Rabbit-Proof Fence

(Phillip Noyce, Australia, 2002)


Stolen Children

Many manuals for scriptwriters today preach a storytelling wisdom that has more to do with the shallow entertainment formulae of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas than with the depth and breadth of narrative technique down the ages. The hero, the journey, the coming home ... in the twenty-first century, such modern clichés provide not only chapter headings in teach-yourself-screenwriting books, but handy, hardboiled slogans for promotional campaigns.

"Fifteen hundred miles is a long way home," proclaims the ad line for Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, above the sepia-tinted shot of one little girl holding another in her arms as she determinedly makes her way alongside a barbed-wire fence. This publicity does not lie: it would be hard to find a purer example of a story about a heroic journey home, a story of (as Noyce boasts) the "courage and determination" that finally mends a broken family.

The girl at the centre of Rabbit-Proof Fence's publicity image is Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), and the time is the early 1930s in Jigalong, Western Australia. Her true story has been recorded by her daughter, Doris Pilkington-Garimara. Molly and her two younger sisters, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), were wrenched away by police from their mother (Ningali Lawford) and grandmother (Marilyn Lawford) and relocated in a children's centre 1200 miles away at Moore River. Molly knows that by following a fence that runs from one side of Australia to the other, she can find her way home. So she gathers her siblings and sets out on this dangerous journey by foot, without provisions and with the authorities close behind.

This story may seem exceptional but it is in fact typical. It has a historical context which, in Australia over the past five years, has been the stuff of daily news reports and unquenchable public debate. This history now routinely comes to us in language and imagery conjuring emotions of passion and outrage, and even a sense of melodrama, that are strictly necessary to convey the enormity of the pain involved and the issues at stake. The "Stolen Generations" are those indigenous, Aboriginal children who, between 1910 and 1970, were taken from their families and relocated elsewhere by Government decree. This long-buried and deeply shameful episode in Australian history was finally presented to the public in 1997, in an official report titled Bringing Them Home. As political commentator Robert Manne has described it: "Story after story spoke of psychic and cultural dislocation; terrifying loneliness; physical, sexual and moral abuse; and of continuing pain, numbness and trauma experienced after an often bewildering and inexplicable removal from mother, family, community, world."

In the wake of the intense public reception of this report, Australian Prime Minister John Howard caused enormous unrest by refusing – as he still refuses – to offer the public gesture of an official apology to the Aboriginal people for the institutionalised injustices inflicted upon them. Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Howard and his supporters. Their line is that any possible shame or guilt associated with the plight of the Stolen Generations is in the past, a matter of ancient history. Meanwhile, a small army of conservative political theorists has taken the media spotlight to claim that the story of the Stolen Generations is an ideological myth, a fabrication, at the very least a gross exaggeration. Like the Holocaust deniers, these radical conservatives examine and quibble over numbers: was it really one in three Aboriginal children affected by the policy, or was it closer to one in ten? And if no one can truly say, should we accept that anything horrible happened at all? It is in opposition to such brutally literal reasoning that the overflowing emotion of Rabbit-Proof Fence acquires its true, political force.

Within a national cinema that too rarely takes on topical issues with any sense of urgency or commitment, Rabbit-Proof Fence has, almost by default, become the official success of Australia's burgeoning "reconciliation" movement, which is committed to healing the wounds inflicted by white settlers on the country's original inhabitants. There is of course more to this sorry history than the Stolen Generations, but it is the traumatic plight of the abducted children, rather than debates about ownership of land or exploitation of artistic traditions, that has come, in the public imagination, to symbolise the collective wound which demands healing.

But while Rabbit-Proof Fence has become a kind of flagship, it does not at all resemble the dour, modestly scaled, politically-correct art that so often emerges from Australia's battling, independent filmmakers. Rabbit-Proof Fence comes on like a Hollywood film – a tearjerker, a spectacle, complete with a rousing score by Peter Gabriel and boldly stylised cinematography by Australian expatriate Christopher Doyle, as well as an ingenious pre-publicity campaign about the search for "child stars" in Aboriginal communities that made every populist tabloid and supermarket checkout magazine in the country. What's more, it is (as Aborigines say) a "whitefella" film about blacks, and thus a priori classed in the company of politically dubious predecessors like Bruce Beresford's The Fringe Dwellers (1986) and distinguished from authentic, indigenous cultural artefacts such as Ivan Sen's dramatically slender but visually striking Berlinale winner Beneath Clouds (2002). Rabbit-Proof Fence thus has to negotiate several danger zones before it can win over the hearts and minds of the diverse audiences who have an investment in the Stolen Generations issue.

