GLS 330 Film: International Context - Final Paper
December 5, 2006
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a heart-wrenching story about three Aboriginal girls who are forcibly taken away from their mothers and into the hands of "the chief protector of Aborigines" at a settlement known locally as Moore River. "Based on the biographical novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by indigenous author Doris Pilkington-Garimara (1996), Rabbit-Proof Fence follows the journey of Doris's mother, Molly Craig, Molly's sister, Daisy Craig Kadibil, and their cousin, Gracie Fields, who in 1931 were forcibly removed from their mothers and community" (Potter & Schaffer). The journey from their native Jigalong to the Moore River Native Settlement near Perth was twelve hundred miles. This film captures their experiences at Moore River and their consequent journey on foot back to Jigalong along Australia's rabbit-proof fence in order to find the mothers they have been separated from.
Noyce's film Rabbit Proof Fence begins with words …
|For 100 years, the Aboriginal Peoples have resisted the invasion of their lands by white settlers. Now, a special law, the Aborigines Act, controls their lives in every detail. Mr. A. O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, is the legal guardian of every Aborigine in the state of Western Australia. He has the power to remove any half-caste child from their family, from anywhere within the state.|
In comes the scenery of the vast expanse of the Jigalong area. From the onset, the picture captures the aura of life in this barren part of the country. Birds soar overhead, while aborigine children play. It is a peaceful setting, untouched by civilization. Molly Craig herself narrates the film from the beginning, in her native tongue, describing how it is a true story of her sister Daisy, her cousin Gracie, and herself, of what occurred while they were young, how they were desert people, and how her mother described to her how the white settlers "made a storehouse here at Jigalong, brought clothes and other things -- flour, tobacco, tea. Gave them to us on ration day." The family consequently made a camp near the storehouse.
Molly, the narrator, describes how they (the white settlers) were building a fence, and how her father was "a white man working on that fence". The first shot of a person is a close-up of Molly herself as a child. She looks contemplative, rocking back and forth as if to say "I have something to tell you". The backdrop is the vast expanse of desert. The scene moves on to a bird hovering above. Her mother enters the scene as she exclaims "See that bird? That's the spirit bird. He will always look after you". The added effect of Peter Gabriel's music playing in the background further enhances the scene. It is as if you are sharing the experience with them. They felt this bird to be a blessing of sorts, a guiding light.
"Rabbit-Proof Fence has little dialogue and relies greatly on images, sounds, and rhythms to tell the story. It is worthwhile noting that the three leads had no prior experience in front of a camera, a fact which is likely to have constrained Noyce's ability to make a more dialogue and conflict-driven piece" (Villella). The scenes seem to mesmerize the viewers, placing them in an almost trance-like state.
|That most of the girls' inner feelings are conveyed through facial expression is to the film's advantage. And in addition Noyce's assured direction, Christopher Doyle's handsome photography and Peter Gabriel's stirring score gives spiritual resonance to moments of emotional intensity, such as the tearing of children from their mothers, the seemingly eternal crossing of a daunting barren landscape and the homecoming embrace between mother and daughter. (Villella)|
Shortly after the viewer gets a glimpse of what life is like for this family, the children are snatched from their mothers, swept into a vehicle, and taken away.
|Certainly, at several key points of Rabbit-Proof Fence the audience is invited to not just identify with Molly and the experience of being stolen, or of having one's own child taken away, but to actually be her, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels. Consequently, there are many scenes shot as if the camera were Molly's eyes and the audience were inside her experiences. Early in the film, for example, this effect is used most dramatically during the scene in which the three girls are taken from their mothers. Shot at child height with a hand-held camera, the audience is sutured into an identificatory position with the girls as the government car approaches, its wheels symbolically running over the rabbit-proof fence, irrevocably breaking through the boundary between cultures. (Potter & Schaffer)|
After many grueling hours in the back of an old truck, the girls arrive at the Moore River settlement and are greeted by a Miss Jessup. Meanwhile, we keep getting flashes of a scene in which A. O. Neville is conducting business as usual in Perth. One memorable scene is a slide show in which he identifies three generations, describing to his staff how you can "breed out" Aborigines: "In spite of himself, the native must be helped", he explains.
|Noyce treads the past carefully in this film, avoiding any 'good vs. evil' dramatization of Australia's colonial history and opting for a subtle evocation. For example, the character, A. O. Neville (played superbly by Kenneth Branagh), who ordered the removal of thousands of 'half-castes', is portrayed even-handedly, as a man who genuinely believed in the moral and civilizing benefits of his mission and the unquestioned superiority of white over native culture. Presenting him in such a fashion rather then say in embellished evil terms evokes from the audience a sense of quiet, dismal hopelessness rather fiery opposition at an apparently vast chasm between two cultures. (Villella)|
We are taken away from the encapsulating scenery of the free outdoors to the inner workings of the Moore River settlement. The girls are introduced to their sleeping quarters: cots, in one big room. Their first meal is a somber one, after which they are taken by Miss Jessup to have their hair cut and to be bathed. They are scrubbed down as if they can be scrubbed until they're white. They are made aware of the rules, one of which is language. "We don't use that jabber here - YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!" was the response to their use of their native tongue. The tracker is an Aborigine himself, played by David Gupilil, trapped at Moore River with his daughter. "Noyce doesn't overlook the irony of the past, in particular the assimilation of Aboriginals into white culture, illustrated by the stalwart 'tracker', who enforces 'white law' and captures any kids that escape the settlement." (Villella) The girls are also exposed to A. O. Neville's warped checking of their skin tones "for the fair ones". Those who "pass the test" are sent on to "proper school". This scene is shot using low angles. "Low angles (camera shooting up at a subject) showing the sky or the ceiling increase the importance of the subject. The figure looms threateningly over the spectator. The low angle is used generally to inspire fear, awe and respect." (GLS 330 Glossary of Terms).
