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.
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.
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.