Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fenceon 1/8/05 11:00, MarakitaMehmet maraki_tanga@... at
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/02 (limited)
Running Length: 1:34
MPAA Classification: PG (Mature themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Cast: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Ningali Lawford, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Phillip Noyce
Producers: Phillip Noyce, Christine Olsen, John Winter
Screenplay: Christine Olsen, based on "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Music: Peter Gabriel
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
At one point in history, indigenous populations around the globe were evolving slowly and happily, whether in North America, South America, Africa, or Australia. Then, spearheaded by a wave of intrepid explorers, came the Europeans, spreading out across the world like a plague of locusts. Whether a case of social Darwinism or unchecked Imperialist aggression, it didn't take long before the White Man had conquered those lands where they had any interest in establishing a settlement. While the backgrounds of those going to Australia and America were vastly different, the results were similar: native populations diminished and oppressed, then reduced to second-class citizens in the re-shaped lands that were once theirs.
In 1931 Australia, it is the official policy of the government, as determined by the Chief Protector of the Aborigine Populace, Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), that all "half-caste" Aborigine children (the offspring of a white parent and an Aborigine parent) are to be taken from their families and raised in orphanages where they can be civilized with the intention of marrying them to a white person or grooming them to be a domestic servant. To Neville and those like him, this policy – separating a child from his or her family – does not seem cruel or inhuman. On the contrary, Neville states (and believes) that "in spite of himself, the native must be helped."
In the small village of Jigalong, three half-caste children - sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 years old, and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), who is eight, and their cousin, 10-year old Gracie (Laura Monaghan) – are taken from their mothers to live in the orphanage at Moore River, more than 1200 miles away from their home. There, they will learn the path of "duty, service, and responsibility" that every good Christian woman should adhere to. Except that Molly, Daisy, and Gracie are not like the other girls at Moore River, and, when an opportunity presents itself, they escape. Pursued by an Aborigine tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), and facing a seemingly impossible trek, they nevertheless press on, finding the rabbit-proof fence that stretches north-south across nearly all of the Australian continent and following it as a means to return to Jigalong.
Australian director Phillip Noyce, who may be best known to North American movie-goers for his big-budget thrillers, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, presents a powerful tale of courage and the indomitable quality of the human spirit. The film is based on the novel "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington, which tells the true-life story of her mother, Molly. Although the social injustice that led to Australia's "Stolen Generations" is very much in the forefront of Rabbit-Proof Fence, we are drawn into the cinematic tapestry by the real and immediate plight of the children. They are our guides through this political nightmare. Rabbit-Proof Fence eventually becomes a kind of road picture, with the girls making their way north and meeting all sorts of people along the way – some who help, some who hinder. There's also an element of danger, with Moodoo doggedly in pursuit and the police closing in. But Molly is smart, often outthinking or outguessing everyone, and occasionally aided by a bit of blind chance.
The three neophyte actresses playing the children, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, are all excellent, with Sampi in particular standing out. Her performance as Molly is unaffected and memorable. We never once see defeat in her eyes – only determination and defiance. Sampi makes us believe that if anyone can do the impossible, it is Molly. David Gulpilil, who many may remember from Walkabout (or, failing that, Crocodile Dundee), has very little dialogue, so he lets his eyes and expressions speak for him. It doesn't take long for us to recognize that, although he is hunting the girls, a part of him exults every time they slip through his fingers. Finally, there's Kenneth Branagh, who plays the part of the villain with a charm and sincerity that is chilling. Mr. Neville is not evil personified – he is just horribly misguided. And that causes him to be more frightening than even the most over-the-top motion picture psychopath. Branagh's low-key approach makes this the most insidiously terrifying individual he has ever portrayed.
There is a great deal of craft evident in the way Rabbit-Proof Fence was put together. The music, an adaptation of Aboriginal melodies by Peter Gabriel, is haunting and singularly effective. The camerawork is such that it never allows the beauty of the Australian outback to eclipse the human element – an impressive feat when considering how glorious the countryside is. Under the hands of some directors, a film like this could easily turn into a travelogue; as developed by Noyce, it is an exploration of the heart and soul. And, at an economical 94 minutes, Rabbit-Proof Fence trims all the fat and tells its heartfelt and stirring story. This is one of 2002's most memorable imports.
© 2002 James Berardinelli
Aboriginal life writing and globalisation: Doris Pilkington's Follow the
Rabbit-Proof Fence (continued)
by Anne Brewster
© all rights reserved
To facilitate downloading,
this address has been divided
into parts one and two.
In Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence Pilkington recalls with a searing irony one
of the more farcical projects of land management in the newly federated
states of Australia. In 1907 a fence 1,834 kms in length was built from the
Great Southern Ocean to the coast of the top end for the purpose of
preventing rabbits invading Western Australia from the eastern states. Of
course it did nothing of the sort. In fact, in a kind of carnivalesque
humour, Pilkington contends that there were more rabbits on the Western
Australian side of the fence than on the South Australian side. In Follow
the Rabbit-Proof Fence , however, the fence, for three young girls, is 'a
symbol of love, home and security' (109) those most coveted and most mourned
entitlements for generations of stolen people. Molly, the oldest of the
three and the leader of the group, succeeded in delivering the three to
their homelands as she was equipped with a range of essential survival
skills, those learned from her white father, an inspector on the fence (78),
and those learned from her step-father, 'a former nomad from the desert' and
an 'expert' in bushcraft (82).
This felicitous conjunction of knowledges reminds us of the various
localised forms of modernity dispersed across the globe. It also puts the
lie to the equation of Aboriginality with primitivism, a reified concept of
tradition, and passive recipience in a one-way cross-cultural exchange; this
opposition privileges the coloniser as the exclusive agent of change, the
harbinger of modernity, and figures Aboriginality as something that can only
deliquesce. Despite expectations and concerted efforts to the contrary,
indigenous people have survived and indeed await non-indigenous people in
the project of fashioning a virtual world of co-inhabited space where
memories, histories, futures and subjectivities co-exist non-hierarchically.
As Walter Mignolo suggests, globalisation foregrounds the fact that 'there
are no people in the present living in the past (as the Hegelian model of
universal history proposed), but that the present is a variety of
chronological circles and temporal rhythms' (37).
The recognition of alternative co-national cultural, spiritual and
metaphysical ideals and modes of self-identification necessitates an undoing
of the dominant understanding of the nation state and the administrative
normalisation of multiculturalism. Indigenous culture performs the lived
experience of cultural pluralism. Indigenous people in Australia have long
been a cosmopolitan culture, one which was indeed multicultural avant la
lettre. The contemporary surge of anti-cosmopolitanism to which the One
Nation party appeals finds expression in the rhetoric of a minoritised,
injured whiteness. We live in a period where constituencies struggle to
occupy the moral highground of the victim. In appropriating the rhetoric of
disadvantage, 'post'-colonial EuroAustralia disavows the restabilising of
race categories in Australia and the relicensing of racism (Perera and
Puglese). While avowing a disaffiliation with the morally discredited
policies of assimilation, John Howard, for example, ensures an ongoing
reconfiguration of white power.
Ours has been dubbed a post-traumatic age (Felman and Laub). The discourse
of Reconciliation has been mobilised in a number of different global
contexts to enable social reconstruction and national renewal in communities
recovering from large-scale violence. Personal testimony is the most
commonly used vehicle (eg the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commissions), though this process does have its pitfalls such as the
commodification of 'victims', the depoliticising and domestication of
violence, the medicalising and pathologising of trauma, the substitution of
the language of the individualised choice and rights for that of social
justice (Humphrey); this last situation is particularly marked in Howard's
political discourse around 'Aboriginal' Reconciliation. Nevertheless, in
Australia, the very public performance of indigenous life stories has been
symptomatic of shifting relations between majoritarian and minoritarian
groups within the circumference of the liberal democracy of the nation
(Perera and Puglese). It has often been remarked that the nation's
boundaries are not only policed at its periphery (through war, immigration
etc) but also at its centre. The local 'inside' of the nation is, however,
increasingly being linked to the global 'outside' (McCarthy, 180) and now
more than ever we are aware of the need for cosmopolitical systems of
Anne Brewster is a lecturer in English at the University of New South Wales.
Her publication and research interests include Aboriginal literatures,
fictocriticism and explorative methodologies, American language writing, and
Singaporean and Malaysian literatures in English. Recent books include Those
who remain will always remember: An Anthology of Aboriginal Writing
(co-edited with Angeline O'Neill and Rosemary van den Berg, Fremantle Arts
Centre Press, 2000), Literary Formations: nationalism, globalism and
postcolonialism (MUP 1995) and Reading Aboriginal Women's Autobiographical
Narrative (SUP in assoc. OUP 1996).
Biddick, Kathleen. 'Humanist History and the Haunting of Virtual Worlds:
Problems of Memory and Rememoration', Genders, 18, Winter 1993: 47-66.
Brewster, Anne. Literary Formations: postcolonialism, nationalism,
globalism, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995.
