#109 Rabbit-Proof Fence
(2002, Phillip Noyce)
“If only they would understand what we are trying to do for them”
There are some aspects of human history that just seem so absurd, it’s hard to believe they actually happened. History has shown that time and time again there is someone out there using some kind of bizarre twisted logic to oppress a smaller group of people, and almost always the logic is impossible for a decent mind to grasp.
Let’s take the issue of the “Stolen Generations”, groups of Aborigines in Australia that, to this day, have no connection to their real families or their history thanks to the misguided efforts of white Australians looking to “improve” the lives of natives by stealing their children and forcing them to marry whites. The belief was that over the generations the mixed race children would continue to have children with other white Australians, ultimately “breeding out the black”. This program carried on as late as 1970, which is probably the worst part of all this.
And so, Rabbit-Proof Fence. It’s the true story of three young girls taken from their mother in the Outback and taken to a camp designed to prepare them for life among the whites. Naturally, the camp is horrible so, led by Molly, the eldest, the girls escape the camp and plan to follow the rabbit-proof fence back home to their mother.
Now, even though the film-makers were working with a real story, and there is clearly plenty of material to work with regarding the Stolen Generations, the movie itself feels flat. One key reason for this is that it’s hard to feel sympathetic towards the girls’ plight for the most part. While it is horrible that these girls were plucked from their home and held prisoner due to the colour of their skin, the movie rarely gives off a tone that they were suffering from their treatment.
Part of the problem is that we spend so little time at the camp. A couple of crowded dormitory scenes, an almost surreal scene where AO Neville, the camp director (Kenneth Branagh) inspects the colour of the children’s skin to determine their intelligence (yes, really) and a scene where a girl is berated for running away to see her boyfriend. Apart from the inspection scene, none of this seems particularly traumatic. Even the girl being berated doesn’t feel any worse than any child being told off for doing something wrong.
And this is the problem because the real camps were clearly not nice places (the very concept of them is pretty horrible) and the movie doesn’t seem to try and show this. It’s very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and pretty emotionless despite its subject matter. Even when the kids decide to leave the camp, it comes across as if they just want to go off and explore the Outback rather than making a conscious decision to prison break from awful circumstances.
The children’s struggle in the Outback isn’t really demonstrated too well either. While the girls were of Aboriginal descent and therefore more used to the Outback environment, Australia is still mostly a desert, and they are still children, so they would have certainly had a harder time coping than the movie seems to suggest. Signs of severe hunger or thirst don’t really crop up until near the end of their journey, which is odd because there are suggestions the journey was miles long and could have taken days on foot.
Maybe it’s the acting that makes the movie feel flat. I found it difficult to sympathise with the children due to their often very bland performances. While yes, they are children, I have already reviewed movies with child actors that have been a lot more interesting. Even the similarly inexperienced child actors in Slumdog Millionaire did a much better job than the children here, and Lina Leandersson (another child actress with one film credit to her name) was fantastic in Let The Right One In, so there is no excuse for the flat performances here.
I also felt that the movie didn’t really go into the “breeding program” more, and failed to examine the misguided views that white Australians held at the time. It also failed to investigate the full implications of the Stolen Generations or the events that led to the program’s closure. There was so much material that just seemed to be ignored, and due to the film’s short length, investigating this kind of thing further wouldn’t have extended the film to unwatchable levels.
Rabbit-Proof Fence isn’t necessarily a bad film, it’s just poorly executed considering what it’s working with. There are some fantastic performances from Kenneth Branagh and David Gulpilil as camp tracker Moodoo, but it’s not enough to recommend this as a great movie.
Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Ningali Lawford, David Gulpilil & Kenneth Branagh
Written by Doris Pilkington Garimara (novel) & Christine Olsen
Produced by Phillip Noyce & Christine Olsen
Music by Peter Gabriel
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by Veronika Jenet & John Scott
Favourite Scene: Neville explains the details of his plan, rather calmly stating that he wishes to breed out the black in the Aboriginal communities and that it’s to help them. It’s almost chillingly surreal, and Branagh is fantastic
Scene That Bugged Me: I’m still not entirely sure how the girls managed to evade their pursuers at the end of the movie, you know
Watch it if: You want a decent starting point for information about the Stolen Generations
Avoid it if: You want an in-depth look into the Stolen Generations