In 1931, three aboriginal girls escape after being plucked from their homes to be trained as domestic staff and set off on a trek across the Australian Outback.
Rabbit-Proof Fence takes as its subject the forced removal and ‘re-education’ of mixed-race Aboriginal children in early twentieth-century Australia. Given this backdrop, we might expect the film’s title to be metaphorical, and indeed it is – though not necessarily in the way we might expect. Dividing the whole of Western Australia, the fence was put up in the early 1900s to separate the state’s infamous plague of rabbits from arable land. In Rabbit-Proof Fence, though, the man-made barrier does not divide race from race, or even person from person, but rather provides the route map for a journey home. In the case of Philip Noyce’s film, itself a homecoming of sorts for the Australian director based throughout the 1990s in Hollywood, the fence helps lead three young girls – Daisy, Gracie and the surrogate parent Molly – back to their northwestern home after escaping from the Moor River settlement in which they had been interned: a journey, on foot, of 1,500 miles. This is no mere poetic conceit on the part of the film’s makers: this trip, remarkably, did take place, and is the basis of Doris Pilkington’s 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Yet the film’s central route provides a suitable image for the children’s perspective on the world, and above all, a resistance to the spatially and racially informed segregation policies of the period.
The epic canvas of the film, which begins with striking overhead shots of the Australian outback as a kind of scorched abstract painting, is the location for a relatively short (90 minutes) and in structural terms very simple story. At the film’s opening, the young girls are marked for removal and future integration into ‘civilised’ white society by A.O. Neville, the ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ (a post the real-life Neville held from 1915 to his retirement in 1940). Once established at the settlement, where they are forced to abandon their mother tongue in favour of English language and etiquette, the three children manage to make a break for freedom and begin the long walk home. Along their trip – for which the fence, thousands of miles along the way, provides the link – they must outwit not only the increasingly reluctant police staff under the orders of Neville, but also the sharper and more effective senses of Moodoo: an Aborginal ‘tracker’ whose main task is to hunt down and return escapees.1 Essentially a tale of endurance and will under the most extreme of conditions and circumstances – Noyce, along with his director of photography Christopher Doyle, take pains to evoke the parched and shelterless terrain through which the girls walk – the film, sold and distributed internationally by the American company Miramax and veteran British producer Jeremy Thomas, struck a chord with filmgoers beyond its country of origin.
If international audiences warmed to its story of courage and resilience, in Australia the film’s production and release was not without controversy. Funded by the Australian Film Finance Corporation, Rabbit-Proof Fence was made in the wake of the 1997 Royal Commission for the investigation of, amongst other things, the ‘stolen generations’ described in the film, and was in tune with the popular message of historical revision and apology central to the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony (the games at which Aborignal athlete Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic torch, and later became the first athlete of Aboriginal descent to win an individual gold medal). Because of its overt condemnation of a government policy enacted as late as 1971, and its implicit attack on decades of historical whitewashing, the film became the subject of conservative and extremist criticism both during its production and on its subsequent release (Petzke 2007: 235–6). Such negative publicity made Rabbit-Proof Fence a subject of national discussion, and may have helped it become – almost without precedent for a film on this subject – the second most popular domestic film of the year.
That the success of Rabbit-Proof Fence makes it something of a phenomenon only reflects, of course, the limited nature of such representations within the longer history of Australian cinema. The high-profile status (amongst critics, if not necessarily for paying audiences at the time of release) of films such as Walkabout (1971) or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), both of which feature Aborigines as key protagonists, only emphasises their relatively unusual subject matter. In her 1993 report on Aboriginal representation in cinema (actually written at the request of the Australian Film Commission), Marcia Langton argues that the narrow range of available imagery in the mainstream gives rise to a vicious circle of incomprehension. As she writes: ‘Critics find it difficult to discuss Aboriginal works because of an almost complete absence of critical theory, knowledge of, and sensibility towards Aboriginal film and video production’; and yet it is precisely from ‘[f]ilm, video and television … that most Australians “know” about Aboriginal people’ (Langton 1993: 23, 33). Films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, then, about a young Aborigine driven to mass murder by systematic injustice, may merely have confirmed prevalent racist conceptions of ‘beserk boongs hacking to death white ladies’ (Colin Johnson, quoted in O’Regan 1996: 59), notwithstanding the film’s subsequent critical recuperation. Yet Langton also makes the interesting point that ‘correct’ representations, and in particular the conviction that only Aboriginals can create ‘right’ or ‘true’ representations of Aboriginal life, itself carries racist assumptions about the Aboriginal people’s mutual similarity and collective otherness to the foreign observer (1993: 27).
From this perspective, the marriage of RabbitProof Fence’s story with a white male Hollywood director is informed not just by commercial pragmatism, but also by a desire to move beyond the closed circle of ‘correct’ representation. Peter Gabriel’s score, for example, in the same vein as his various ‘world music’ collaborations throughout the 1990s, fuses indigenous motifs into an epic, globally resonant soundscape. This effort to make the universal out of the particular (a key to success in global cinema markets) characterises the whole film. As their journey is readable within familiar generic frameworks, especially that of the road movie or the prison-break drama, the girls’ typicality, not their difference, is accentuated. But also, despite its apparent aim of representing the hidden side of Australian history, the story of Rabbit-Proof Fence is actually at one with the very Australian cultural myth of the underdog: what Ingo Petzke calls the ‘little Aussie battler’, exemplified amongst other figures by the outlaw Ned Kelly (2007: 239).