Bullock Alan et al eds. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London:
Felman Shoshana and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in
Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, NY: Routledge, 1992.
Gratton, Michelle ed., Reconciliation; Essays on Australian Reconciliation,
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2000.
Humphrey, Michael, 'From Terror to Trauma: Commissioning Truth for National
Reconciliation', Social Identities, 6 (1) March 2000: 7-28.
Kumar, Priya. 'Testimonies of Loss and Memory: Partition and the Haunting of
a Nation', interventions, 1 (2): 201-15.
McCarthy, Thomas. 'On Reconciling Cosmopolitan Unity and National
Diversity', Public Culture, 11(1): 175-208.
Mignolo, Walter D. 'Globalization, Civilisation Processes, and the
Relocation of Languages and Cultures', in The Cultures of Globalization,
eds. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Durham: Duke University Press, 1999:
Olubas, Brigitta and Lisa Greenwell, 'Re-membering and taking up an ethics
of listening: a response to loss and the maternal in "the stolen chldren"',
Australian Humanities Review,
Perera, Suvendrini and Joseph Pugliese. '"Racial Suicide": the re-licensing
of racism in Australia', Race & Class, 39 (2), Oct-Dec 1997: 1-20.
Pilkington, Doris (Nugi Garimara). Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, St Lucia:
University of Queensland Press, 1996.
Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo, North Ryde: Angus and Robertson,
Reynolds, Henry. An Indelible Stain? Ringwood, Victoria: Viking, 2001.
Return to Part One of this essay.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also
? Kay Schaffer's Manne's Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen
? Fiona Paisley's Race and Remembrance: Contesting Aboriginal Child
Removal in the Inter-War Years
? Ros Kidd's review of Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic
Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950, by Christine Choo,
and Loving Protection?: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women's Rights
1919-1939, by Fiona Paisley
? Henry Reynolds's After Mabo, What About Aboriginal Sovereignty? and The
Stolen Children ˆ Their Stories: an afterword
? John Frow's A Politics of Stolen Time
? Carmel Bird's The Stolen Children ˆ Their Stories
? Sue Stanton's Time for Truth: Speaking the Unspeakable ˆ Genocide and
Apartheid in the 'Lucky' Country
? Re-membering and taking up an ethics of listening: a response to loss
and the maternal in "the stolen children" by Brigitta Olubas and Lisa
? Those two little words by Beth Spencer
? and Cracking Up by Hannah Fink
? The ABC Website has an interview with Doris Pilkington at:
? Doris Pilkington's book, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, is now the
subject of a major film, released in Australia in February 2002 and the USA
in June 2002
? For more Aboriginal Life writing, see Magabala Books
© Australian Humanities Review all rights reserved.
http://www.lib.latrobe.e du.au/AHR/copyright.html for copyright notice.
Based on a true story and set in Australia in the 1930s, Rabbit-Proof Fence is about three "half-caste" aboriginal girls, Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), who are taken from their mother and shipped 1500 miles across the country to the Moore River Native Settlement where they are to become more integrated into white Australian culture. Molly, the eldest and most experienced of the three, initiates an attempt to return home, on foot.
There is some controversy over just how factual the film and its bases are (including the book by the real-life Molly Craig's daughter, Doris Pilkington), and there were some interesting parallels to the situation depicted in the film and behind the scenes facts about star Sampi and director Phillip Noyce. I won't get into that here, because it's irrelevant to the question of whether Rabbit-Proof Fence is a good film. It is. It's an excellent, inspirational film that should leave nary a dry eye whenever it's shown.
On the other hand, there is a politics present in the film that is not ignorable. The aborigines in the film are abused and pushed around by a culture that misguidedly wants to "protect them from themselves". A segment of historical white Australia is portrayed as the "bad guy". Noyce doesn't paint a picture completely without ethical nuance, however. The chief villain of the film, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), keeps talking about his good intentions, and such claims do not come across as insincere. This all sets the backdrop and motivation for the heart of the film, which is a story of just what conviction, persistence and a bit of resourcefulness can do.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is mostly a combination of an adventure and a suspense film. Set primarily in the breathtaking Australian wilderness, magnificent cinematography goes without saying. The suspense is realistic and comparatively subtle.
As for the cast, Sampi is simply enchanting, and Branagh is as good here as I've seen him in any other film of his, even though his role is a relatively minor one. The tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), managed to be very effectively complex, all while uttering barely a word. The music, by Peter Gabriel, is also worth noting. It is very unobtrusive, but elegantly emphasizes mood throughout the film.
I also had extra personal interest in the film as an avid hiker who has done a number of long-distance hikes and who plans to do more in the future.