaret Mead Film Festival (New York)
2001 Amnesty International Film Festival (Vancouver, Canada)
Most Popular Film, 1997 Brisbane Film Festival

87 minutes / Color
Release: 1998
Copyright: 1997

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Study guide available

Subject areas:
Anthropology, Australia, Cultural Anthropology, Human Rights, Indigenous Peoples, Law, Native People

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