Rabbit-Proof Fence: "A True Story"?

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Rabbit-Proof Fence: "A True Story"?


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


The Australian-born Hollywood film director Phillip Noyce built most of his career on thrillers and action adventures, but this year he has simultaneously released onto the market two highly political films. One is his adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American set in Vietnam in the 1950s. In Noyce's hands, the film outdoes even the novelist's anti-Americanism and support for the Communists then trying to take control of the country.

The second film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is ostensibly an adventure story of female bravery and ingenuity in which three Aboriginal girls escape from an oppressive institution in Western Australia and make a fifteen-hundred-mile journey back to their home. In reality it is a work every bit as politically committed as Greene's. If anything, the anti-Australianism of the latter film outdoes the anti-Americanism of the former.

Rabbit-Proof Fence opens by declaring it is "a true story." Its script is a combination of a fictionalized memoir written by Doris Pilkington, whose mother was one of the three runaways, plus the 1997 report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, entitled Bringing Them Home. The latter is possibly the most contentious government document ever published in Australia. The commission claimed that Aboriginal child-removal policies from the 1930s to 1970 amounted to "genocide" and that the Australian government owed those affected a public apology plus large amounts of monetary compensation. Writing in The Washington Post on February 2, 2003 the Melbourne academic Robert Manne endorsed the report and commended the film: "No episode in the country's history" Manne wrote, "is more ideologically sensitive than the story of what are now called the `stolen generations.'"

The film depicts a typical scene portrayed by the report. In 1930, a policeman forcibly removes screaming children from their mother at Jigalong in the north-west of the continent. They are conveyed under brutal conditions to the Moore River Native Settlement, an institution resembling a concentration camp. The children are half-caste Aborigines and the rationale for their removal is justified by the chief protector of natives in Western Australia, an English-born public servant named A. O. Neville, played in the film by Kenneth Branagh. He explains to a group of white ladies that his objective is to "breed out the color" by separating half-caste children from other Aborigines.

He believes the declining full-blood Aboriginal population is doomed to die out. The number of half-castes, though, are rapidly increasing and threatening the political ideal of a White Australia. Half-caste children who remain with their mothers in blacks camps are likely to breed back into the Aboriginal population. If, however, they can be removed while children and then reared in institutions, they will marry other half-castes, quarter-castes, or whites. Eventually, this eugenics-inspired policy would see the Aboriginal race virtually eliminated. According to the Human Rights Commission report, between 1910 and 1970 these policies caused from ten to thirty per cent of all Australian Aborigines to be forcibly removed from their families. Using definitions adopted by the United Nations, it said this amounted to genocide.

The three girls who star in the film represent Aboriginal resistance to these plans. They escape the settlement and are pursued by the authorities, who use all the modern world's communications and transportation technology at their disposal. By following the rabbit-proof fence, however--which was built to keep a rabbit plague in the east from spreading to the farming and grazing lands of the west coast--and by trusting their native ingenuity and knowledge of their environment, two of the girls eventually make it back home.

Australian audiences for the film have been invariably moved by the girls' plight, made angry at their white oppressors, and left in tears at the heroism of their great trek. …

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