Pros: Strong anti-racism theme; inspirational story; good performances; beautiful cinematography and soundtrack
Cons: Some may find the simplicity of the story boring
This film would have been part of my August exploration of Australian films, but the DVD was slow to arrive. It's a lovely addition to my experience with films from down under and the handiwork of Australian native Phillip Noyce.
Historical Background: Director Phillip Noyce was born April 29th, 1950 in Griffith, Australia. When he was 12, his family moved to Sydney. After attending a program featuring the work of independent filmmakers, Noyce started making his own. His first film, when he was just 18, was a short entitled Better to Reign in Hell (1968). He began the study of law, but his film hobby gradually turned into his profession. After transferring into fine arts, he helped to operate a filmmakers' cooperative. Later, in 1972, he enrolled in the inaugural class at the newly formed Australian Film and Television School. While still a student, he directed more shorts and a documentary entitled Castor and Pollux, which won the Rouben Maroulien award at the Sydney Film Festival. Noyce's first film as a professional was God Knows Why, But It Works (1975), a documentary about a Greek doctor who worked with the Aborigines. His first fictional feature, Backroads, followed two years later. Noyce's international breakout film was his fifth, the superb psychological thriller, Dead Calm (1989). That led to an invitation to work in Hollywood, where Noyce had mixed results, including some duds (e.g., The Bone Collector (1999)) and some good quality action films (e.g., Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both starring Harrison Ford as CIA agent Jack Ryan, and The Saint (1997), starring Val Kilmer as Simon Templer). Even with the good films, Noyce was sacrificing some of his personal artistic voice in the process of going commercial. Noyce rediscovered that voice after making the long trek back home, much like the central trio of characters that would be featured in his homecoming film: Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). Later that year, Noyce returned to the U.S. to make The Quiet American. Noyce currently has a film, Hotstuff, and a television series, Brotherhood, in the works and two other films announced, American Pastoral and The Bielski Brothers.
The Story: It is 1931 in Western Australia where aboriginal culture is rubbing shoulders with white settlements and farms. The Australian government has adopted racist policies aimed mainly at preventing the genesis of a "third race" of half-caste (mixed race) individuals. Under the eugenics code of the authorities, mixed-race children are to be removed from aboriginal influence, raised in training schools for work as laborers or domestics, and integrated into the European-based white society. They will be permitted to marry only whites, rather than other mixed race individuals or aborigines, to ensure that the blackness is bred out of them within a couple of generations. Most of these half-caste children live with aboriginal mothers (their fathers having long since departed), so removing them from aboriginal influence means forcibly kidnapping them from their mothers. Most of the fathers of the children had been workers brought to the outback to construct the so-called "rabbit-proof fence," designed to separate the wilds (where rabbits and aborigines alike run free) from the farmlands of the whites. Spanning the entire continent from north to south, it is touted as the world's longest fence.
In the small village of Jigalong, three half-caste children, sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi), age 14, and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), age 8, and 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are kept hidden by their respective mothers and grandmother, Frinda (Myarn Lawford), but are ultimately spotted by the local Constable, Riggs (Jason Clarke). Under orders from A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the government appointed "protector" of all half-castes, the three children are wrenched from their family and shipped off to the training school at Moore River, some 1200 miles south of their home. There, they are housed in a crowded dormitory with many other half-caste girls, with only a pot in which to relieve themselves. They are taught English, Christian prayers, and how to perform domestic chores. Mr. Neville (whom the children call Mr. Devil) singles out the children of lightest skin color for education at a school in preparation for possible adoption by a white family. The girls who run away never get very far. They are hunted down by Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an aborigine tracker, returned to the training school, and thrown into solitary confinement as punishment.
Nevertheless, Molly is determined to return to her home and family, with her sister and cousin in tow. She is resourceful and trained for survival in the outback. She also knows how to cover their tracks. Using the rabbit-proof fence to guide their travels, Molly undertakes a trek that will ultimately span nine weeks. From time to time, sympathetic aborigines and even white settlers provide them with aid, but they are also pursued by Moodoo and at risk of being intercepted by waiting policemen. The kids sometimes also benefit from dumb luck. The outcome is uncertain and even if they succeed in reaching their home and family, they are at risk of being recaptured and returned to the Moore River training school. I won't reveal the outcome except to say that it is not the same for all three of the girls.
Themes: There's no mistaking that the theme of this film is racism of the most blatant and abhorrent kind. Mr. Neville periodically enunciates the policies of the government for which he works. Although he obviously believes that the policies are for the good of the children ("In spite of himself, the native must be helped"), the policies ultimately rest on the premise that the aborigines are inferior (rather than simply different) and that any trace of aboriginal genes in a person are a stain that needs to be flushed out by corrective breeding over a number of generations. Not only is that viewpoint morally unsustainable, it is also scientifically unsound. Intermarriage among disparate racial and ethnic groups has occurred throughout history, resulting in new racial mixes, sometimes with the complete assimilation of a minority group into a larger genetic population. For example, Scandinavians who settled in coastal Ireland and Scotland in early times were ultimately genetically assimilated into the Celtic stock of Irish or Scottish people and disappeared as an identifiably separate genetic group. Yet, those Scandinavian genes are still represented in some measure in the Celtic peoples of today. Genetic mixing of that type typically strengthens a genetic pool by creating more variety in the population with which natural selection can then operate over many generations to enhance the capabilities of that ethnic group. Contrary to what Hitler believed about the advantage of maintaining racial purity, the reality is that ethnic groups with a hearty mix of genetic resources typically fare better over the long haul than purer genetic strains. Though forced assimilation is a repugnant policy, natural assimilation proceeds continuously, at a slow but inexorable pace, through the agency of voluntary intermarriages, by race or ethnicity. As the world continues to become a smaller place, the distinctions between the three major racial groups in the world and ethnic groups within those races will become increasingly blurred, with more and more individuals occupying the spaces between categories. In the meantime, many mixed race people will continue to struggle psychologically with issues of personal identity.
From another vantage point, the theme of this film could be described as a testament to the indomitable human spirit. Molly exhibits a fierce determination and defiance that could serve as a model for any young person. Molly intuitively understands the wrongness of the governmental policy that has separated her from her mother and no amount of legalistic or pseudo-scientific gibberish is going to convince her otherwise. It is uncommon to find a hero of such proportions at any age, but to discover it in a 14-year-old is truly inspirational. As for the Australian government, on the other hand, the persistence of such a heinous racist policy as late as 1970 certainly ought to be a matter of shame for all concerned.
Production Values: The screenplay for this film was written by Christine Olsen, based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, who was daughter of Molly Craig, the story's protagonist. The novel, entitled Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, was based on the true-life experience of Molly, her sister Daisy, and her cousin Gracie. Noyce manages to reveal a lot of the story through the visuals. Expository dialog dominates only among the characters of European ancestry. There is also some judicious use of voiceover narrative. Noyce does an excellent job maintaining an appropriate balance between the narrative and the visual splendor of the Australian outback, taking advantage of the beauty but never letting it dominate the film's message. Noyce is also adroit in letting the film's sociopolitical message evolve naturally from the evidence inherent in the story, rather than pounding viewers over the head with the obvious or loading the message up with emotional weight though unnecessary manipulations. One of Noyce's most successful devices in this film is the subtle spiritual bond implied between the tracker, Moodoo, and Molly. Moodoo develops a respect for the young girl's resourcefulness and understands it as a measure of her determination to return to her rightful place beside her mother.
The cinematography provided by Christopher Doyle is lovely. He had the stark and spacious Australian outback with which to work, but made the most of it as well. There's a particularly magnificent shot near the end when several of the principal characters are silhouetted against a deep azure skyline. The musical score, written by Peter Gabriel, features aboriginal melodies integrated with European-style orchestration. The result is quite haunting.
The three Aborigine girls who play the trio of fugitives, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, were well cast. Each has a sadness in their facial expression and their eyes that is heartrending. Sampi is the film's clear star, thrilling viewers with her proto-feminist confidence, self-sufficiency, and courageousness. The dark-skinned David Gulpilil, who plays Moodoo, is an old favorite of mine. I've seen him previously in Walkabout (1971), The Last Wave (1977), and "Crocodile" Dundee (1986). Gulpilil has very little dialog in this film but manages to convey his thoughts and feelings through his expressive face and eyes.
Kenneth Branagh does commendable work as the villain in the piece, avoiding any trite demonizing of his character and letting the situation and the dialog speak for itself. Branagh's other work has included parts in Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Wild Wild West (1999), and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Jason Clarke is effective in a supporting role as Constable Riggs.
Bottom-Line: The Miramax DVD includes a nice selection of extras. A commentary track is available featuring Phillip Noyce, Peter Gabriel (who wrote the musical score), actor Kenneth Branagh, screenwriter Christine Olsen, and author of the source novel, Doris Pilkington Garimara. There's also a documentary entitled "Following The Rabbit-Proof Fence." The video transfer provides a widescreen format, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. There was a recurrent minor flaw in the soundtrack, at least on my copy, resulting in a brief bit of static every ten seconds or so. English captions are provided for the hearing impaired but there are no other subtitle options. Scene selection is available as well as some sneak previews. This is a spiritually and emotionally uplifting kind of film, despite the bleakly racist political climate that provided the premise. I heartily recommend this lovely movie.