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RABBIT-PROOF FENCE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil
Director: Phillip Noyce
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: Commentary, "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence" documentary
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2003

"If we are to fit and train such children for the future, they cannot be left as they are.  And in spite of himself, the native must be helped."

Film ****

For the greater part of the twentieth century, Australia enforced the Aborigines Act, which led to the ruin of entire generations of children - the "Stolen Generations."  For those of mixed white and Aborigine descent, the half-castes, the government decreed that such children could be removed from their natural parents and relocated into proper white families, to be raised as whites.  Through this strategy, it was hoped that the Aborigine blood would ultimately be bred out of descendants of the half-castes.

One government official, A.O. Nelville, was placed in charge of the affair.  As Chief Protector of Aborigines, he was the sole legal guardian of the entire Aborigine population of Western Australia and of all half-caste children born therein.  Nelville was entrusted to exercise his powers as he saw fit in the full execution of the Aborigines Act, and he did so until his retirement in 1940.  The relocation policy, however, was allowed to persist until 1970 before finally being abolished, concluding a decidedly sensitive chapter in Australia's recent humanitarian past.

Rabbit-Proof Fence, a film by Phillip Noyce, recounts a tale of three such half-caste children whose lives were shattered by this regrettable government policy.  It is based on a true story, as described by author Doris Pilkington (the real-life daughter of one of those children) in her book of her mother's recollections.  The title refers to an actual fence that once ran from coast to coast on the Australian continent, its purpose being the separation of an infestation of rabbits on one side from the good farmland on the other side.  Another effect, however, was a symbolic separation of culture and race between the native Aborigines and Australians of European or British descent.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is set in 1931 in a remote region of the Australian Outback.  Three children, sisters Molly and Daisy and their cousin Gracie, have been raised by a small community of Jigalong Aborigines.  They are a desert people, living peacefully hundreds of miles within the vast and isolated Western Australian territory.  Of the children, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is the oldest and most skilled in the ways of the land.  The children's father, a white man, has long since moved on, following the construction of a rabbit-proof fence that crosses their homeland and stretches as far as the eye can see to either end of the horizon.

The tranquility of this small community is soon to be shattered, for by decree of Mr. Nelville (Kenneth Branagh), the three children, by virtue of their mixed blood, are to be removed from their home.  And so, very early in the film, a lawman arrives and wrestles the children away from their wailing and despondent mothers.  The children are then transported to the Moore River Native Settlement, hundreds of miles away from home.

In this settlement, the girls are stripped of their identities and given new names.  They are also forbidden to speak their native tongue and may only speak English.  Faced with the bleak reality of the future offered by these settlements, Molly the oldest child decides that she can no longer stay.  One day, she takes the two younger girls with her and runs away.  Despite the potential peril the girls will face from hunger, exhaustion, and even dehydration, they would sooner perish in an attempt to return home under Molly's guidance than linger in the white man's camp.  And so begins one of the most inspiring and courageous journeys in Australian history, a 1200-mile trek across the harsh Australian Outback to return home.

The three children will be hunted relentlessly by the Moore River mission's expert Aborigine tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil).  Gulpilil should be familiar to fans of Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece Walkabout, and Rabbit-Proof Fence pays homage to that earlier Australian film by playing a didgeridoo musical motif during Moodoo's scenes.  Moodoo is a man of few words, and despite his role as hunter, he (like the children he tracks) is trapped in circumstances beyond his control.  His own daughter is also held in the Moore River mission and will never be returned to him; only by staying in the services of the mission can Moodoo hope to remain close to his own daughter for as long as possible.  In this sense, there is a poignancy to his character, and this internal conflict may be an unconscious reason why he allows the three missing children to evade him time and time again.

In reality, Gulpilil was never fooled during the rehearsals for the film and could always demonstrate precisely the children's path, even when they tried to mask their way by walking through water or stepping on rocks and stones!

Rabbit-Proof Fence is inspiring in its depiction of the children's determination, but it is also tragic.  Molly, Daisy, and Gracie do not all arrive home to Jigalong safely, and in reality, nearly all children who attempted to escape in real life either perished or were re-captured.  Even for those children who chose to remain in the missions, their future was often not very bright, and many never again saw their parents and completely lost their true heritage.  Those girls who were not promised to white families by their sixteenth birthday might eventually find employment as domestics in white households if they were lucky, but, as the film alludes, they were not infrequently subject to sexual abuse.  That was the harsh reality brought upon the Stolen Generations by the Aborigines Act.

The three children actors in the film (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan) had never acted before prior to this film.  They had been selected for their close ties to their traditional Aborigine background and do quite a good job, with Sampi being the stand-out.  Rabbit-Proof Fence succeeds principally due to the honest and sympathetic performances of these three children.

