Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

rabbit-proof fence film review

Imagine that a nearly invincible invader usurped your country, deemed you unfit to raise your own children, and forcibly moved them to camps where they were trained to become servants of the invaders. That describes official policy in Australia from 1905 to 1971 towards half-caste Aboriginal children. Now known as the Stolen Generations, the number of children removed from their families is estimated to be between 20,000 to 100,000. The film is based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, which is an account of her mother Molly Craig’s abduction and relocation to the Moore River Native Settlement, some 1,000 miles from her family. She escapes along with her younger sister Daisy and cousin Gracie with the intention of returning home on foot, following a wire fence that stretched from the north coast to the south coast of Western Australia.

Besides the incredible story and its historical significance there are several serendipitous factors that contribute to making this an excellent film. Australian born Hollywood director Phillip Noyce met fellow Australian Christopher Doyle in Taiwan where he was hired as an interpreter for Noyce. Doyle confided his dream of being a cinematographer to Noyce and the two kept in touch. Doyle eventually realized his dream, winning great acclaim for his work on In the Mood for Love (2000). For this film he used different film stocks and processing methods effecting a harsh quality to the Moore River Settlement scenes and the subsequent journey through the Outback whereas the scenes in which the children are with their family have a lush, soothing aspect. This being an independent production, there wasn’t much money allocated for a score but Peter Gabriel turned down a more lucrative offer to score this film because he felt drawn to the story and relished the opportunity to provide atmospheric music for the long stretches of the film that have very little dialogue. The music is ambient, incorporating Aboriginal instruments and voices and even sounds of nature recorded during filming which were played back at different speeds and processed in different ways. Much of the film’s emotional wallop can be attributed to Gabriel’s contribution.

By far the most crucial element on which the film depended was the casting of the three leads: Molly, Daisy, and Gracie. There were no professional Aboriginal child actors so Noyce interviewed thousands of children all over Australia. Everlyn Sampi, age 11, was chosen to play Molly, Tianna Sansbury, age seven, replaced Noyce’s original choice for Daisy shortly before shooting began, and Laura Monaghan, age 10 was chosen to play Gracie. None of the girls had even seen a film before much less acted in one. Noyce’s task was to make them feel at ease in front of the camera and coax natural performances from them which he certainly did. Veteran actor David Gulpilil, whose first film appearance was the lead role in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), plays Moodoo, an Aboriginal tracker out to find the girls. The behind the scenes documentary included on the Lions Gate DVD edition of the film reveals that Sampi suffered a crisis of confidence a few days before shooting began. She ran away and tried to book herself a flight home. In a 2013 interview she disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted at the age of eight causing her to lose her self-esteem which led to drinking, smoking, thieving, and suicidal thoughts. She felt she wasn’t qualified to be in the film because of what had been done to her. Happily, the overwhelmingly positive response to her performance dispelled the self-loathing though her life after the film hasn’t been entirely trouble-free. Her only other forays into acting are a few guest appearances on an Australian television miniseries. Like Molly, Sampi prefers to be with her own people and doesn’t like being told what to do by white people.

The film has sparked some controversy in Australia where it is shown to schoolchildren as a teaching aid. Conservative journalist Andrew Bolt and historian Keith Windschuttle claim that the film is historically inaccurate, that children were rarely taken forcibly, and that the children were uncared for in their original environment and engaging in underage sex with whites. As a matter of fact, Molly, Daisy, and Gracie did leave voluntarily according to Pilkington’s book but Bolt’s claims have been widely discredited by historians who accuse him of historical denialism. Studies have shown that the removed children are no better off than the children who were not removed. The social positions in white society of both groups is about the same and according to one inquiry, an estimated 17% of the girls and 8% of the boys were sexually abused while in an institution, at work, or living with a foster family. The arrival of white settlers in Australia has been nothing short of a calamity to its indigenous people. An estimated 90% of the population was wiped out between the years 1788 and 1900 due to the spread of disease and warfare with whites. The child removal policy is yet another shameful chapter in the history of the migration of European settlers to the New World and their attempts to convert indigenous people to their supposedly superior way of life.

★★★★★★★★★☆ (9/10)

Rabbit-Proof Fence at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 Rabbit-Proof Fence is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.