Phillip Noyce's Tale of Three Aborigines' Flight to Freedom Has its Limits
With Rabbit-Proof Fence, director Phillip Noyce becomes the latest filmmaker to try to come to terms with the impact colonialism has had on the indigenous peoples of Australia. In so doing, Noyce offers a clear, resounding indictment of Australia's historical treatment of aborigines. He also saddles his film with two significant shortcomings: thin character development, and an outlook that typifies the limitations of well-intentioned liberal critiques of the matter.
Noyce's film attacks a shocking, now-defunct Australian legal policy concerning the rights (or lack thereof) of aboriginal children. Under this law, a government official could remove any aboriginal child from his or her parents' care--something that happened on a massive scale. Children of mixed racial descent were particularly targeted, as children with "white blood" were considered more clever, and thus reared by the government for such glamorous futures as domestic service for the ruling class. These abductions created what is known as "the Stolen Generation" of aboriginal children--a term which seems to contain a final kernel of denial, since the decades under this policy likely scarred several generations.
Based on true events, Fence tells the story of three children stolen from their parents in the 1930s. Under direct orders from Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Australian government kidnaps Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), and relocates them to a distant settlement. But the three bravely escape, and without maps or provisions attempt the 1,500-mile journey home by following the rabbit-proof fence, a massive, ill-conceived structure intended to divide the Australian countryside between farm land and hunting land. Along this path, they try to evade Moodoo (screen veteran David Gulpilil), an aboriginal tracker employed by the settlement to capture runaway children.
Fence works best in exposing the hypocritical mindset of post-colonial oppression. As Neville goes about his daily business--ordering the kidnapping of children and lecturing women's clubs about the inferiority of aborigines--he frequently utters the condescending mantra (to paraphrase): "If only they understood how all this benefits them." Of course, this condescending approach toward the colonized still exists, typified by, for instance, the disastrous lending practices of the World Bank.
However, even if Noyce nudges viewers toward making such connections, he does viewers a disservice by offering caricatures in place of characters. Neville puts a gentle face forward as he embodies institutional evil, but Noyce never explores the inner workings of his mind beyond this superficial contradiction. The mothers of abducted children get a few minutes of onscreen sobbing, but few opportunities for further expression. Even the girls themselves, the focal point of the film, develop surprisingly little individuality.
Moodoo represents even more squandered potential for insight. Gulpilil starred in two remarkable films juxtaposing aboriginal life with the urban lifestyle, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and Peter Weir's The Last Wave. Both films revolved around aboriginal characters with truly human emotional spectrums--nobility and warmth, to be sure, but also humor, lust, duplicity, and rage. Rabbit-Proof Fence summons none of this complexity. We simply take Moodoo for granted as audiences did the Indian guides in old Hollywood Westerns, never speculating what motivation would turn him into an impassive hunter of his own people.
Exacerbating these shortcomings, Noyce made some questionable cultural choices in assembling his film. The casting of Branagh heads this list; the presence of such a famous non-Australian actor distracts from Fence's potential as a work of hard-hitting self-examination. Equally distracting is the presence of music by Peter Gabriel, which voices Noyce's tacit preference for European music that assimilates indigenous sounds over actual indigenous music. Finally, the film is adapted from a book by Doris Pilkington, the real-life daughter of one of this film's heroines, Molly, yet the screenplay by Christine Olsen fails to retain much relevant insight into the girls' view of themselves caught between two conflicting cultures.
For Noyce, whose filmography includes adaptations of not one but two novels by Tom Clancy, failure to produce a completely progressive piece of filmmaking is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, even though Rabbit-Proof Fence exposes a deplorable chapter in human history that demands attention and reparation, it feels more like a benevolent gift to and for the aboriginal people than a work made by and from an aboriginal perspective. Exceedingly rich movies could, and hopefully someday will, be made from that perspective. Until then, this one will have to do.