Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil, Ningali Lawford, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Written: Christine Olsen
In 1931, when this story occurs, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), is 14 years old, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), is eight, and their cousin, Gracie (Laura Monaghan) is ten. At the time the Australian government is separating ‘half-caste’ Aborigine children from their ‘degenerate’ Aborigine mothers. All three girls are the daughters of an Aborigine mother and a white father, and are living in the small town of Jigalong.
This forced separation is determined by the Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr Neville (Brannagh), who is compelled to save the children from their selves and exposed to the ‘wonders and benefits’ of white society and culture. The plan is to train these ‘half-caste’ children to be the domestic help for the white society, and to ultimately breed the Aborigine out of them. It is the ‘Good And Christian Thing’ to do.
Ripped from their mothers, grandmother and auntie, they are taken to More River, twelve hundred miles away, a psuedo-orphanage, although ‘concentration camp’ is a term that also fits. Days or hours before they are snatched, a local tells Molly about the 1500 mile fence erected by the Australian government. The fence splits the country in two, erected to keep rodent rabbits out of arable farming land, and you can almost see Molly filing away the information in her head.
After they arrive at More River, realising that they must forget their mother’s language and culture, to take on a life of duty and responsibility like all ‘good Christian’ girls, Molly does a brave and desperate thing. She grabs her sister and cousin and takes off, heading into the general direction of Jigalong, sending the ‘Chief Protector’ and the ‘law’ into a frenzy of searching.
Molly’s will and the authority with which she takes up her task, provides a steel and grit required to broach the wilderness alone and unprotected. Her indomitable spirit brings all that make us human into sharp focus. She will not consent to being held, or separated from her mother and family, and she will not give up.
Doris Pilkington and Phillip Noyce
That this story occurs against a political backdrop, allows us to juxtapose the aridity of the Australian landscape, with Molly’s own journey. However, this is an internal journey for Molly, as much as an external one. Remembering and finding the rabbit proof fence, she finds it and follows it for hundreds and hundreds of miles; home is somewhere along the fence. For Molly, it is the only guide she has in the wilderness.
Exhorting her younger charges, she dodges and eludes the skilled Aborigine tracker, Moodoo, and the Australian law enforcement, with wit and tenacity for the two months of the trip. She loses her cousin Gracie to betrayal and capture in the process; but pushes on, often carrying Daisy and living off what little the land provided.
In “Rabbit Proof Fence”, we watch and find guts to face simple challenges, in the struggle of Molly, Daisy and Gracie to face almost insurmountable challenges. That a story of courage like this one, could and does do that, should not surprise; a well told, well made story is meant to do that. That it is a true story, based on the book, “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” by Doris Pilkington, Molly’s daughter, strikes even closer to the heart.
Although it’s a story told in few words, the three extraordinarily photogenic faces of the first-time actresses are haunting, long after the fade to black. Their portrayals are entirely believable and engaging. Brannagh, as the chillingly misguided Chief Protector, displays the arrogance of European colonial perceptions of superiority with skill. Gulpilil as Moodoo who although has not and will not stop seeking the girls, almost cheers whenever clever little Molly eludes him. Sampi’s indefatigable Molly, never exhibits defeat only defiance and determination. All three girls are excellent, turning in performances untouched by guile or affectation.
Molly’s mother, played by Ningali Lawford, oozes the longing for her children with her constant watching along the line of the fence with no words, just her eyes. In a scene where she confronts the law enforcement officer who took her children away, the strength of a mother’s anger is powerful and palpable, although again, no words are spoken in the scene.
Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack, made from adapted traditional Aboriginal music, is so haunting, as to take on it’s own character in the film. The cinematography captures the sprawling Australian wilderness without overwhelming the image of these three tiny girls, walking, walking, walking….
The film allows us a view of the subtle and overt cruelty that European colonisation and racism creates, and the dogged pursuance of questionable values. The Aborigines in the story are subhuman to the colonists; as such, there is no wrong doing in their inhumanity. In fact, Mr Neville so convinces himself and his supporters of this policy, that the abduction and ‘re-education’ of ‘half-caste’ children went on until the 1970s.
The Australian government created what has been subsequently called, the “Stolen Generations” among the Aborigine population. The Aborigines still suffer the effects of the child stealing. Many of their children, lost to the white world, have never returned home.
The film is impressive in every way; touching chords within the soul, and taking us on that internal journey that humanity faces when the inhumanity of ourselves turns back on itself. It’s important because it tells the story of the suffering of the Aborigines in Australia, and exposes the hidden genocide against them. The sadness of the tale, enrages the heart of the conscious against the ignorance and self absorption of European colonisers, and the callousness with which they treat other cultures and races. It also, for this writer at least, allows one to remember the similar suffering still going on today.
This story’s strength is not in it’s angry portrayal of injustice, but in the gritty determination of the girls not to become victims to the racist policies of invaders and usurpers. We find definitive resistance and ultimately the victory of the human heart.