By the time the second film was released, Eddie Mabo was famous. His name became shorthand for a turf war between progressives and conservatives. “They want our backyards” was the war cry of the right. Particularly vociferous were the mining industry’s Hugh Morgan and Richard Court’s Coalition government in Western Australia.

Most Australians at the time didn’t know the name Mabo belonged to a man, a husband and father of seven children. With the support of Film Australia, the federally-funded national documentary unit, I took the idea of charting this hero’s journey to the ABC.

Eddie Koiki Mabo in Trevor Graham's award-winning film <i>Mabo: Life of an Island Man</i>.

Eddie Koiki Mabo in Trevor Graham’s award-winning film Mabo: Life of an Island Man.

Mike Rubbo, the head of documentaries, loved the written treatment. He supported the project and together with funds from Film Australia we started shooting the film in Townsville and on Murray Island in 1996. I focused on Koiki’s immediate family, Bonita and her children, along with friends like Margaret and Henry Reynolds and Professor Noel Loos to tell the story.

Paul Byrnes, then director of the Sydney Film Festival, viewed the rough cut, was moved to tears and selected it for two prominent screenings at the city’s State Theatre.

Sadly, the ABC did not see it that way. They thought the rough cut was excellent, very moving, personal and funny. But the obstacle was its “feature” length – 87 minutes, and not the usual “TV hour”, or 55 minutes, they regularly commissioned and programmed. Our national broadcaster didn’t have a slot for feature-length documentaries, even for one of such immense national significance and public interest, given the years of controversy since the High Court judgement.

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It was early 1997 and the newly-elected federal Coalition government had plans to roll back Native Title rights, introduced by Paul Keating, with John Howard’s 10-Point Plan. The timing could not have been better to release a film that told Eddie Mabo’s story. But the ABC would not relent. They wanted a full 30 minutes – one third of the story – cut from the film to fit their schedules.

Finally, Film Australia’s chief executive Bruce Moir warned the ABC if they didn’t take the film in its entirety, Film Australia would take it elsewhere. The ABC’s programming department found a slot for our film.

I don’t believe art, literature or filmmaking create social change. People like Koiki Mabo do. But the film did make a significant contribution to the broad debate about Indigenous rights, native title and Australian history, by personalising the story for a wide audience.

In 1998, I was invited to tour the film to North American universities with Eddie Mabo jnr. It screened across Germany and France on ARTE in 2000 as part of their Australian programming in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics. The film has had a long and impressive tail. It became the basis of a BAFTA-nominated website, a Radio National program, and its published script was the inspiration for Rachel Perkins’ ABC drama series, simply titled Mabo.

Just over 20 years on, the television and film funding landscape has radically altered, along with broadcaster priorities. Australian documentaries have fared badly in the shake-up. It would be impossible today to make Mabo: Life of an Island Man, a long-form documentary filmed and produced over many years. Film Australia, the champion of “national interest” documentaries, closed its doors in 2008 when it was merged with other federal screen agencies, in a short-sighted move that has lead to a rapid decline in documentary production and support.

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The ABC and SBS rarely commission one-off, “big story” documentaries any more. Neither even offers a permanent slot, strand or regular night when Australians can tune in to watch documentaries as they once used to. This is not due to budget cuts by successive conservative governments, as is often claimed, although this hasn’t helped. Rather these are deliberate decisions made by our public broadcasters’ programming and marketing executives, who believe they can better compete with commercial networks and international video on-demand platforms and get more bang for their marketing buck with a string of cheaper factual shows rather than one-off documentaries. But if ratings are any measure, this strategy is failing.

I recently co-produced and directed a documentary about another national icon, the fabulous Mirka Mora, restaurateur and former doyenne of the Melbourne arts scene. Monsieur Mayonnaise was funded jointly by the Melbourne International Film Festival and French-German public broadcaster ARTE. Mora, who died last year, was well known as the eccentric, lovable Jewish French-Australian artist, who exhibited her work at Heide Art Gallery, painted public murals at Flinders Street Station, decorated Melbourne trams and founded the popular Balzac and Tolarno restaurants in downtown St Kilda with her gallery owner husband Georges.

The film tells Mora’s remarkable story of survival during the Holocaust and her journey into hiding in rural France to escape deportation to a Nazi death camp in 1942. Equally compelling is her husband Georges’ story. He joins the French Resistance and leads a cloak-and-dagger life to help hundreds of Jewish children escape Occupied France to Switzerland – yes, he was a “people smuggler” – working alongside famed French mime artist Marcel Marceau.

Mirka Mora in her Richmond studio in <i>Monsieur Mayonnaise</i>.


Mirka Mora in her Richmond studio in Monsieur Mayonnaise.Credit:Trevor Graham

When Georges and Mirka came to Australia as postwar refugees they had a profound impact on Melbourne with their European ideas about art and food. Both were national treasures and despite the dark subject matter, the film is devilish and funny, just like Mirka herself. Monsieur Mayonnaise premiered to sold-out audiences at the Melbourne International Film Festival, was selected for the prestigious Berlin Film Festival and is now available in the US and Britain on Amazon Prime.

But when I approached the ABC and SBS to support the film’s production, they were not  interested. Even after its successful theatrical release, they rejected the film at a greatly reduced “acquisition” price – a fraction of what it would have cost them to commission it.

The final insult came when Mirka Mora died last year. Her family were astonished and saddened that neither the ABC nor SBS wanted to screen Monsieur Mayonnaise, as a tribute to her life and contribution to Australian culture and cuisine, for mainstream television audiences.

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There are many recently produced, nationally significant documentaries that suffer a similar fate, including Sue Thomson’s The Coming Back Out Ball Movie, which follows a group of older LGBTI+ people invited to attend a ball celebrating their gender and sexual identities; and Frackman, Richard Todd and Jonathan Stack’s provocative documentary about the environmental threats posed by fracking and the expansion of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland.

Films like these kick goals with cinema audiences, produce immeasurable cultural and social value at festivals, provoke national debate and yet are overlooked by the ABC and SBS. “They don’t rate and we don’t have slots for them” is the broadcasters’ mantra. But as Sue Thomson says of her film, an Audience Award winner at the Melbourne International Film Festival: “In a world that is rapidly changing for the LGBTI+ community, our film is about hope, acceptance and love in their twilight years. It’s heartbreaking to think it may not reach a national audience on a public broadcaster.”

Frackman producer Trish Lake adds: “Our national broadcasters are shy of controversy and want total editorial control on a take-it-or-leave basis. Big contemporary ideas can be explored in a feature documentary, but not on the ABC.”

Australian audiences have proven time and again that they want to see these films by turning out in droves to festivals and cinemas to view them. These are stories that matter and they belong to us, as by and large they have been funded by government agencies like Screen Australia, Film Victoria or MIFF. We’ve paid for them through our tax dollars. As long as they are not shown on free-to-air television, the Australian public is being cheated.

Trevor Graham is a documentary producer and director based in Sydney with a 35-year career in the industry. He was inaugural Head of Documentary at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and a commissioning editor at SBS TV.

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