WCS 2012: The Tall Man, Hell and Back Again

FILM, Film Festivals
At the World Cinema Showcase, harsh realities as seen through the documentary lens.

A ‘true crime’ story of sorts, Tony Krawitz’s The Tall Man plays as an object lesson in institutional corroboration and institutionalised discrimination. The film tracks the story, and aftermath, of the death in police custody of Palm Island (North Queensland, Australia) resident Cameron Doomadgee in November 2004. Krawitz skilfully constructs his documentary without letting the filmmaking draw attention away from the story content, and what slowly emerges is a confused, emotionally, and racially charged depiction of an unfortunate series of events, the men at the centre of them, and the broader social inequities they represent.

The eponymous Tall Man is police Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, the officer in the midst of the controversy. After arresting a drunken Doomadgee for swearing at him, a scuffle began in the police van and continued into the Palm Island police station in which Mr Doomadgee was to breathe his last.

The film follows a linear timeline beginning with a brief background of the victim and his family/social context. We are then led, via interviews and archival footage, through the series of events and court trials up to 2007 when Hurley stands trial as the first Australian police officer ever charged in relation to the death of a prisoner in custody. It is clear from the start that the filmmaker’s sympathies lie with the victim and his family but to his credit he constructs a pretty evenhanded account of proceedings and, significantly, of Hurley whom he refuses to demonise as a malicious bigot. Indeed, an interview with an indigenous activist friend of the big police sergeant attests to his generally decent attitude to the indigenous communities in which he served.

If the film has a target, it is the overarching political and social environment which seems stacked against indigenous communities and their pursuits—in this case, the pursuit of justice. The police band together alongside other state judicial bodies around one of their own at the expense of a clear trail of evidence for the case. The film ultimately posits that whether or not Senior Sergeant Hurley intentionally caused Doomadgee’s death or not is immaterial, but that if he was indeed the cause of an accidental death that he—like any other citizen—be held responsible for his actions and that the victim’s family are as deserving of justice and truth as any other. The Tall Man’s central injustice is around a family, and their broader community, having to struggle inordinately hard to get what would seem a straightforward inquiry accomplished. Not to mention getting those findings recognised by the legal and state authorities by which they are governed. And ever hovering in the background is the strong sentiment that the case would be a cut and dried conviction if the tables were turned, or indeed, if any ‘black fella’ had been caught so near the death of a white man.

In contrast, rather than beginning with individual tragedy and moving out to the broad socio-political spectrum, Danfung Dennis’s Hell and Back Again works in reverse, taking us from the frightening spectacle of the U.S. war on the Taliban in Afghanistan into the resultant fallout in the life of an individual attempting to integrate back into society and close relationships as a wounded veteran back home in the States.

Dennis’s (brief) background as a photojournalist is apparent in his close-to-the-action footage with protagonist Sergeant Nathan Harris (of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment). He captures, in an equally striking way, both the intensity of combat and the frustrations of being an occupying army on foreign soil fighting on behalf a population struggling to see how you are benefitting them. What Dennis captures upon Harris’s return Stateside is just as unsettling; almost more so considering it is not a warzone. But this is what’s at the heart of Dennis’s character study. Nathan—Sergeant Harris—carries the war, and its effects, with him. Both in his physical person—in the form of metal rods in his leg to replace recently shattered bone along with the resulting wheelchair—and, just as visibly, in his psyche.

We sit with Harris and his supportive young wife as he struggles to get a grip on his new ‘peaceful’ reality and how to cope with this through the prism of the inescapable trauma of war. Dennis visually illustrates this dichotomy by rough, invasive feeling cuts between Afghan and U.S. footage—reminiscent of the ‘blurred’ narrative switching technique employed by Sean Durkin in his unsettling psycho-thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene—reinforcing the unevenness of Harris’s trajectory. This approach is certainly effective in helping the audience to get that little bit further into Harris’s consciousness.

A soldier’s return home and the resulting challenges, though not new documentary fodder, isn’t a heavily mined topic with relation to post 9/11 U.S. action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recent military documentary filmmaking has looked more at the nature of life in the warzone, such as Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s excellent Restrepo (2010), along with Danish counterpart Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen, 2010). New Zealand’s own Briar March provides another example of documentary covering the same themes explored in Hell and Back Again in her 2010 short, Michael and His Dragon, following the titular young American war veteran dealing with a legacy of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) back in civilian life.

Hell and Back Again falls down somewhat in terms of overall narrative flow. Whereas the jarring changes in setting work well, the overall story doesn’t go as far as you’d ultimately hope, leaving the audience slightly unsatisfied in terms of the excellent thematic and character exploration carried out up to the end point. And in this, Dennis runs up against one of the constraints of documentary filmmaking: you go where the content leads, but you only have what is given up by the subject. Despite this narrative wiggle, Hell and Back Again delivers an unnervingly human portrait of the multifaceted effects of trauma on a person, and extends the cliched addage ‘war is hell’ to ‘war is enduring hell’.

The World Cinema Showcase 2012 graces the following cities this autumn: Auckland, Rialto Newmarket/Bridgeway Cinemas, March 29-April 11; Wellington, Paramount, April 5-22; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 19-May 2; Christchurch, Hollywood Cinema, April 26-May 9. Full programme and schedule details at worldcinemashowcase.co.nz.