True or Not?

Any politically contentious real-life incident that is dismissed by some as fantastic is bound to have an intriguing rendezvous with cinema. Should a movie try to convince unbelievers that what to them is implausible is in fact believable, via the medium's powerful "reality-effect"? Or, on the contrary, should a movie seize the fantastic, wish-fulfilment potential of its subject matter, via cinema's no-less powerful tie to the realm of dreams and desire? This is the difference between, say, Spielberg's largely naturalistic, meticulously reconstructed Schindler's List (1993) and Emir Kusturica's wildly allegorical and fanciful Underground (1995).

The aesthetic decision that Noyce had to make – with all its ethical consequences – was inflected by his wish to make a film which could function not as a small, arthouse success but as blockbuster entertainment, as "a universal story that goes beyond its time and its setting". And with that comes the determination to make a film that, in political terms, does not "preach to the converted" but grabs and moves a mass audience. Noyce is well placed to contemplate the difficulty of bringing all these goals together, given the stark distance between the animating, left-wing politics of his early Australian films like Backroads (1977), Newsfront (1978) or Heatwave (1982) and the bombastic, opportunistic, every-which-way politics of slick Hollywood assignments like Sliver (1993) and Clear and Present Danger (1994).

Ultimately, Noyce tends more to the fantastic than the realistic. Rabbit-Proof Fence is certainly full of carefully observed and reproduced detail, and the central trio of non-professional child performers provides an appealing aura of naturalness. But at every moment the film aspires to the level of the mythic, especially once the children begin their long and arduous trek. Doyle's picturing of the Australian outback landscape is quite unlike anything seen on the screen since Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), another film about a long and fraught journey home undertaken by displaced children: from the ambiguity of its opening, Antonioni-like shot, where one cannot make out the scale of what one is seeing, to its many eerie vistas of ground and sky saturated by light or dominated by the primal elements of sun or rain, Rabbit-Proof Fence presents itself as a painterly, heightened, expressionistic portrait, more fixed on conveying a fragmented, kaleidoscopic succession of emotional sensations than merely documenting the stages of a physical journey.

In Australia's current political climate, this fantastic-mythic approach was a risk, but perhaps a calculated one. The response of The Australian's film reviewer Evan Williams shows a conservative mindset grappling, a little uneasily, with the film's undeniable emotional impact: "Rabbit-Proof Fence has been made with such transparent humanity and idealism it scarcely seems to matter whether the story is true or not." This comment at once implies, rather scurrilously, that the story is not true, while also conceding that it may not have to be true, that its galvanising, Utopian effect on a public of ordinary spectators is potentially more significant than mere verisimilitude. In Australia at least, Noyce's gamble has paid off: Rabbit-Proof Fence is among the most successful and longest running local films of 2002, with a third of its takings coming from regional areas and suburbs beyond the capital cities.

The film does have its dramatic problems. What marks Noyce's Hollywood-nurtured art and craft – the many scenes built on tense moments of waiting and the piercing or searching gazes of characters – also serves to mask an absence of narrative intrigue inherent in the real-life material. Not only is such a long journey by foot difficult to render within a condensed, narrative form – Theo Angelopoulos or Bela Tarr, cinematic poets of the dogged stroll, might have fared better with this premise – but the difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that Molly's story has very little incident and few "turning points". Beyond the devastating moment where Gracie, who has decided to separate from her sisters, is nabbed again by swooping policemen, not much happens: kindly strangers are met along the path or at isolated homesteads (such as Mavis, played by the popular Australian actor Deborah Mailman), and a tracker in the service of the white police named Moodoo – David Gulpilil, the children's guide in Walkabout and the star of Rolf de Heer's extraordinary The Tracker (2002) – silently locates the traces left by the children, while interacting tersely with his white superiors.

