Bechdel Test Canon: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence poster

My first thought about today’s entry may be the misreading of an ugly American that eclipses the film’s larger purpose. Phillip Noyce’s 2002 feature Rabbit-Proof Fence focuses on the true story of three “half-caste” Aboriginal girls who escape from a re-education camp in 1931. Screenwriter Christine Olsen adapted Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, which she wrote in tribute to her mother Molly Craig, who serves as the protagonist and narrator.

The film functions as a reminder of Australia’s racist history. It hopes to educate people that such inhumane initiatives as these camps, which cleaved families for the sake of upholding dangerous ideals like racial purity, existed as law until the 1970s. Though not beloved by me, I think Rabbit-Proof Fence would pair well with John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, an outback Western about British attempts to tame the country at the close of the 19th century that has peripheral concern with the harsh treatment of Aboriginal groups by white citizen ex-patriots of the United Kingdom.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice its release date, its distributor, and dim star wattage. Miramax released the picture. My hunch is that co-founder Harvey Weinstein didn’t believe in its stateside critical potential, despite the film’s inclusion of Peter Gabriel as score composer, Christopher Doyle as cinematographer, and Kenneth Branagh in an integral supporting role. The executive is notorious for pushing release dates toward the end of the year and erecting elaborate Oscar campaigns, causing some detractors to claim that he engineered Oscar wins for Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet (who won Best Actress for The Reader, an odious film distributed by the Weinstein Company). Given the film’s purpose, content, and source material, it’s fairly surprising that a film that so clearly qualifies as a prestige picture got snubbed during America’s awards season, at least relative to how the film performed in its home country and on the international awards circuit. But when its buried February release date and lack of name actors are factored in, a cynical mind can infer what happened.

Another concern that occupied my mind during my viewing was white guilt. Given the subject matter, I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I actually did. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a solid effort. Doyle’s camerawork is predictably peerless, if not unfairly compared with his inspired work for Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Branagh plays Western Australian Aborigines protector A.O. Neville with the subdued grandiloquence of a bureaucrat who believes the racist laws he enforces are for the good of these “uncivilized” people. I have misgivings about Branagh, who tends to give measured performances. I often prefer him channeling these tendencies into camp, like when he channels Foghorn Leghorn to play mustache-twirling ex-Confederate Dr. Arliss Loveless in the deplorable Wild Wild West—even if my enjoyment is tempered by my disdain for crip drag. But he’s fine here. I’m not in love with Gabriel’s score, as I tend to meet his world music explorations with reservation, but it doesn’t distract the way that, say, Hans Zimmer’s music overtakes whatever production it’s attached to.

A.O. Neville keeping things in order

The film really belongs to Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, who are great. They play sisters Molly, Daisy, and cousin Gracie. The siblings live with Gracie, their mother, and grandmother in Jigalong, a western town, and are wrenched from their home early in the film. They are relocated to the camp at Moore River, forced to sing Christian hymns, learn English, and are trained to be servants for white Australians. They escape soon after their arrival and the film devotes its remaining hour to documenting their 1,500 mile trek back home.

Daisy, Molly, and Gracie's capture

While I think their performances are commendable, my main problem with Rabbit-Proof Fence is that I’m not sure if the director and screenwriter believe in the girls’ abilities as actors. Perhaps I rely too heavily on dialogue to convey characterization, as this is a movie with many long pauses and furtive glances. The girls don’t talk much to one another, perhaps suggesting their comfort in each other’s presence or that there are more pressing matters than small talk. A limitation of viewing things on Netflix Instant (as I’m doing with all of this week’s selections) is not having access to a DVD’s supplemental features. Thus, I may use commentary tracks and interviews as a crutch to understand meaning and motivation. But I sensed little differentiation between the girls and had limited access to each girl’s interior world. Again, I may rely too much on dialogue to get a handle on such matters, and may also be taking the particularities of the girls’ native language out of account. Maybe this is because they’re embarking on a dangerous mission to restore their extended family with dire consequences that I couldn’t fully understand at 27, much less as a child. Assuredly the reinterpretation of events from the daughter of a family member skews translation. But I wanted to know more about what these girls were feeling and get a clearer sense of group dynamics than I felt like I gathered.

That said, this lyrical movie does have many profound moments. While the fact that many of them are mitigated by the presence of adult women gives me concern, as I wonder if they were prioritized by the adult film crew because they weren’t confident that the girls could land these moments on their own, they resonate with me as moments of alliance across ethnic and generational lines. Apart from the climax when (most of) the female family unit are reunited, both moments involve meaningful exchanges. One is with a white mother who gives the girls coats to stay warm. The other is with an Aboriginal woman who spent her childhood at a re-education camp.

The film’s final scene needs consideration as well. It features footage of the real Molly and Daisy as adult women. In a voice over delivered in her community’s Martu Wangka dialect, Molly announces Gracie’s death, the subsequent capture of her two daughters by Western Australian authorities, how she brought one of them home by walking the same path she used to escape as a child, and how she never saw that daughter again after she was taken back to a re-education camp. The film ends with a picture of the two sisters as elderly women. It’s a powerful if predictable closing image for a film. While I respected the film more than I outright loved it, its subtle filmmaking and investment in social justice is definitely something Western feminists and allies need to consider and advocate.

by Alyx Vesey
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

I surreptitiously added this

I surreptitiously added this to my mother's Netflix queue because I thought it was such an important movie for her to see (along with The Magdalene Sister--a movie I highly recommend you watch). But when I asked my mother about it, all she could say was, "it was boring." A coworker of mine saw it also on my recommendation and she loved it. She said she couldn't stop crying and also thought the girls were amazing actresses, though at the same time she wished she never saw it because she just couldn't stop thinking about the girls.

