A renewed debate about historical accuracy provides an opportunity to re-watch a landmark Australian film.
28 Dec 2009 - 10:40 AM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2021 - 5:08 PM

Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence is back in the news for its representation of the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. It is a familiar criticism – it was first raised at the time of the film's 2002 release, before it was universally praised for its depiction of the Stolen Generations. As Noyce noted at the time, “commentators were trying to destroy the movie and its message, and their attacks had nothing to do with art, nothing to do with history, nothing to do with truth – but everything to do with ideology”. (1)

The renewed debate provides an opportunity to watch the film again. And what a film it is. Sisters Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin Gracie Fields are forcibly removed from their family in Jigalong, Western Australia, and taken 2400 km south, to Moore River Native Settlement. Christine Olsen adapted the novel written by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara (AM), to tell the girls' story of defiance and courage, in following the 'rabbit proof fence' all the way home.

Australians embraced the film on its release. As Ingo Petze writes in his chapter “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, not only was the film the most commercially successful film to focus on Indigenous characters since Jedda, it was produced in such a way that was inclusive of Indigenous history that has for too long been kept outside of the history books.

“In Perth, [Noyce] met up with Pilkington and travelled the footsteps of his heroines as he drove along the rabbit-proof fence to Jigalong. There he met the real Molly Craig and her sister Daisy Craig Kadibil, who were in their eighties at the time and who told Noyce their stories and answered many pressing questions”. (2)

Retrospectively we can see the film's importance in a lineage that has led to the remarkable Samson and Delilah. If that film and the SBS Documentary series, First Australians have taught us anything, it is that Indigenous perspectives demand to be heard. No longer do we merely accept or privilege “official” versions of history – that which historian Keith Windschuttle is using to discredit the film. We must listen to and respect corroborated Indigenous testimonials and oral histories that often counter the “official” versions that have dominated our national history for so long. (3)

Noyce and Olsen have issued a statement against Windschuttle's claims of historical inaccuracy. For Noyce, the false claims slander “the reputations of those who cannot defend themselves” and he is right – Molly died on January 13, 2004 at the age of 87 and as we know from the film, Gracie did not survive the ordeal of being sent back to Moore River Settlement.

It is unjust that a story made with the collaboration of the protagonists and their families and made with such consideration should be discredited. With Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of the Stolen Generations was finally told on a scale that brought it to both national and international attention – six years before the national apology. To watch the film again reminds us that the process of reconciliation has been long and has involved many players, both black and white. Rabbit-Proof Fence is an integral part of this ongoing dialogue. As Molly and Daisy stand in their customary homelands as elders in the final frames of the film, we know that they endorsed Noyce's version. And a version is of course what this account is.

(1) Petze, Ingo “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand. Eds Geoff Mayer and Keith Beattie. London: Wallflower, 2007, p. 236.

(2) Petze, 233.

(3) See Perkins, Rachel and Langton, Marcia (eds). First Australians: An Illustrated History. Carlton, Victoria: The Miegunyah Press, 2008.



Watch 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

Monday 5 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies

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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