Rabbit Proof Fence (Miramax Films 2003, released on DVD 2003)

Those other kids that were taken, they were much younger. They didn't know mother.
But I was older. I knew mother. I wanted to go home to mother.

Molly Craig (85, Jiigalong, Western Australia)

In 1901, the farmers of Western Australia built a fence. It ran from north to south, sea to sea, and its goal was to keep the rabbit population on one side, away from the farmland. This separation, this slicing off of a part of the country, is symbolic of larger government policies which existed in Australia, an issue which this brave new film (now available on DVD) seeks to address. Rabbit Proof Fence tells the story of three young girls, aged 8-14 years, who were victims of an Aboriginal Protection Policy which sought to remove "half and quarter caste" children from their aboriginal parents, and teach them to be "English." That is...to teach them to "serve" the English. The theory was that within three generations they could "breed out" the "coloured" blood and restore purity to the race. The purpose...to "protect the aboriginal bloodlines!"

Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Quiet American) has directed a quiet, yet deeply troubling film about this unspeakably disturbing time in Australia's history. The terrifying thing is that this policy was not repealed until the 1970s!

Rabbit Proof Fence had been previewed at a local cinema, for several months, but had never arrived. My mouth was watering, because the trailer made the film look very intriguing, so when I chanced upon a DVD copy in the local rental shop I took it home for Saturday night viewing. It was not our usual fare. The film is disturbing, and yet hopeful, as it shows a victory of the human spirit over the wrong-headed philosophies and policies of an imperialist government.

The film begins by setting the stage. This takes place in the Australian outback. Jigalong, in Western Australia, is an outpost. The land is at first look desolate, but signs of life appear. A child and her mother are hunting. The girl trees a lizard, and kills it. Dinner! She has learned the tribal techniques well. She is Molly Craig, aged 14, daughter of an aboriginal mother, and a white father who has moved on.

Cut to an office in the city of Perth. An Englishman named A.O.Neville (Kenneth Branagh) sits at his desk, searching through index cards. He writes down the name of a child. Molly Craig. She, her sister Daisy, and their cousin Gracie are next on the list to be shipped off to the Moore River Native Settlement. There they will be trained in English, forced to give up their own language and traditions, taught to be servants for fine English ladies. Separated from their mothers and families. Purified.

They came and took us one day. Couldn't even say goodbye. They told us this is our new home. They told us not to speak our language. They told us we had no mothers. I knew they were wrong. -- Molly Craig

Molly is 14. Older than many of the others. She refuses to stay, and although the Settlement has a native tracker who has succeeded in returning every runaway, she convinces her sister and cousin that they can make the trip back home. One evening, before a rainstorm (which will cover their tracks) they set out. Molly, who is beautifully portrayed by a young aboriginal girl (Everlyn Sampi), is a character you will never forget. Her large dark eyes show a depth of intelligence and emotion and convey both her confidence, and the terror Molly must have felt. The three young actresses (Sampi, as well as Tianna Sansbury as Daisy, and Laura Monaghan as Gracie) were amateurs. First time actors in the roles of a lifetime. They are extraordinary -- a "making of" featurette shows the process by which they won their roles.

Kenneth Branagh plays Neville, and he creates a character who could have been a parody of evil. Branagh plays him differently. He is simply a bureaucrat who believes in his job. He is not evil, he is just a man with a job to do. "Don't they [the Bushmen] realize that it's for their own good?" he queries. How many times in history have those words been spoken? To Neville the answer was obvious.

David Gulpilil, whose own breakthrough role was as the young bushman in Walkabout, delivers a finely controlled performance as the tracker sent to find the three girls. He develops a respect and affection for Molly as she bests him at every turn. He is another person doing his job. His daughter is resident at Moore River, and by tracking, he can stay close to her.

We just kids. We walk a long way. There's a fence somewhere. If we find that fence we go home. -- Molly Craig

The fence is long, from coast to coast. The three girls head out, knowing it was out there, and trace it back to their home at Jigalong. A series of fortunate accidents aids the girls in their journey. The police and the tracker are sometimes looking in the wrong place for them -- but just as often Molly manages to outsmart the searchers. The film shows her wiliness in evading capture; her techniques for finding food and shelter; her dependence on the kindness of strangers; her devotion to her sister and cousin. Gracie, the cousin, follows a different trail and is captured. Molly's response after she is reunited with her mother and grandmother, is to say, tearfully and quietly, "I lost one..." It is a tragic and heartbreaking moment. So too, is the final scene, which shows the real Daisy and Molly, over 80 years old, walking together near their home at Jigalong.

Rabbit Proof Fence is blessed with a sensitive and compelling score by Peter Gabriel, which echoes sonically the visual emptiness of the Australian landscape. The camera work is wonderful, shot in the washed out shades of yellow and brown that are Western Australia. This is an Australian film, of an Australian story, which speaks to the heart of everyone. Don't miss it. You will be moved.

[David Kidney]

About the Aboriginal Protection Act
The Rabbit Proof Fence film site