Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 91 minutes
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Don’t be fooled by the title: “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is not a Bugs Bunny movie, although it could certainly use a little “What’s Up, Doc?” to pump in some life and energy. “Rabbit-Proof Fence” achieves the impossible by taking one of the most compelling and harrowing stories imaginable and channeling it into one of the most ordinary movies of the year.
The film focuses on one of the more shameful chapters in Australian history. From 1905 through 1971, the Australian government took it upon themselves to abduct the children of its Aboriginal population from their parents and place the children in state-run schools where they learned the job skills to become domestic servants and farm laborers. The concept of civil rights (let alone human rights) was never considered, and complicating matters was the government’s notion that mixed-race Aborigines should be denied the right to marry full-blooded Aborigines, but rather to mate with other mixed-race people and thus dilute the blackness of the population until successive generations became as white as the palest Caucasians. (This idea makes the Nazi program of Lebensborn seem sane in comparison, but that’s another story.)
In any event, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” chronicles the true-life account of how three little girls of mixed-race were taken from the Aborigine family (their white fathers were laborers who long since left them) and were transported in a cage some 1,500 to a state-run school. Clearly displeased with this turn of events, the girls ran away and traveled by foot across rugged and often hostile wilderness back to their home while the Australian police and an Aboriginal tracker attempted to locate them.
Clearly this is a compelling story with great cinematic potential. So what went wrong? To be frank, the three little girls at the center of the tale (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) have absolutely no acting talent whatsoever. Yes, they are cute and photogenic, but ultimately the film boils down to having three pretty ciphers hotfooting it across the outback. It is impossible not to root for them, but the children have no personality and any sympathy for their plight comes from default rather than design. Filmmaker Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Christine Olsen were obviously aware of the girls’ limitation and provided them with only the briefest snatches of dialogue throughout the 90 minute running time. For the most part, their on-screen activities consist of fluttering kitty eyelids and pouting with cutesy petulance. To their credit, the producers decided to cast Aboriginal children–had this been a Hollywood film, they would have probably brought in the Olsen Twins and smeared them with greasepaint.
The film also has a curious habit of watering down the level of racist attitude directed at Aborigines during this time. When the constable arrives to remove the girls, he rather strangely waves a document at their mothers declaring that he is under instructions from superiors to do his dastardly work…as if to exonerate the Australian police from their complicity in government-approved kidnapping and child abuse by reminding everyone they were only following orders. The state schools forbid children to speak their native language, though in the film this is accomplished with a stern-but-not-too-forbidding headmistress cheerfully declaring: “Now, now! None of that jabbering!” As the children remain at large, the media (played by a group of noisy extras barely in camera range) picks up the story and bombards the government official in charge of Aboriginal affairs with demands for statements…yet at no time is any reporter shown on screen championing the cause of Aboriginal rights. Did the media question the fundamentals of these policies or not?
The historic mistreatment of the Aborigines has been an on-going cause of soul-searching and hostility in Australia (tempered by the government’s stubborn refusal to issue a formal apology for centuries of horrible actions), and “Rabbit-Proof Fence” runs away from agitprop in favor of reinventing white Australians as good people with a perverse sense of paternalism but no overt hostility or prejudice to their darker-skinned neighbors. This might be palatable to ensure the film’s commercial success in Australia, but it smacks of ludicrous revisionism to anyone with even a token knowledge of Australian social history.
Still, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is not without its merits, chiefly the beautiful cinematography by the always-reliable Christopher Doyle (who captures the strange beauty of the rugged Australian landscape) and the fine supporting performances by Jason Clarke as the constable with the hideous task of snatching the children from grief-stricken parents and David Gulpilil as the stoic and enigmatic tracker whose pursuit of the children may not be as intense as his employers believe (the tracker’s daughter was among the stolen children in the state school where the girls escaped from). There is even a remarkably restrained performance by Kenneth Branagh as the bureaucrat in charge of Aboriginal affairs; while this character was responsible for policies of blatant racism and cruelty, Branagh keeps his hambone tendencies in check and essays the man’s evil at its most banal level. “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is also blessed with a fine music score by Peter Gabriel that deftly combines traditional Aboriginal and contemporary instrumental traditions (though one should consider why the producers did not give the music score composition to an Aboriginal artist).
About the title: the Australian farmlands were ravaged by rabbits and a series of fences were constructed to keep the furry miscreants out of the carrot patches. The fences ran thousands of miles across the land, and in this story the girls follow one of the fences to find their way home. It should be noted that the destructive rabbits were a 19th century introduction and are not native to Australia…just like another destructive interloper to the land: white people.
Posted on November 25, 2002 in Reviews by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- RABBIT-PROOF FENCE
- PHILLIP NOYCE: JUMPING THE MAINSTREAM FENCE
- THE TRACKER
- PHILLIP NOYCE: JUMPING THE MAINSTREAM FENCE
- BURIED COUNTRY
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