We revisit the film that renewed community interest in the Stolen Generations. Explore the story of this vital film.
Dave Crewe

26 May 2015 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2021 - 4:09 PM

Why It’s Important

Rabbit-Proof Fence was warmly received by both audiences and critics upon its release in 2002. Grossing over $16 million at the international box office, the film received a raft of awards – including the AFI Award for Best Film – and positive reviews. On The Movie Show, David Stratton described it as a “bold and timely film about the stolen generations.”

The film tells the true story of three Aboriginal girls (as recorded in Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence)  – Molly Craig, her sister Daisy, and her cousin Gracie (played by Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan in the film) – who are taken from their family in 1931 and sent to Moore River Native Settlement. Their abduction is justified by “Chief Protector of Aborigines” A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) as a solution to “the problem of half-caste” – children with Aboriginal and white heritage. The girls escape from Moore River and make the arduous – and long, stretching over nine weeks – journey home to Jigalong and their families, all along following the titular rabbit-proof fence.

Margaret Pomeranz, while describing Rabbit-Proof Fence as a “very good film”, noted that it “look[ed] at the children, rather than ever getting to know them.” Matthew Dillon’s Metro review makes a similar observation, noting that “we’re a little detached from the main characters”. This approach is somewhat explained by the film’s political agenda. As Larissa Behrendt notes (in her book on the film), “this is the film that took the story of the stolen generations to the world.” Australia had only abandoned its relocation program some three decades earlier, and despite the release of the Bringing them home report, the government at the time – led by John Howard – evinced no interest in apologising to Australia’s indigenous population.

Rabbit-Proof Fence’s importance, then, is as much political as artistic. The three girls are representatives of the real women they play, but they also symbolise the thousands upon thousands of children cruelly removed from their homes.

Release in a time when the Stolen Generations were a contentious issue, the film proved controversial; conservative commentators accused it of misrepresenting the facts. Andrew Bolt sneered at what he regarded as “untruths and exaggerations” and “Aboriginal leaders who falsely claim they were “stolen””. Des Moore and Peter Howson – who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1970s – argued that the film’s depiction of the girls’ “forcible removal” was fictitious and that “Neville acted responsibly.” Such naysayers found themselves on the wrong side of history in wake of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Rabbit-Proof Fence – whose fictionalised elements are all drawn from the accounts of other members of the stolen generations – undeniably played a role in shifting the national conversation around the stolen generations.

What It’s Really About

Benign Neglect

The distance created between the audience and Molly, Daisy and Gracie betrays Rabbit-Proof Fence’s intention to reflect upon the ways in which Australia’s white population failed its native peoples.

Mid-way through the film, the three girls encounter a fence worker (Ken Radley) who tells them they’re actually on the No. 2 fence, heading west, and suggesting a shortcut to reach the northward fence – and home. It’s a useful piece of advice, but scant assistance for three young children alone in the outback. As with the farmer’s wife (Edwina Bishop) who provides the girls with food and clothing, people are prepared to help – but only to the point where it doesn’t inconvenience them. Behrendt ponders the decision to include these scenes:

“What is the film telling us? Is it a sign of benign neglect on the part of white Australians? Does it reflect the ambivalence of an ‘at least we are doing something’ attitude, even if that something is ineffective? Or is the film showing us that although some white Australians in the 1930s might have wanted to help the Aboriginal families being torn apart, they too felt powerless in the fact of the Act and the power of the authorities?”

Rabbit-Proof Fence never provides a definitive answer to these questions, though given how long indigenous children continued to be removed from their families – up until the early 1970s – “benign neglect” seems the most fitting interpretation. But this is only one perspective on the historical treatment of Aboriginal Australians by white Australians; just as the fence worker identifies there are “three fences,” Rabbit-Proof Fence offers three distinct perspectives on how Australia failed – and continues to fail – the First Australians.

Misguided ‘Benevolence’

The film’s most intriguing figure is undoubtedly A.O. Neville. He’s the architect for the removal of the girls from Jigalong – along with countless others – but despite the racist undertones and deleterious ramifications of his actions, he’s presented not as a malevolent villain but rather a misguided ideologue. He says things like “In spite of himself, the native must be helped.” He believes his actions are necessary to preserve Aboriginal culture, not to destroy it, even as the children imprisoned at Moore River are punished for talking in their native language.

