Monday, June 22, 2009

Bob Plasto: the truth is a form of mourning

On 22 December 2007 Bob Plasto was seen handing out one-hundred dollar notes outside a pub in Darwin. Plasto, an NT-based documentary film-maker and former ABC journalist in his late fifties, had a long history of bipolar depressive disease. He had travelled to Darwin to spend Christmas with family; his sister later commented that his illness was the worst she’d ever seen, and that he appeared to be off his medication.

Police were called to the scene mid-afternoon, where Plasto was now bear-hugging a tree. After some coaxing, he climbed inside the back of the paddywagon. The plan was to take him to Darwin hospital for a mental health assessment.

The police observed that Plasto was highly agitated, continually swapping seats in the caged vehicle. Nevertheless, they detoured back to the police station for a shift change. Plasto remained in the back of the van for sixteen minutes until the night staff took over. It was the middle of the Darwin summer, heavy with humidity, and Plasto was a big man, already sweating profusely before he was picked up.

When Plasto arrived at hospital, he was placed in the Oleander Room, the psychiatric section of the Emergency department, where he was assessed. Dr Cromarty found him ‘pleasant and cooperative’, but also ‘acutely psychotic’ and sectioned him under the Mental Health Act, unknown to the police, who thought he was still in their custody.

Plasto stayed in the Oleander Room, waiting for further assessment by a psychiatric register. He talked constantly to himself, walked in and out of the room, repeatedly asking for a smoke. He then asked to go to the toilet but when he was taken there, he jacked up and refused to go in. Plasto brushed past his police escort, almost knocking him off his feet, and went down to the foyer of the ER, where Sergeant Fox ordered him back into the Oleander Room. Plasto raised his arms, ‘wheeling round like a windmill’, saying that he wanted to go outside for some fresh air and a smoke.

Fox tried to get between Plasto and the doors. With the aid of three other police officers and two security guards, he employed what is known as a ground stabilisation technique: Plasto’s arms were restrained and he was forced facedown onto the floor, then handcuffed. There was maybe a combined weight of 500 kg on top of him. Fox later said that ‘it was the possibly the most severe apprehension in that manner that he had undertaken.’ He rated the physical intensity of the struggle ‘ten out of ten.’ 

Plasto yelled out that he was having difficulty breathing and had chest pain. Medical staff ran into the foyer area, including Dr Cromarty, who asked if handcuffs were really necessary and for the police to ‘back off a bit’. The police replied that they were doing it for their own safety. Fox pushed down Plasto’s head with his knee: Cromarty heard it smack on the ground. Another doctor said Fox placed what appeared to be his whole weight on Plasto’s head so his face was completely crushed into the floor. Plasto began to struggle less, his face turning red and then blue.

The medical staff shouted at the police that Plasto was turning blue. When the police got off him, Plasto’s chest was no longer moving. A chain smoker with chronic obstructive airway disease, he had experienced respiratory failure. Plasto was taken to intensive care where he died a week later, never having regained consciousness.

Plasto lived in the Territory on-and-off since the age of seventeen, making Alice Springs his home in later years. He had produced a long catalogue of films, which had made broadcast: to all intents and purposes, he was a successful documentary film-maker. Plasto also had a reputation for risk-taking journalism and chasing controversy: he was the first independent film producer to enter post-war Iran, and his was the only documentary camera ever allowed inside Pine Gap. ‘He came across as a very loving, affectionate caring sort of man but he had the mettle to get in there and press people for responses,’ fellow NT documentary film-maker Dave Nixon observes.

In the early eighties Plasto made two documentaries, 
A shifting dreaming and My country, which traces black-white relations in the Northern Territory from the Coniston massacre through to the struggle for land rights. They now make somewhat idiosyncratic viewing, burdened at times by rambling interview sequences, quaint period dramatisations (featuring Ray Barrett, Max Gillies and Gerard Kennedy) and emotive narration. These films have also been criticised for being oversimplistic in their depictions Aboriginal people, and for failing to challenge aspects of white land ownership.

Nevertheless, there is an oddball, pioneering element about these projects that almost seems Territorian in itself, especially given the dearth of film-making about Aboriginal experience and history in the NT prior to the Bicentenary. Whereas the majority of Australian-made documentaries about the Territory have been for SBS or ABC release, a fraction of the nation’s consciousness, Plasto sought to reach the mainstream: in the early nineties, he made 
Alice Springs, my town, possibly the most expensive commercial documentary ever released on Australian television..