I like The Magdelene Sisters

<p>I like <em>The Magdelene Sisters </em>too, Shana. I mentioned it in my post on <em>The Descent</em> because Nora-Jane Noone stars in both. I recommend it to others as well. If this series could go on indefinitely, I'd prioritize putting it in here. The great thing about this series is that there are so many movies to choose from that meet the Bechdel Test--far more than many people may think.</p><p>As to your comments about your mom and co-worker's differing viewpoints about <em>Rabbit-Proof Fence</em>, I seem to occupy some middle ground. I recognize its value and concur that the actresses are great. But there was something about it that I can't quite identify that left me a bit cold. I think it's definitely worth watching and I really want to read the book it's based on now.</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

The sublime and the odious

<em>Rabbit-Proof Fence</em> is a wonderful film. It was a very important part of the Australian national discourse on the need to acknowledge, and apologise to, the "Stolen Generations." In terms of the lack of speech or representation of the "inner world" of the girls, I have always read that as an enactment of a crucial cultural value: not only the importance of your family, your people, but the necessity to return to "country." These values are more important than individual desires.
As for your description of <em>The Reader</em> as "odious": I've always described this film as reprehensible and despicable. But odious might be just the right word for this steaming pile of hate speech.

The more I think about The

<p>The more I think about <em>The Reader</em>, the more I hate it. I remember when I saw it, I just dismissed it as a hack job (I got a lot of mileage out of making fun of the voice over at the end when Kate Winslet's character is learning to read in prison by listening to the recordings Ralph Feinnes' character makes for her). I also remembered Winslet's cameo in <em>Extras</em>, wherein she plays herself as a nun during the Holocaust and makes a cynical comment about how Holocaust = Oscar. Finally, I felt Winslet's performance in <em>Revolutionary Road</em> was far superior. After I thought about it for a week, the more it really bothered me. Ron Rosenbaum's <em>Slate </em>article, which I linked in this piece, taps into all the awful things it represented for me.</p><p>As for <em>Rabbit-Proof Fence</em>, it's certainly a beautiful and purposeful film. One thing that struck me about this Netflix Instant exercise I'm embarking on this week is how watching a film this beautiful is done a disservice by being viewed on a computer screen. And I take your comments about returning to home over individual desires as completely spot-on, DefeatedandGifted. I seem to have buried that when viewing this film. Thanks for your insights!</p>

This has been on my Netflix

This has been on my Netflix list for awhile and I just haven't gotten around to watching it. I do want to see it, but maybe I read the book first.

I read the book, and then saw

I read the book, and then saw the movie. They're quite different... and I definitely preferred the book.

Oh, interesting. This makes

Oh, interesting. This makes me want to check out the book even more now. Out of curiosity, how do they differ from one another?

Having encountered them in

Having encountered them in reverse, Lizzypride, I definitely want to read the book now.

Sampi, Sansbury, and Monaghan as actors

Hi Alyx! I saw this film several years ago as a young teenager and recall some of the behind-the-scenes footage. In particular, there are a couple of things that stood out to me.

First, the director remarked on Everlyn Sampi's behavior prior to shooting the film. Evidently, she was nervous about acting or something to that extent (as I said, it's been several years since I saw the film and so I'm a bit fuzzy on exact details). Sampi actually ran away and then called someone, like a parent or supervisor, back on the set to let them know that she was at a payphone at some location on the other end of town or something like that. The director said that he realized that Sampi had basically gone method (as in method acting) and subconsciously acted out her character's role in real life, and he was impressed and sort of proud about what she'd done. He seemed to enjoy working with the girls, so as to your comments regarding whether or not the girls' acting was fully appreciated, I think that it was to at least a fair extent. In the behind-the-scenes footage, there was a lot of praise for the girls from everybody who had the opportunity to talk about them.

On the other hand, I thought that the girls' emotional response to the scene where they are being kidnapped and taken away from home (in the picture you posted above) was actually traumatic for them. At one point, the behind-the-scenes feature showed what happened after the filming of that scene. The girls were sobbing and extremely disturbed, and they went over to their supervisor? (some woman with whom they closely worked during the filming) all at once to hold onto her and each other as they sought comfort immediately after the cameras stopped rolling. The supervisor talked about how even though the girls had never been through anything like that, they were genuinely upset by doing the scene and how they reacted to it as though it had been real. If an adult actor chooses to do a part that they know will take its emotional toll on them, then I think that's fine because they're adults and can readily consent to participate in emotionally stressful acting roles. However, I think that it's inhumane to subject children to those types of circumstances, especially when it's harder for them to separate the job of acting from their personal emotional experiences even after a scene is played out. For me, it brought up questions about revictimization and what seemed like the unethical way in which the adults ultimately went about involving these girls in the film. Sampi, Sansbury, and Monaghan had never been in a real-life kidnapping situation, but there are obvious issues of racial sensitivity and power imbalances where the creation of that scene was concerned. It reminds me of a news article I once read about a teacher who, in a "lesson" about American slavery, cuffed an African American student to their desk or some other object in the classroom as part of a "demonstration". The student was totally traumatized by the event and a lot of people were outraged that the teacher thought that that was acceptable. I don't know that I object to making films like this one where child actors are somehow involved in the telling of a story that is about genocide, but I think that the filmmakers have to be really careful about how they go about it and sensitive about what they ask of the children.

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