Director : Phillip Noyce
Screenplay : Christine Olsen (based on the book by Doris Pilkington)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sansbury (Daisy), Laura Monaghan (Gracie), David Gulpilil (Moodoo), Ningali Lawford (Molly's Mother), Myarn Lawford (Molly's Grandmother), Deborah Mailman (Mavis), Jason Clarke (Constable Riggs), Kenneth Branagh (Mr. A.O. Neville)
There are few things more amazing in the known world than the resilience of a determined human being, regardless of age. Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence is a testament to the human will, as it tells the true story of three young girls, ages 14, 10, and 8, who trekked some 1,200 miles through the harsh Australian outback to return to their families. It is hard to imagine just how difficult and perilous such a journey would have been, and it is to the film’s credit that it gives us a palpable sense of both the pain and the triumph.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is set against a historical backdrop that has been a great source of pain and controversy in Australia for decades, but is not widely known in the U.S. In the 1930s, the Australian government passed the Aborigines Act, which made the government the legal guardians of all the native peoples of Australia, which also gave the government the power to remove family members at will. In a misguided effort to “assimilate” what were known as “half-castes”—in other words, those children born of a white parent and a black parent—the government wrested thousands of Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in what were essentially re-education camps so they could learn how to function in white society. This went on for almost 40 years, up until the 1970s.
In 1931, this happened to three half-caste girls, sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). On government orders, they were snatched from their home in Jigalog in northwestern Australia and transported 1,200 miles to the Moore River Native Settlement. However, unlike so many others, they refused to submit to the Australian government, and within a day of having been placed in the settlement, they escaped. Over a nine-week period, they walked hundreds of miles through harsh conditions (well-depicted by Christopher Doyle’s sun-burnt cinematography) following a wire fence that stretched across most of Australia to keep the rabbits out of the farmland (hence the film’s title). This whole time they were constantly tracked by the government who, for public relations reasons, couldn’t stand to let these three girls get away.
The government is represented by Mr. A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), whose official title is ironically “Chief Protector of the Aborigines,” since it was he who decided whose children were taken (the Aborigines referred to him as “Mr. Devil”). Although Mr. Neville is the film’s villain, it is to the credit of screenwriter Christine Olsen, director Phillip Noyce, and actor Kenneth Branagh that he is not depicted as a cruel, senseless racist, but rather as a calm, thoughtful man who truly, genuinely felt that he was doing the right thing and that he had these girls’ best interests in mind. This makes him both sympathetic and terrifying, because there are few things more dangerous than misguided intentions that are backed up by moral conviction.
However, the real stars of the film are the three young girls who play Molly, Daisy, and Gracie. Plucked from obscurity (none of them had ever been to a movie when they were cast), all three are beautifully natural actors, conveying their characters’ personality differences and varying levels of willpower. Led by the eldest, Molly, they draw together into a tight-knit family, and when one of them makes a terrible mistake that eventually costs her her freedom, it is a truly painful moment.
Based in truth, but with the simplicity and force of a well-crafted fable, Rabbit-Proof Fence is an elegant film that shows us the blind spots of history in a way that is moving without being didactic. As the end titles of the film inform us, one of the greatest legacies of the Aborigines Act was the loss of identity felt by the thousands of Aboriginal children who were force-fit into a white society of which they wanted no part. The strength of Rabbit-Proof Fence and its three young heroines is that they never lost sight of who they were.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick