In Australia, the Aboriginal people were treated by British colonists in much the same way Native Americans were treated in the United States–forced from their homelands to marginal geographic areas, contaminated by European diseases (and liquor) to which they had not previously been exposed, exploited and killed until their numbers were decimated.
But the Australians came up with a special wrinkle all their own. Official government policy declared that all half-caste children should be taken from their kin and land in order to be made white. Rabbit Proof Fence tells the true story of three half-caste girls (a pair of sisters and their cousin) who, in 1931, were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in a camp 1,500 miles away where they were to be trained to be domestics in white households.
Molly, the eldest at 14, her sister Daisy, 8, and their cousin Gracie escape from the camp, elude the tracker who tries to find them, and, by following a long fence built to keep wildlife off of farmlands, find their way home. En route they get assistance from both whites and Aboriginals, but most of the time they live off the land and pursue their journey with extraordinary determination . (They also get to see a half-caste girl like themselves who works in a settler’s home and is sexually abused by the master–the future that might be in store for them.)
From this simple plot structure, screenwriter Christine Olsen and director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, The Bone Collector) have skillfully fashioned an elegantly constructed film that economically tells the story of these girls and fills in the historical context without for a moment being didactic and without falling back on the crutch of voiceovers. Most of the film is seen through the eyes of the girls. Watching them dragged from their wailing mother’s arms is as wrenching an emotional moment as any on screen in recent years. Seeing them doggedly walking across endless miles of barren Australian landscape, with Molly often carrying Daisy on her back, is a testament to the power of their family connection and the gut-level human need for self-determination.
The law created the position of Chief Protector of Aborigines who was charged with implementing the half-caste policy. The position for many years was held by Mr. A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) who both selected these three girls for the program and relentlessly pursued their recapture. The character also serves to express the thinking behind the policy; he actually believes that the Aboriginal could be bred out of the half-castes through generations of intermarriage. There is a sense that, as sorely mistaken as the policy was, there was a degree of sincerity behind it. Neville says, "In spite of himself, the native must be helped." Branagh– tight-lipped, hair slicked back–creates a credible portrait of a true-believing bureaucrat. But it is the three girls, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, who are the soul of Rabbit Proof Fence. The beauty of their clear skin and almond eyes is secondary to the unaffected naturalness of their performances; their understated but profound emotions are expressed in what they do and the look in their eyes, far more than in what they say.
The cinematography of Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American, In the Mood for Love)is up to his usual brilliant standards, helping to create a powerful sense of place.The remarkable soundtrack by Peter Gabriel makes use of the sounds of Aboriginal music and suggests the winds blowing across the desolate wastelands, the heartache of the oppressed, and the spiritual underpinnings of the Aboriginal culture; it’s a soundtrack that perfectly enhances the emotion of the film without overwhelming it.
Olsen and Noyce avoid the obvious trap of sentimentality which could easily sink subject matter such as this. Together they tell an unforgettable story in perfect filmic terms, at the same time memorializing a piece of history that must be remembered so that, perhaps, it will not be repeated.