Australian Film Confronts Treatment of Aborigines ; Australians Have Avoided Films Dealing with Aboriginal Issues, But

Article excerpt

When Rod Bishop went to his local movie theater to see a preview of the new Australian film "Rabbit-Proof Fence" he wasn't expecting to find a full house.

But when Mr Bishop, director of the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School, found just four people in the audience for the critically-acclaimed film about three young Aboriginal girls' trek home through the desert, he became a little depressed.

What Bishop ran into was a long-recognized phenomenon in the Australian film industry: Films dealing with Aboriginal issues and themes don't make it at the box office.

The film, which opens in theaters across Australia Thursday and in the US this June, deals with one of the most sensitive subjects in Australia's history, the story of the so-called "stolen generations." They were the thousands of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families as part of government policies that stretched across much of the 20th century.

Their presence was first brought to light for many Australians in a 1997 report by the country's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

It detailed widespread cases of abuse in government- and church- run institutions housing the children and recommended a formal apology to members of the stolen generations.

Since then, the current conservative government's refusal to offer such an apology to the stolen generations has grown into one of the country's rawest domestic issues. But five years after the report, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is the highest-profile effort yet to tackle that issue by way of art.

In Hollywood terms it is a low budget ($10.5 million Australian (about US$5.5 million) production. But it has a Hollywood director - Phil Noyce, an Australian who has directed films like "Patriot Games" and "The Bone Collector"; a Hollywood star in Kenneth Branagh, who plays the man many people see as the architect of the policies that led to the removal of Aboriginal children; and even the backing of Miramax, which bought the film's US and European distribution rights.

The book on which it is based, "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington Garimara, tells the true story of the author's mother, Molly Craig. In the 1930s, Ms. Craig ran away from an institution with her sister and cousin after being taken from her family at age 14. To get home, they followed a fence designed to exclude rabbits - considered vermin in Australia - for some 1,500 miles across the outback. …