Most documentaries made about the Territory originate from outside sources. Territorian film-makers are often dependent on external funders, such as the Commonwealth: the Territorian government tends to favour the tourist dollar. Nixon comments: ‘There’s been almost no recognition from any of the Territory administrations that telling stories through film and television is of value.

‘I’ve often likened the film industry in the Northern Territory to being like a flock of sea gulls. You’ve got the Arts Minister occasionally throwing out a chip, and it’s the rowdiest, biggest, hungriest sea gull that gets the meal. It’s best not to rely on that stuff, and Bob was living proof of that.’

In his final years, Plasto was often seen wandering along Todd Mall, Alice Springs’ main café strip, in search of conversation.

‘He was like a trawler, he’d sort of police the bottom end of the Mall,’ Nixon says.‘I used to often see him wandering around the streets with a clipboard and a one-inch video cassette that he put a finished program in. He would walk around as if he was on the way to a broadcaster to deliver something. It really haunted me, that image of an old man without peers anywhere.

‘Here you have someone who was seemingly quite successful, shuffling the streets of Alice Springs, looking for someone to talk to, looking for some purpose. Completely and utterly mad. He was surrounded by 30,000 other people but he was completely isolated.’

Restaurateur Vin Lange remembers Plasto sipping coffee, writing poetry and jotting down ideas.

‘He always carried a dictionary and if I had a minute it was great to find out his “word of the day’’. Bob would relate this word to one of his many projects such as sailing around the world on a clipper with a camera and a storybook to issues around town, to politics, to his beloved Carlton or to the Australian Cricket team (Ricky Ponting's captaincy always came in for some heavy scrutiny in these discussions!).’

Tracey Spencer, then the minister at the Flynn Uniting Church in the Mall, also knew Plasto from local café life. Plasto took his ‘role as an elder statesman in the Territory very seriously,’ Spencer says. He developed a mentoring relationship with Spencer and others, giving her pronunciation lessons and even presenting her with a thesaurus on one occasion. She saw him as a visionary, aware of the big picture, always looking ahead: ‘He was very interested in the future of the Territorian film industry and even had plans to start up a film school in a café.’ 

Plasto was not always easy company: he often tried people’s patience, ringing the same contacts every week, sometimes every day. Negotiations to secure an in-perpetuity licence to show seven of Plasto’s films on StoryWall, an outdoor film screening project in Alice Springs, were strung out over many months and phone calls.

‘He was an inspiration,’ Nixon says, ‘but not in the way you might expect. He was an archetype of where you end up as a documentary film-maker…. the Jungian archetype of success and failure mixed into the one poor troubled soul.’

In his inquest findings Coroner Greg Cavanagh determined that Plasto’s death was caused by the combined effects of restraint asphyxia, obesity associated heart disease and chronic airways disease. 

There was no evidence that Plasto was a threat to himself or to others, or that he intended to flee the hospital. 

Guiding principles for NT police promote the avoidance of force where possible and minimum use of force where it is unavoidable. The police had other options apart from restraint such as blocking Plasto’s escape or removing him to the Oleander Room. Obesity is also a known risk factor in positional asphyxia, of which the police should have been made aware through training.

Plasto’s death was investigated in conjunction with that of David Gurrulpa, a thirty-nine-year-old Aboriginal man from Ramingining who was restrained by police to stop him attacking a woman holding a baby. Positional asphyxia was also an issue because Gurrulpa was a large man suffering from a heart condition. 

The Coroner found that injuries sustained as a result of police restraint contributed to both deaths.

The Coroner also commented on the unnecessary length of time Plasto spent in the back of the police vehicle, which no doubt contributed to his anxiety and physical distress. The police could have transported him to the hospital more promptly and appropriately, and Cavanagh made recommendations to that effect. 

This aspect of Plasto’s case resonates with even grimmer predicament of Mr Ward, the WA Aboriginal elder, who ‘cooked’ to death last January while being transported several hundred kilometres across the Goldfields in forty degree plus heat in a police van with faulty air conditioning. 

The disturbing question these recent inquiries provoke is: are there yet other adverse incidents involving the care and transportation of people in police custody that go undetected because they involve those more likely to slip under the radar, such as mentally unwell or Aboriginal clients?

It would seem fitting, given Plasto’s background in investigative documentary-making and his interest in disenfranchised minorities, if pressure is brought to bear on these issues as a result of his inquest. There is also some irony, which Plasto may well have appreciated, that he should ultimately become the subject of controversial investigation himself.

(This article originally appeared at Screen Hub. Do subscribe: it's a fabulous publication.)
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