BEHIND THE SCENES
Everyday Brave production stories
Bonita Mabo
For Who I Am-Bonita Mabo
by Danielle MacLean

Bonita Mabo was never just Eddie Mabo's wife, as Mary Lopez put it so eloquently in this film, "She was the power behind the throne". This may not have been obvious to many for Bonita is a very reserved person. Even when she talks about being radical, she does it with subtlety.

Only since Eddie's death has Bonita truly come out of her shell. Bonita - once happy to stand beside Eddie in his fight for his land, Murray Island - now has her own crusades. She is fighting for the recognition of her people, the South Sea Islanders. This fight must start at home because as Bonita says, "When Eddie was alive I didn't say anything to my children. They knew I was South Sea Islander and Aboriginal. But we lost all our culture..." Bonita felt that Eddie had all the culture and the knowledge to offer her children, so she let them learn his side.

Bonita is no longer happy to sit back and support other people's causes as she now has her own battles to fight. She has a driving ambition to make sure that Australians are aware that there is a distinct ethnic group called South Sea Islanders who were brought to this country under some shocking circumstances and they should be recognised.

In this documentary, we explore Bonita's world from her family history of Kanakas - stolen from Tanna (a small island off the coast of Vanuatu) and brought to Australia to work in the canefields of North Queensland.

Once married to Eddie Mabo, her life took a more political turn. While raising their ten children, Bonita supported Eddie through the land case that would occupy ten years of his life, but which he would never see finished. Eddie's death was the turning point in Bonita's life. At first it stopped her from doing day-to-day things, but then she became stronger. And with her newfound strength came the determination to fight her own battles.

The first time I met Bonita, I was a little nervous as I thought that being the wife of the great Eddie Mabo she was sure to be openly political and I hoped I didn't say anything stupid. I knocked at the door and she greeted me with a hug and a kiss and I knew this was going to be a great documentary to work on. The whole process was a tribute to Bonita's openness as a person and she took us into her world and made us feel really welcome.

As part of the initial research, Bonita and I went to a meeting at Mission Beach to discuss the World Heritage listing of the Daintree Rainforest and how indigenous people could finally get joint management after years of promises. We camped overnight in a bunkhouse and sat around telling stories and sipping cups of tea. I was sitting near Bonita, talking to CJ Fisher who was telling me about his tourist venture in the Daintree and surrounding areas.

I wasn't feeling very well and must have looked terrible because a worried Bonita said that I looked like a geisha, and that my face was like a white mask and all she could see were my eyes. She then fussed over me and made sure I was alright. I learnt later that Bonita had childhood dreams of being a nurse. She told Eddie, who tried to encourage her to go back to study but, frightened she might be laughed at, remained content to care for her own children and those of others.

A few days later we drove in convoy to Bonita's birthplace, Halifax, to start the shoot. Although not much is left, Bonita shared so vividly the way things were that we all felt her heartache about its present day state. Bonita has very fond memories of old times and believes that these times taught them how to love, care and share with each other.

Halifax is also where we met Auntie Betty, Bonita's mother's youngest sister and the only one still alive. Auntie Betty introduced us to South Sea Islander hospitality - fresh prawns on bread rolls by the beach, as well as a cup of tea and a piece of cake whenever we popped in to see her.

Bonita talked about Eddie quite often and even though he has been gone for ten years, he is still a big part of her life. Eddie taught Bonita so much and Bonita's need for his approval is evident in her dreams, and the fact that he feels proud of her insures that she can go on.

It has never been smooth sailing for Bonita and now she has another worry to overcome. Bonita has diabetes, and the disease is slowly robbing her of her eyesight. The laser treatment is painful and Bonita is saddened by the fact that Eddie is not here to help her when she really needs him.

There is, however, a downside to being busy; it robs her of the time she wants to spend with her grandchildren. This seemed to cause her anguish as Bonita's sense of family is very strong. And the thought of never being able to see her grandchildren, due to her failing eyesight, seems like torture.

Bonita's busy life made it hard to find the right time to shoot the documentary, but once started she put everything into it. It was the most enjoyable shoot that I have ever had the pleasure of working on. Bonita is a wonderful person with an open heart and a great determination to leave this world a better place.

EVERYDAY BRAVE

The six-part Everyday Brave series was designed not only to celebrate Indigenous Australian achievers but also to offer production opportunities and skills development to Indigenous filmmakers.

For more about the series and specific episodes, see our program detail pages where you can also purchase video copies online:

Download a copy of the Everyday Brave teachers notes (Acrobat pdf, 392kb)

Download a copy of the Everyday Brave press kit (Word file, 336k) which includes:

  • synopses
  • production stories
  • filmmaker biographies
  • full credit list

for each episode

Note: detailed information is available for many titles in press kits that are downloadable from program detail pages.