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Rabbit-Proof Fence

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Rabbit-Proof Fence

from Film Forum, 01/09/03

In Philips Noyce's second remarkable film of the season, Rabbit-Proof Fence, three aboriginal girls escape from the government and religious officials who took them from their homes. They then set out on a 1,200-mile trek on foot, following the line of a "rabbit-proof fence" trying to find their way home.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Noyce deserts his usual Hollywood action fare to tell the story of the Australian government's campaign to eliminate "half castes"—Aborigines of mixed blood. Spurning sentimentality, he delivers a riveting story of perseverance and courage that is almost unbelievable were it not based on the book by one of the surviving girl's daughters, Doris Pilkington Garimara. Technically, the roving camera, point-of-view photography, and mournful sound and music effects all add to the haunting quality of a movie that will resonate long after its unforgettable final scene."

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) calls it one of the year's best. "The film is a highly effective escape drama celebrating the human spirit. While a more subtle filmmaker may have fleshed out the various character types along the way, this is a politically and morally enflamed movie which generates a great deal of narrative momentum. Like its determined child protagonists, it knows exactly where it's going and never falters."

Movieguide's critic calls it "a beautifully filmed, heartwarming story," but objects to the film's portrayal of pagan aspects of Aboriginal culture, and to the portrayal of the Christians involved in this breakup of families as "deluded."

from Film Forum, 01/30/03

Noyce's second significant film of 2002 is still playing in many arthouse theatres. This one chronicles a desperate chase through the sun-baked wilderness of Australia. No, I'm not talking about Kangaroo Jack.

Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the true story about three Aboriginal girls who escaped the well-intentioned oppression of whites and set out on a harrowing 1,500 mile journey towards home, following the line of a fence that traversed the entire region. These persecuted children were the daughters of whites and Aborigines—"half-castes." For many years, half-castes were forcibly removed from their families and communities, as a practice of Australian law, by government officials determined to educate them and "Christianize" them in church-run schools, marry them to whites, and "breed out" the Aboriginal genes. This practice ended only in 1970, and the Aborigine peoples remain deeply wounded by the loss of what they call "the Stolen Generations."

Like The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence will remain a significant cinematic contribution to discussions of foreign policy, ethics, national identity, and human rights. Christopher Doyle's cinematography captures so much heat and dust, audiences are likely to use those free soda refill coupons. Peter Gabriel's soundtrack blends Aboriginal styles with his own distinct atmospheric sound, conjuring ghostly voices at the edges of awe-inspiring panoramic views of desert and wilderness.

An impressive cast of unknowns deserves much of the credit for their realistic portrayals and quiet emotional journeys. Kenneth Branagh, the film's only familiar face, plays A.O. Neville, the bureaucrat overseeing the extractions. The three girls at the center of this story—Molly, Gracie, and their cousin Daisy—are played with quiet intensity by Everlyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan, and Tianna Sansbury. Sampi is especially good: her large eyes burn with anger, hope, and conviction. Scenes of the Aborigine culture are authentic, fascinating, and thus heartbreaking when we see the trucks roar up and the men dragging children from their mothers' grasp. Neville shakes his head and mutters, "If only these people understood what we're trying to do for them." The grievous truth of what was indeed done to these people, rather than for them, hits viewers hard in the film's unforgettable conclusion, when viewers are introduced to the survivors of this true-life tale.

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) comments on the film's theme of political oppression. "Such sentiments certainly aren't unique to Australian history. Consider American history and the abuse of Native Americans, recent immigrants in most any period, and African Americans both in the time of slavery and in the years since. Or South Africa under Apartheid. Or the British as they 'protected' Palestine or India. How often did people think they were doing some unappreciated good for 'these people'? Often sin isn't the result of malevolence. Most people don't seek to do something evil or harmful. But often it is from the good we try to do, that we create pain—unintentional as it may be. Even when we are doing all we can to better the world, we need to be alert to the harm we may do."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Spurning sentimentality, [Noyce] delivers a riveting story of perseverance and courage. An inspirational story beautifully filmed, Rabbit-Proof Fence deserves to be submitted for foreign-film Oscar consideration by Australia."

Steve Parish (The Church of England Newspaper) observes, "Christopher Doyle's photography adds beauty to the sadness and hope of the girls' story of the 'Stolen Generations.' This is politically-sensitive film-making at its best—without preaching."