What replaces conventional intrigue is a magical element, reminding us of the book's full title, Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence, with its Wizard of Oz association. As in Peter Weir's The Last Wave (1977), which also featured Gulpilil, mystical and even supernatural elements of Aboriginal spiritualty are roped into the plot. These moments border on romanticised, whitefella cliché, but they are undoubtedly among the movie's most effective: the passage in which the children seem to communicate mentally with their mother and grandmother over a vast distance by holding onto the fence and swaying it; or the deliberately spooky, twilight scene in which Constable Riggs (Jason Clarke) encounters the suddenly menacing apparition of the same mother and grandmother among a tangle of trees.

Revealing Ideology

Where the mistakenly assumed realism of Rabbit-Proof Fence has stirred the most heated debate in Australia is in its depiction of a crucial real-life figure, A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), Chief Protector of Aborigines of the period and one of the architects of the policy that created the Stolen Generations. In a book published in 1948, Australia's Coloured Minority: Their Place in Our Community, Neville wrote: "The scientist, with his trained mind and keen desire to exert his efforts in the field investigating native culture and in studying the life history of the species, supplies an aid to administration." As indigenous commentator Kim Scott has pointed out, Neville's science was derived essentially from eugenics. Noyce and screenwriter-producer Christine Olsen faithfully condense the essence of Neville's racial theory in a slide lecture presented to a group of society ladies: he believed that it would be possible to "breed out the colour" from so-called "half-castes" by careful management of their marital unions.

What are we to make of Neville today? His apologists paint him as someone unfairly put upon, someone who simply tried to improve the lot of the Aborigines as he saw it. (Another ambivalently "benevolent" figure of the period, the writer Daisy Bates, has recently been the subject of an Australian essay-film called Kabbarli [2002].) In a familiar turn of conservative rhetoric, we are being asked to understand and appreciate Neville within the framework "of his own time", not of our time. Furthermore, it is insisted that the taking of children from their parents was not a racial policy but a protective, welfare-driven one, applied equally to children of white families in dire or disadvantaged circumstances. But, as former Liberal Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser (a strong pro-reconciliation voice) has made clear, two quite distinct policies in the official ordinance governed the treatment of incompetent parenting and the treatment of mixed blood Aborigines and their families. According to Fraser, Neville paid "a great deal of attention to mixed bloods because their genes had been strengthened by white blood ... If they grow up understanding Aboriginal history, language, culture, those things will live on. That was something that Mr Neville didn't want to happen."

Representing Neville on screen is a difficult business in this context of debate. Noyce and Olsen want both to make a strong, political critique of the values he embodied and implemented, and also to respect the individual humanity of the person. According to Noyce, everyone involved with the film "agreed that A. O Neville was misguided, but he felt that he was saving the Aboriginal race from a fate worse than the one that been had decreed for them." The words that Branagh offered to Noyce on set are eloquent: "Look, I can't judge this man, I'm not here to do that by my performance. I'm only here to reveal him." But how can such a "revealing" ever be politically neutral?

For some viewers on both ends of the ideological spectrum, Rabbit-Proof Fence indeed tends to satirical caricature in its portrait of Neville. Ceaselessly pinned in the centre of uglifying, ultra-low or high wide-angle compositions, Branagh plays Neville as a stiff, unfeeling creature. But his performance does intersect with the mitigating conception of the filmmakers: Neville as less a well-rounded, freely determining individual – and thus entirely to blame for his actions – than the too-neat, social product of a bureaucratic machine. Neville is less a person in touch with his feelings than a dutiful functionary, a "number cruncher" whose scientific philosophy and hyper-rationalist method anticipate the barbaric logic of today's deniers of historic traumas. By always filming Neville on the job, and mainly in his dank office, the movie finds a way to both create a shade of pathos for the character while damning everything that he did and said in his official role.

Stressing the system over the individual also creates the possibility for a delicious irony: if it's bureaucracy which makes this man, it is also what finally undoes him once matters pass outside his jurisdiction or different ordinances clash. The human reality of the girls, and the traditional culture which strengthens them, proves too rich, too elusive for the system to contain. And so the values underlined by Manne of "mother, family, community, world" can indeed, despite everything, survive. This is the optimistic message that Rabbit-Proof Fence offers to contemporary Australia.

MORE Noyce: Blind Fury, Echoes of Paradise, The Saint

another contemporaneous film on Australian indigenous-settler reconciliation: Ten Canoes

MORE Australian indigenous films: Black Chicks Talking, Whispering In Our Hearts, Nice Coloured Girls, Night Cries, Bedevil

© Adrian Martin October 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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