After numerous competent big-budget Hollywood projects—The Bone Collector, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger—director Phillip Noyce returns to his Australian roots to film a competent low-budget film that hopefully will prove to be a tonic. Abbas Kiarostami has proved that film artistry can arise from daily routines in barren deserts of Iran with non-professional actors, so why not Australia? It has a rich cultural background and a history not well known to most of the world, and Noyce draws on this for Rabbit-Proof Fence, a simple true-life story about aboriginal life in 1931.
Additionally, Peter Gabriel chalks up another musical score to rival his eerie Middle Eastern-flavored The Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack, this time incorporating Aboriginal rhythms and sounds that create tension and add atmosphere. So even if the visual imagery falls a bit short, the aural experience exhilarates.
Based on Doris Pilkington's memoirs, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, about her mother's determined flight from an official government camp along with her younger sister and cousin, the film traces their incredible 500 mile journey through the rugged Outback to their aboriginal home. The film's strongest aspect rests with the educational value of its subject. Parallels to 1930's American policy towards its indigenous abound—Native Americans all have Boarding School horror stories describing how government agents snatched them into "educational prisons" and forcefully attempted to assimilate them into mainstream Anglo culture, often whipping children who spoke their native tongue. Australia incorporated the same paternalistic policy, with A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branaugh, one of few professional actors employed) acting as Chief Protector of the Aborigines.
Not deliberately evil, Neville sincerely believes he's acting in the best interests of his charges; at one point his frustrations boil over: "If only they'd understand what we're doing for them." What he wants is to turn them into obedient servants in a civilized white world and give the "half-castes" (the mixed white and black children) a chance to have their future progeny become more white. Neville is a victim of a limited worldview, and a typical Anglo attitude of superiority that holds the "white man's burden" to be an unquestioned fact. Naturally, not all aborigines accepted the governmental policy of the Great White Father and sought to hide their children from government authorities (an action made more difficult with governmental payoffs to cooperative aborigines).
The film opens with young Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and Gracie (Laurie Monaghan)—ages approximately ranging from 8 to 14——being "legally" captured and sent for re-education as domestic servants. The panic, anger, and heartfelt sobbing of the girls' parents feel very authentic, putting a real face on the policy that now looks nearly as barbaric as the slave trading days. Often these children would never see their parents again, and what could be more tragic to a people whose main joys reside in quality family time? The Australian government's legal policies amounted to cultural genocide, leaving "The Stolen Generation" in its wake.
Wisely, Noyce doesn't paint the camp with melodramatic dark tones—one of the nuns actually shows compassion, though she plainly believes the program's purpose benevolent. So do all the camp authorities, who assign duties, enforce the rigid schedule, forbid the children to speak the Aborigine tongue, and punish the run-aways. Noyce makes it plain that the individuals running the program are not evil—it's more a matter of ignorance than anything, and this is systematic. Yet he wisely doesn't dwell on the political and cultural situation, retaining his camera primarily on the girls' plight.
An ultimate survivalist, Molly decides to escape and return home, even though Daisy and Gracie say they like the place. It's just a little 1,500 trek that requires avoiding the expert Aborigine tracker named Moodoo (wonderfully underplayed by David Gulpilil) and heading cross country until locating the rabbit-proof fence that runs across their home further north. Molly, of course, wins out and the three girls set out over the rugged terrain and replay the true-life adventures of old. Ironically, the young non-professional actress playing Molly twice ran away during the project, attempting to get back to her home—filmmaking isn't as exciting as most people believe.
Rabbit-Proof Fence contains flaws that stretch its believability. As smart and clever as Molly is, authenticity is greatly lessened when she and her two companions speak fluent English immediately. Of course, considering the effectiveness of the Australian assimilation pogrom, it would be a huge challenge to find young girls today who could speak an indigenous tongue. So despite any small victory that the rebel Aborigine run-away girls may achieve, obliteration of the Aborigine culture is inevitable. Some visual hints of this process could have added to the impact; instead the filmmaker relies on narrative end-titles to power the emotional jolts.
Granted, Noyce wants to focus on the miraculous flight to freedom and Molly's dogged determination—the majority of footage frames the girls in close-ups and medium shots. But avoiding more details about Neville's motivations besides his racist theories of breeding out the Aborigine blood and showing his routine administrative duties borders on political stereotyping and creating an overly simplistic melodrama akin to Simon Legree chasing Eliza. Since the focus centers on Molly's escape, the filmmaker should present more details to illustrate the struggle—it all comes too easy to be credible. She employs a few simple devices to fool the veteran tracker, and the girls are cruising along without supplies quite effortlessly—save one time when they successfully beg some kangaroo tail off a couple of hunters. Hardly breaking a sweat early in the escape, Molly converses with an Aborigine and drops the line that they've traveled about eight hundred miles so far! Whoa! How the Hell did this happen? We can only speculate.
Despite creating credibility gaps with scanty coverage of the journey Rabbit-Proof Fence is worth the ninety-four minute running time, primarily for educational purposes. Basing the story on an actual person and using non-professionals adds to its realism, but Noyce holds back, reducing its potent raw material to a competent and good film. Hopefully, in time he'll feel more in tune with his native land and allow the audience more intimately into the lives of the indigenous along the lines of Kiarostami—this film is certainly more memorable and potent than Patriot Games!.