Who Killed Malcolm Smith?


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1992, 50 Minutes

This documentary tells the story of Malcolm Smith, one of the 99 cases investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Like many Aboriginal people who were taken from their families as children, Malcolm Smith died a shocking and early death.

At 1.25pm on 29 December 1982, Malcolm Charles Smith, an Aboriginal prisoner in a Sydney gaol, went into a toilet cubicle and locked the door behind him. Half a minute later, a piercing scream came from the cubicle. Officers rushed to the door, knocked it off its hinges and found that Malcolm Smith had driven the handle of an artist’s paintbrush through his left eye. After being rushed to hospital to remove the paintbrush, Malcolm Smith was found to be brain dead. At 11.41am on 5 January 1983 the life support machine was switched off and Malcolm Smith officially ceased to exist.

Richard Frankland helped investigate Malcolm Smith’s death for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  Now he revisits Smith’s friends and family who tell the story of Malcolm’s life and death. His background is examined as Frankland uncovers evidence that Malcolm’s criminal actions were the result of a life of institutionalisation and emotional and educational deprivation. The Royal Commission investigated some 99 deaths in custody which occurred between 1980 and 1989.

Forcibly removed from his family at the age of 11 and sent to a boy’s home over 1500 kilometres away, Malcolm did not see family again until he was 19 years old. In that time, he turned from a happy, healthy boy to an illiterate, innumerate and unskilled man with no experience of living in normal society. Of the remaining years of his short life, he was to spend all but eight months in gaol.

The real horror story of Aboriginal Australia today is locked in police files and child welfare reports. It is a story of private misery and degradation, caused by a complex chain of historical circumstance that continues into the present. [Gilbert, Kevin, Living Black, Penguin Books, 1978 p2.]

Aboriginal deaths in custody still occur and the story of Malcolm Smith is as relevant today as it was when this documentary was filmed in the 1990s.

A Titus Films production for Film Australia for the National Interest Program. © 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.



Directors: Nicholas Adler, Caroline Sherwood

Year: 1992

Running Time: 50 Minutes

Classification: PG. Consumer advice: Adult themes.

Curriculum Links: Indigenous Studies - Culture and Identity; Criminology; Criminal Justice; Restorative Justice; Justice Studies; Correctional Education; Offender Rehabilitation; Australian History; Health; Justice/Legal Studies; Law; SOSE/HSIE; Gender Studies; English K-10 Stage 5 - Insights into Aboriginal experiences in Australia; PDHPE; Personal Development; Values education; Ethics. Historical, prejudice, racism.


SKU 199103600
Brand Film Australia

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