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Monday, April 8, 2002

'Rabbit Proof Fence': Tragedy Of The 'Stolen Generations'

Neumu's Lee Tran Lam writes: While the term "based on a true story" brings to mind those factory-line soppy message telemovies shown between informercials and Ricki Lake on weekday afternoons, "Rabbit Proof Fence" is all the more amazing because it tells a story that unstitches your idea of the unfathomable without hammering out easy sentiments or manipulating your intelligence. Here is the (true) story in question: When taken away from their family and placed in a far-off settlement by the government, three indigenous girls (Molly, Daisy, Gracie) escape their confinement by walking 1500 miles home.

In Western Australia in 1931, by government order, 14-year-old Molly Craig is removed from her family and placed in a reserve for "half-caste" children. Her sister, Daisy, and cousin, Gracie (both younger than she is) are also taken away. Issuing this command is A. O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, whose authority was such that he would determine whether an indigenous person would be allowed to marry or buy shoes. If Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and integrated into the (white) population, Neville believed, one day "full-blooded" Aborigines would no longer be a problem because they wouldn't exist. Perhaps it's no surprise that the children call him (behind his back, of course), Mr. Devil.

The portrayal of Mr. Neville (played by Kenneth Branagh) has been a point of contention. Several critics have praised "Rabbit Proof Fence" for not taking the easy route of depicting him as a moustache-twirling figure of evil, instead showing him as a human whose intention to help is deep but critically flawed. The horrifying general policy of "breeding out" Aborigines through the systematic removal of their children and the snuffing out of their culture didn't officially end in Australia until the 1970s. Victims of this policy are known as the Stolen Generations, and considering Neville's traumatic and damaging role as someone who perpetuates that policy, it's understandable that he doesn't come up roses in the film.

"Rabbit Proof Fence," however, doesn't sermonize or didactically push viewers into a political direction. It is, at its core, an adventure story about three girls who are astonishingly resourceful and intelligent, who escape the insistent search of authorities; who journey home on foot by following a rabbit-proof fence that spans the country from one end to the other.

The film was screened at the Verona Cinema in Sydney recently, and was followed by a question and answer session that included director Phillip Noyce ("Dead Calm," "Patriot Games"), writer Christine Olsen, cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love," "Made") and members of the cast. When Noyce introduced the three leading stars of his film to a cinema audience, he also introduced their mums, one of whom plays two parts in the movie ("but you'll have to get the film out on DVD to see which two they are," he quipped). Also in attendance were Doris Pilkington-Garimara (whose book records her mother, Molly's, 2400 km walk home) and her daughter Shari. Everlyn Sampi (who plays Molly) found the film difficult to do because her mother, Glenys, had been "stolen" as a child. Doris Pilkington-Garimara was also removed from her home and placed in a settlement by the government.

As Noyce later remarked to Sunday Life magazine, every indigenous person who worked on the film knew someone who was taken away. Given that it does address the plight of the Stolen Generations, it is not surprising that an audience member asked if Prime Minister John Howard has seen "Rabbit Proof Fence." This question made people laugh and clap, as Howard is well known for his refusal to apologize for the trauma caused by this past government policy.

"Well, Little Johnny is away at the moment," Noyce laughed. "And also my mother said, 'If you invite that prick, I'm not coming.'"

Noyce, who has worked outside Australia for the last 12 years, was also asked if he was aware of the political sensitivity of the script when he first received it (given that the Stolen Generations issue has come to the fore mostly in the last few years). Despite returning home frequently, Noyce said that he didn't need to return to Australia to know that "Rabbit Proof Fence" would have political resonances. "I grew up in a small country town and we had a reserve outside the country town ... where 300 or 400 Aboriginal-Australians lived and [this reserve] was surrounded by barbed wire. We never saw them in the town, but they were behind the barbed wire. So I was aware [of the issue] from when I was a kid."

The script that he received was written by Christine Olsen, who mulled over whether or not to obtain the rights to Doris Pilkington-Garimara's book (titled "Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence") for half a year. When asked whether something in particular triggered her decision to procure the story, Olsen replies, "I think parts of our brains work on things. I understand as a writer that that's how I work: I don't sit writing, I go and paint the inside of the house."

For Olson, the next step was to pen the script. "Just like that?" asked critic Andrew L. Urban. "That was the entire house painted," said Olsen.

Olsen's initial concern — "How do you make a film about three little girls walking back home?" — has been resolved through the work of many players involved in "Rabbit Proof Fence." There's cinematographer Christopher Doyle's vivid portrayal of the Australian landscape (bleached and heat-blurred; dawn-blue-and-orange; drenched dark woods; flat dust mapping entire horizons), as well as his deft framing of Molly, Daisy and Gracie. The chaotic scene where they struggle against being taken from their family is so devastating and unsentimentally depicted that its difficult to watch; you want to stop the film from continuing. Witnessing the response to "Rabbit Proof Fence" has been inspiring, notes Doyle a little dryly. "Seeing all these white faces going, 'Where's the other packet of Kleenex?' [makes me think] maybe the trip was worth it."

There is also the understated and potent performances of the three young leading actors: Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sansbury (Daisy) and Laura Monaghan (Gracie). Having never acted before, and faced with communicating so much with little dialogue, the girls are compelling as they journey home. (An audience member later quips, "Did you count how far you had to walk?" The soft-spoken Sampi pauses lengthily, and then replies, "Well ... we didn't really ... walk." Good-humored laugher follows.)

Given that "Rabbit Proof Fence" looks at the agony caused by misguided authorities, and the film's release comes at a time when the demonization of others has become a political sport, the word "evil" is bandied a lot by the audience. The word disturbs me, because it seems to be a license to dismiss people (because if they're "evil" we needn't try to comprehend why they act as they do, do we?). When asked if she thinks A. O. Neville is evil for what he does to the children, screenwriter Olsen answers that she honestly doesn't think anyone is evil.

"If we were [living] in the 1930s, we wouldn't have been any different. I don't think we can congratulate ourselves for our high moral thought. When I was writing it, I very strongly [thought] that these people are my grandparents, these people are my family, and this is how my family thought."

She says she thinks ideas travel through society in waves, and some ideas are at the front, and some languish at the back. When it comes to social change though, how much of a role are filmmakers expected to play?

"There is not an obligation on filmmakers to socially intervene," Noyce said. "But I think given that this film is about the issue in this country, the unresolved issue, the one that haunts us, the single most important issue — maybe there is a reason to say that we should be interventionists."

The conclusion of "Rabbit Proof Fence" brings forward one of the film's strongest moments. We see Molly and Daisy as they are now, walking. When they first witnessed their cameo, they chuckled happily, noted Pilkington-Garimara. "Oh, we're in the movies! Two old ladies in the movies." The depiction of the elderly women walking freely brings a resonant end to a film carried by the nerve and fortitude of three young girls who knew they had to go home.

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