Kenneth Branagh is also excellent as Nelville, a man whose proper manners and warm tidings seemingly do not mark him as a wicked antagonist in a conventional movie sense.  Still, Branagh's subdued portrayal, far removed from the actor's usual scenery-chewing, is all the more effective for its arrogant calmness and quietly superior air.  Nelville, invested of considerable power by his government, holds sway over an entire population of people.  He is so convinced of the righteousness of his own morality and actions that he is blinded to the inherently ambivalent charity of his very deeds.  What makes Branagh's performance especially relevant is that Nelville actually seems a polite and well-spoken gentleman but for his convictions and the responsibilities of his post.  We the viewers are torn between liking Nelville and despising him, which makes his villainy so much more lamentable.  Truly, it is difficult to persuade someone otherwise of his beliefs when he proclaims, "We face an uphill battle with these people...who have to be protected against themselves.  If they would only understand what we are trying to do for them."  The line is so very thin between being a true benefactor and a self-deluded man, but as the proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Perhaps the Australian government once saw a humanitarian rationale for this re-location policy.  The clear vision of hindsight affords us an alternate view, that the Aborigines Act was perhaps a misguided venture, to say the very least.  Still, despite the sociopolitical background behind the film, Rabbit-Proof Fence is less about the Australian government's handling of the native people than it is a film about the Aborigines themselves, their heart, their courage, and their will to retain that part of their culture which makes them unique despite outside intervention.

Director Noyce, for many years a Hollywood hired gun, was involved in pre-production for his third Jack Ryan film, The Sum of All Fears, when the opportunity to direct Rabbit-Proof Fence in his native homeland arose.  Noyce recognized the intimate and sensitive message of the tale and knew that he had to follow his heart; instead of staying in Hollywood to direct yet another shallow escapist thriller, Noyce returned to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence.  It was a sage decision, and Rabbit-Proof Fence will be remembered in years to come as Noyce's most emotionally satisfying film.

Video **

Rabbit-Proof Fence arrives on DVD in an anamorphic widescreen format.  The picture varies in quality with an overall general softness.  Some images are quite grainy while others are very clean; darker or night-time scenes tend to have less detail and more graininess.  How much of this was intentional is unclear, as Noyce notes in his commentary that post-production alterations were made to the image quality (color, contrast, etc.) to accentuate the difficulty of the journey, with its sun-bleached deserts, unfathomably endless stretches of horizon, and the unforgiving harshness of the arid Outback.  Cinematographer Christopher Doyle also alternatively used saturated Kodak film stock and color-desaturated Fuji stock to exaggerate the differences in various landscapes.

Audio ****

Well, this is a bit of a surprise here.  The 5.1 audio track for Rabbit-Proof Fence is beautifully lush with a remarkable you-are-there feeling.  The immersive sound is evenly distributed among all the speakers, creating wonderful spatial definition - you can almost feel the buzzing of flies or the scattering of sand and pebbles as the children continue on their journey.  Peter Gabriel (yes that one) provides the evocative musical score, which draws inspiration from native songs.

Features ***

There are only a few extra features on this DVD, but they are quite good.  First up is a commentary track by Phillip Noyce, with some input from author Doris Pilkington and supposedly by Kenneth Branagh, screenwriter Christine Olsen, and Peter Gabriel, too (although I don't recall hearing any comments from these last three contributors).  Thus, Noyce provides the vast majority of the discussion, although Pilkington does talk at length in chapter stops 4-5 about her mother's subsequent experiences after the timeline presented in the film.  Noyce's commentary is generally quite absorbing and contains little filler material, and he expounds upon everything from the casting, the photography, the music, to the true history of several of the characters in the film.  Viewers interested in learning about the real rabbit-proof fence (which still exists today), should also tune into chapter 14 of the commentary.

Rabbit-Proof Fence sinks or swims on the strength of its child performances.  Noyce certainly understood the incalculably vital importance of his child actors, and so the documentary, "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence" (43 min.), spends an exorbitant amount of its running length mulling over the casting process.  We'll see how the three actresses for the film were finally chosen, as well as the coaching they received in preparation for their roles.  Noyce, who serves as principal narrator for this documentary, demonstrates an instinctive skill for working with children actors, and I certainly hope he finds opportunity to work with more in the future.  One of the best portions of this very excellent documentary concerns the difficult abduction scene, which left many members of the cast and crew in tears during its actual filming.  Oh yes, and Kenneth Branagh finally appears in the last few minutes of this documentary to offer a few words about the film as well.

Lastly, there are trailers for Kieslowski's Heaven, Frida, and The Quiet American (Noyce's other film from 2002).  Miramax also includes its usual self-promotional advertisement featuring clips from many of its best features of recent years.

Summary:

What an outstanding achievement!  Rabbit-Proof Fence is miles away the most touching film Phillip Noyce has ever achieved.  A wonderfully thought-provoking film for the entire family and a top recommendation!