Based on the true story of three young aboriginal girls who walked 1,500 miles across the Australian outback to be reunited with their mothers, Rabbit-Proof Fence might well be subtitled True Grit in recognition of the courage and single-minded determination which drove the trio to undertake such a perilous journey. That the children had been kidnapped from their homes by the government in a wholly misguided attempt to integrate them into white society (as servants, of course) remains one of the most shameful episodes in Australian history.
When it comes to issues of racism and how a nation treats its indigenous people, the former English colony of Australia is on a shameful par with the United States. White settlers began arriving on the continent en masse in 1820 and almost immediately began displacing — and in some cases, slaughtering — the Aborigines, who had been there since prehistoric times.
The British — and, starting in 1901, the Australian — governments adopted a paternalistic attitude toward the aborigines and enforced a barbaric policy whereby mixed, or half-caste, children were removed from their homes and shipped to government-sponsored schools where they learned to be domestic servants and farm laborers. The kidnapped children were forbidden to contact their families, speak their native tongue, or marry full-blooded aborigines (this last prohibition derived from the belief that, over several generations, black features could be bred out of the race). Shockingly, this policy, which affected thousands of youngsters, was in effect until 1971.
The victimized children came to be known as the Stolen Generation. Molly Craig, a feisty woman now well into her eighties, was one of them. Her story was recounted in the 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, written by her daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara. Screenwriter Christine Olsen became obsessed with bringing Molly’s story to the screen — and having Phillip Noyce direct the picture.
The Australian-born Noyce, best known on this side of the Atlantic for blockbuster Hollywood fare such as Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games, and The Bone Collector (as well as the upcoming The Quiet American), has returned to his geographic and emotional roots with this project. The result is an extraordinary saga, which nonetheless fails to connect on an emotional level as effectively as it might have.
The film opens in 1931, when Molly (Everlyn Sampi) was fourteen. She, her eight-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their ten-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) were forcibly taken from their mothers and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement by order of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Chief Protector (talk about a euphemism) of Aborigines in Western Australia. Molly immediately began to plot her escape and, unwilling to leave her more pliant sister and cousin behind, bullied them into accompanying her.
Relying on her wits and intelligence and the occasional kindness of strangers, Molly led the girls across 1,500 miles of inhospitable and arid terrain. Their saving grace was the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a chain-link fence built two decades before, which bisected the island-nation from north to south in an attempt to keep hordes of voracious rabbits (innocently introduced by the British and as destructive as locusts) from devastating the continent.
As soon as Neville learned of the girls’ escape, he sent out search parties, relying most heavily on Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an aboriginal tracker with a perfect record for finding runaways. The case became an embarrassment for the government.
The story itself is absolutely amazing and the sense of outrage it evokes is universal, but director Noyce faces a difficult task in that once the story is set in motion there is very little action, other than walking shots of the girls, and almost no dialogue. Focused on the task at hand, Molly had no time for emotion, and it is the girls’ unusual stoicism that will keep some viewers from totally embracing the film.
The actors, many of whom are nonprofessionals, are wonderful. Particularly impressive is Sampi, a complete novice who plays the lead role of Molly. Eleven years old when she made the film, she proves a tough, unsentimental figure who manages to suggest a hidden vulnerability kept purposefully in check. The story is closer to the young actress than most viewers will know. Her mother, Glenys, is a member of the Stolen Generation, abducted from her home when she was four. For Everlyn and many of the other people associated with this film, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a living history.