|Later, in Molly's first interview with 'Mr Devil', A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines at the time, we see the face and hands of Neville looming into view as he reaches out towards Molly and, pulling her towards him, raises her smock to check the colour of her skin, thereby violating the personal space that is now conflated between Molly and the audience. Noyce's explanation for his use of this immersive technique underscores his intention to force contrasting perspectives in the film to empathic ends. In an interview, in which he comments on the use of the hand-held camera to align the audience with the perspective of the girls, he explains that he wanted to avoid 'formal camera moves...[in that they would] feel [too] much like the hand of...Neville, imposed upon the story.' (Potter & Schaffer)|
It is Molly who initially conveys she has had enough with this situation at Moore River and who consequently plans their escape, coaching the two younger girls as they leave on a day in which rain is coming and they are less likely to be tracked. "The character, Molly, is essential in this regard: She is the leader of the three girls, the one who holds on to her 'home' culture the most, sees the Moore River settlement as 'sick', and decides to return home against all odds" (Villella). So crucial is she to the show that when they temporarily lose her (she storms off the set and runs away after they cut her hair), the entire show is placed in jeopardy.
By now, the girls are speaking English, which makes the viewer wonder how long they have been at Moore River. As they exit the camp and as the rain comes in, it is the cousin, Gracie Fields, who seems to doubt the action. This becomes a recurring stance for Gracie throughout the film. It is no wonder, then, that it is she who becomes separated from Molly and Daisy down the line. As the three disappear into the forest, unnoticed, the scene flashes to the other children at Moore River singing in church, as well as the tracker. It is not until role call that evening that the camp elders discover the girls have disappeared or escaped.
|Traumatic stories become commodified in alarmingly voyeuristic and regressive ways, even as commercial narratives, like the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, can also keep a human rights agenda in the public eye when local campaigns fail… Whether we are forced or choose to hear each other's stories, we have a chance to combine the politics of justice with the specifics of human suffering, to learn 'mutual obligations' across very different cultures and old enmities. (Jolly)|
So begins the journey of Molly, Daisy, and Gracie. Since Molly is bright enough to realize she must cover her tracks throughout the journey, she is initially able to throw off the tracker by walking several miles through the water. Their journey captures their survival techniques and the various people they encounter as the story unfolds.
One incident involves an Aborigine caretaker who meets the three as she is hanging wet clothes on a line out back. She provides the three with food and socks, tells them she is aware of the fact they are in fact the three who escaped Moore River, and asks them (pleads with them) to wait around. She brings them into her sleeping quarters and gives them her bed. Later, a man appears, takes off his clothes and shoes, and jumps into bed as if routine. This stuns the three as they immediately jump out and dodge the authorities by a minute's time. They are, once again, forced to continue their journey alone, eating Robin's eggs for survival, carrying one another on back in order to throw off the tracker. Injustices of this society leave its mark on the three as the domestic servant herself had revealed her own experiences at Moore River. The viewer gets a glimpse of what life is like beyond Moore River for those who stay behind.
The end is most significant as the spirit bird re-enters the picture just when you think they are not going to make it back to Jigalong. It is also significant because we get to meet two of the women this picture is about. And in viewing the trailer, almost as significant as the movie itself, we meet the director and the cast, and experience the trials and tribulations they encountered as the movie was being made.
|Running at a short 90 minutes, the film has a minimal storyline that moves swiftly through distinct dramatic arcs: separation of mother and child; introduction to a foreign world; escape and the tough journey home; and the final reunion. Although it tells a specifically Australian story - one belonging to the Stolen Generations and the White Australian Policy - Noyce tells it is such a way that emphasizes universal elements of tragedy and heroism, in turn ensuring the film a broad, widespread appeal. (Villella)|
The story ends with words…"Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families throughout Australia until 1970. Today many of these Aboriginal people continue to suffer from this destruction of identity, family life, and culture. We call them the Stolen Generation."
GLS 330 Glossary of Terms
Jolly, Margaretta & Richard. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. Human Rights Quarterly. Baltimore: Aug. 2006. Vol. 28, Iss. 3; pg. 780, 5 pgs. Retrieved 5 December, 2006 @ http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.nu.edu/pqdweb?index=0&did=1128148711&SrchMode
Potter, Emily and Schaffer, Kay. Rabbit-Proof Fence, Relational Ecologies and the Commodification of Indigenous Experience. Australian Humanities Review. Issue 31-32, April 2004. Retrieved 5 December, 2006 at http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archi ve/Issue-April-2004/schaffer.html
Rabbit Proof Fence. Dir. Phillip Noyce. DVD. Miramax Home Entertainment, 2002.
Villella, Fiona A. Long Road Home: Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 6 December 2006 @ http://www.senses ofcinema.com/contents/01/19/rabbit.html