The rabbit-proof fence is a versatile symbol throughout. For example, when the girls first encounter it on their trek to Jigalong, they embrace it passionately and we cut to a shot of their mother (Ningali Lawford), holding the fence herself, hundreds of kilometres way. Here it represents their bond to the land. But in large part the fence represents the futility and inadvertent cruelty of Neville’s policies. It is a symbol of division, a deep wound through the centre of the country. It’s also an irredeemable failure; intended to keep rabbits to the east of Australia, it proved entirely useless (there ended up being more rabbits on the west of the fence). The gulf between Neville’s intent and the effects of the Act is manifest in the film’s final act, when the girls encounter a ruined section of the fence – a fractured chasm representing the failure of ‘civilisation.’

Australian director Phillip Noyce – coming off a string of Hollywood hits and with the assistance of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer Peter Gabriel (of Genesis fame) – wields an impressionistic aesthetic throughout, creating a spiritual and intuitive atmosphere. In particular, the way the camera regards Neville suggests the film’s derision of his philosophies; he is introduced with a bevy of intimidating low shots and dizzying Dutch angles, but by the film’s final frames we peer at him from above. He is now rendered small, ridiculous …but not defeated. After all, his policies would endure for many more decades to come; even Molly’s own daughters would be taken by the system.


Active Abuse

Just as the girls only traverse along two of the three rabbit-proof fences, the audience only receives a glimpse of the third perspective on white Australia’s treatment of indigenous Australians – vicious abuse. When the trio stumble across a remote farmhouse and its Aboriginal domestic servant (at the 50-minute mark in the full film above), Mavis (Deborah Mailman), its promise of respite is swiftly snuffed by the intrusion of Mavis’s master. The girls attempt to hide from him in Mavis’s bed, but when he stumbles into her room, leaving his trousers by the door, the reality of her life becomes devastatingly clear. (This is not an isolated incident: the Bringing them home report noted that 17% of females removed from their families experienced sexual assault in either the institutions or foster families they were placed in.)

This scene is critical to Rabbit-Proof Fence, reminding its audience that the plight of Aboriginals is not simply a by-product of benign neglect and well-meaning but ill-consider policies. As the film’s opening titles remind us, our country is the end result of “the invasion of [Aboriginal] lands by white settlers.”


What to Watch Next

There are numerous representations of Aboriginality in Australian cinema. Perhaps the strongest example is Rolf de Heer’s loose trilogy, composed of The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) – the latter co-written by star David Gulpilil, one of Australia’s finest actors. But films representing the plight of the stolen generations remain rare – unsurprising given the controversial nature of the issue.

Baz Luhrmann’s (gloriously successful) Australia (2008)– a bombastic if unwieldy attempt to condense the entirety of Australian history into a 170 minute film – does incorporate the issue into its runtime… if only briefly, and with little connection to real events. Inventing a new institution for stolen children – on “Mission Island” – is understandable. But the implausible abduction of Nullah (Brandon Walter) – after his unofficial adoption by Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Drover (Hugh Jackman) – is presented more as spiteful revenge on the part of antagonist Fletcher (David Wenham) than the outcome of national policy. Nonetheless, its (uncontroversial) incorporation into such a prominent production suggests the dramatic shift in the national discourse around the stolen generation in the years preceding Rabbit-Proof Fence’s release, particularly when the film concludes with a reference to Rudd’s apology.

If you can hunt down Darlene Johnson’s documentary Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – released on earlier DVD versions of the film, but not included on the current edition – it serves as an instructive insight into the behind-the-scenes processes and philosophies. Equally, Australian Film Classics’ book Rabbit-Proof Fence, written by 2011 NSW Australian of the year Larissa Bernhardt, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in delving beneath the film’s surface. Bernhardt, herself an Indigenous author who’s written two novels centring on the stolen generations, writes with warmth and intelligence, analysing in detail the film’s themes, history and aesthetics.

Finally, those wishing to compare the film to the text from which it’s adapted should check out Following the Rabbit-proof Fence, written by Doris Pilkington, Molly’s daughter. Screenwriter Christine Olsen’s adaptation retains the spirit of the text without necessarily holding true to all the facts; Pilkington’s book conveys a carefully-researched portrayal of history without forgoing a deeply inhabited emotionality.

Explore indigenous content for all Australians at NITV



Watch 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

Friday 3 September, 7:45pm on SBS World Movies
Saturday 4 September, 10:15am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Australia, 2002
Genre: History, Adventure
Language: Aboriginal, English
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, Deborah Mailman, David Gulpilil

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