Combined with the fact that the film draws on a fascination with the wilderness, and in particular with a form of wandering – concepts which, Petske suggests, are ‘deeply enshrined in the Australian psyche’, from the song Waltzing Matilda to the Mad Max films (ibid.) – Rabbit-Proof Fence is not so much an ‘unofficial’ representation as an archetypical piece of Australian national cinema. Or more accurately, it is national cinema in the sense that national cinemas do not represent the nation as such, but rather contribute to an imaginary construction of the nation through and as myth; narrative forms which, to follow the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1968), provide imaginary solutions to social contradictions. Like the Hollywood Western for an increasingly urban and later suburban American population, the Australian outback film has clearly been a powerful object of romantic identification or phantasmic projection for a largely coastal (and globally diasporic) metropolitan population. Similarly, heroic underdogs on the wrong side of authority’s mistreatment have typically provided a powerful imaginary outlet for anti-Imperialist sentiment; be it the human cannon fodder ordered over the top by British officers in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, or the honest Aussie cricketers battered and bruised by the unsporting tactics of the English captain in the TV miniseries Bodyline (1984). This is a practice described by Tom O’Regan as the cinematic ‘dedominionizing’ of Australia (1996: 67–8).
Rabbit-Proof Fence’s screenwriter Christine Olsen has claimed her determination to bring Phillip Noyce on board (going so far as to track down the director’s private Hollywood telephone number) was influenced by the way his films offer an unbiased and human view of all protagonists.2 This is a fine intention, though it is arguably not so obvious in this particular work. British actor Kenneth Branagh brings his customary subtlety and intelligence to the role of Neville: a man who, as Branagh portrays him, was driven by an apparently well-meaning colonialist conviction that civilisation through ethnic ‘whitening’ was a good thing for all concerned. A possible shortcoming of the film, though, is that it does not provide the space for a more detailed portrait, in the way a documentary or a longer television series based on the events might have been able to do. As a result, Neville inevitably comes across as a sort of sophisticated child catcher, albeit a fairly articulate one; a view encouraged by the way he is frequently filmed through tilted camera angles, expressionistically offsetting the perpendicular lines of his monochromatic office. The effect of this, in distinct contrast to the fluid, luminous images of the three girls’ world, is to evoke Neville’s British bureaucratic mindset as a kind of derangement, a world apart from the ‘natural’ landscape inhabited by Daisy, Grace and Molly.
This decision to film the two respective worlds in different modes nevertheless generates what are, in terms of the history and politics of representation, very appropriate visual effects. The separation of the Aborigine’s and the coloniser’s space – on the one side, warm elemental tones of earth, sky and flora, on the other, the cold geometry of white civilisation – is also a distinction between ways of seeing. While our first glimpse of the three girls sees them clambering and climbing via close, floating camera movements, the first view from ‘outside’ is a long shot from the perspective of the police constable who will later take them away. This shot therefore establishes a detached, clinical and above all ‘ethnographic’ point of view: the sort of ‘othering’ vision that underpinned much of the colonial project, and which is most obviously represented in this film by Neville, who at one point provides a photographic slide show for the educational benefit of middle-class metropolitan ladies.
Significantly, then, the world from the three girls’ viewpoint is not so much represented by a photographic vision – symptomatic of the technology of Empire – but by an idea of non-visual sensory connectivity underscored by Gabriel’s music, but most pointedly represented by the sense of touch. When at one point the girls grasp the wire of the rabbit-proof fence, a reverse shot shows Molly’s mother doing the same thing, as if the gesture physically bypasses and transcends distance and authority. As film theorists such as Laura Marks (2000) have discussed, the emphasis in film on touch and tactility has a political potential, especially in the representation of marginality or exile, partly in its resistance to objectifying visual regimes. In this instance, it is especially significant that the physical, tactile object connecting the girls from their home was a government-sanctioned divide, drawn on a map: that most clinical embodiment of man’s (sic) desire to visually order and master the world. It is also notable that, the one and only time that Molly and Neville actually meet (during the girls’ brief residence at Moor River), Neville is seen in a direct point-of-view shot from Molly’s perspective: a distorting, fish-eye image that makes him look like an alien species, accentuating what to Molly (and by implication, us) must be the strange and unfathomable mystery of his being.
1. Moodoo is played by David Gulpilil, Australia’s most well-known Aborigine actor. Gulpilil brings a familiarity and humanity to his performance that accentuates Moodoo’s own ambivalence towards his (enforced) profession.
2. As described on the audio commentary track for the UK DVD.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Australia. Production Company: Rumbalara Films and Olsen Levy. Director: Phillip Noyce. Screenwriter: Christine Olsen. Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle. Editors: John Scott and Veronika Jenet. Music: Peter Gabriel. Cast: Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sainsbury (Daisy), Laura Monaghan (Gracie), Kenneth Branagh (A. O. Neville), David Gulpilil (Moodoo).]
Marcia Langton, ‘Well, I heard it on the radio and saw it on the television … ’, Sydney, Australian Film Commission, 1993.
Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, Durham NC and London, Duke University Press, 2000.
Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, London and New York, Routledge, 1996.
Ingo Petzke, ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’, in Geoff Mayer and Keith Beattie (eds), The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, London: Wallflower, 2007, pp. 233–9.
Dora Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1998.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, London: Penguin, 1968.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.