Political Film Society - Newsletter #151 - December 1, 2002



December 1, 2002


 

Rabbit-Proof FenceAUSTRALIAN "HALF-CASTES" DENIED RIGHTS ALONG THE RABBIT-PROOF FENCE
The longest fence in the world bisects Australia for 1,500 miles. Farmland is on one side of the fence, which thus serves to prevent rabbits from invading the crops; hence the name "rabbit-proof fence." Building and maintaining the fence placed some European settlers into contact with the native population. In 1905, when Australia was under British rule, a growing number of children from mixed European and aboriginal ancestries challenged the "pure race" ideology of the country. Accordingly, the authorities transferred "half-caste" children, as they were called, to schools where they could be taught skills that would enable them to live in the "mainstream." (The catastrophic decline of the native population, which numbered 60,000 in 1877 but only 20,000 in 1937, encouraged the view that aboriginals would eventually die out.) The practice was made a matter of law, and the position of Chief Protector of the Aboriginals was created. A. A. Neville (played by Kenneth Branagh), who served in the role until his retirement in 1940, had the absolute power to determine which "half-castes" would be allowed to "graduate" from the schools in order to play the role of servants for the dominant white settlers. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence, directed by Phillip Noyce, is the story of three girls, aged from 8 to 14, who objected to their forcible removal from their mother in Jigalong to a training camp some 1,200 miles away at the Moore River. When the film begins, the year is 1931. We see young Molly Craig (played by Everlyn Sampi) as a particularly able trapper. Her father, who worked on the fence, could not take his wife into mainstream Australian society, so he left his child under her mother's care.

One day, the authorities kidnap three children, including Molly and her cousins Gracie (played by Laura Monaghan) and Daisy (played by Tianna Sansbury). They are trucked to the Moore River camp, assigned beds in a dorm with other "half-caste" children, washed and scrubbed, and placed in a work environment to learn a domestic skill. But they miss their mother. On their second day of captivity, a girl of the camp who escaped to see her boyfriend at a nearby camp for boys, is returned by a trapper (played by David Gulpilil), an aboriginal employed by the Chief Protector. The errant girl is then whipped with a riding crop, her hair is cut off, and she is locked in a solitary hut adjacent to the place where excrement is dumped. Despite the obvious deterrent to future escapes, the three girls decide to flee that day. Molly cleverly disguises their path so that they cannot be tracked down, and they evade capture for some three months, often with the help of white farmers. A considerable portion of the film focuses on how they proceed on foot through difficult terrain. Eventually, all three are found and returned to the Moore River facility. Titles at the end indicate that there was a second escape and return, that the government finally abolished the practice of treating mixed race children as wards of the state in 1970, and that those victimized by the racist policy are called the "stolen generations." At the end of the film, we see both Molly and Daisy today, thus recognized on the screen for their heroism in defying an injustice. Based on the book of the same title by Molly's daughter, Rabbit-Proof Fence has been nominated by the Political Film Society for two awards--best film exposé and best film on human rights in 2002. Nevertheless, the film has been controversial within Australia, where much of the population was once schooled in a Social Darwinist racist ideology that attempted to legitimate a policy described by an official Australian government report in 1997 as "genocide." MH

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Rabbit-Proof Fence
by Doris Pilkington