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Racism Down Under

Rabbit-Proof Fence Chronicles Treatment of Half-Castes

By Julie J. Hong

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Written by Christine Olsen

Based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Everylyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh

Rated PG

Rabbit-Proof Fence, a true story based on Doris Pilkington Garimara’s novel, is unlike any Australian film I have seen. Director Phillip Noyce, who has in his credits Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, presents something entirely different; we are literally miles away from Tom Clancy.

Rabbit-Proof Fence takes place in 1931, during Australia’s “stolen generations” period. Under the Aborigines Act, the government, specifically Neville, the Chief Protectors of Aborigines, essentially has complete control over the indigenous people. Mixed Aborigine and European children, known as half-castes, are taken from their homes to be trained for domestic work with the eventual goal of eliminating this unwanted third race.

Like the Australian desert in which it takes place, Rabbit-Proof Fence might appear to be lacking many things: there is no action, mystery, suspense, special effects, or sex, and there are only traces of humor. It sounds like what you have left is a documentary; however, Rabbit-Proof Fence remains one step away by focusing on the plight of three girls, sisters Molly and Gracie and their cousin Daisy, half-castes who are taken 1,200 miles away from their home and challenge the system by fighting their way back.

Unlike many based-on-a-true-story films, Rabbit-Proof Fence is not embellished, nor does it contain slanted propaganda. Its storytelling is straightforward and honest as it addresses the issue of racism. The Aborigines, because of their dark skin and “Neolithic tools,” are viewed to be inferior in every way to the European settlers. When the girls escape, Moodoo the Tracker hunts them using the same method the girls use to catch animals for food -- following footprints or tracks in the dirt.

The girls are prey to the government, reminiscent of the slaves in America who were also hunted like animals when they escaped. The irony, however, is that Molly, the eldest of the three girls, though explicitly not deemed so, is far more clever, resourceful, and ingenious than Neville had anticipated.

Molly outwits the white authorities on multiple occasions and permanently damages the reputation of the Half-Caste Re-Integration Program. The girls’ ordeal through the Australian desert to return home is accented by Peter Gabriel’s earthy soundtrack. It manages to accompany the film while remaining unobtrusive.

The film also successfully depicts the traditions of the Aborigine people, subtly catching the art of tracking, their belief in the spirit bird that looks after them, and the women singing together -- perhaps prayer, perhaps comfort -- after the girls are taken.

With the exception of Kenneth Branagh as the well-intentioned but badly misinformed Neville, the cast is made up entirely of virtual unknowns. The girls, particularly Molly, speak far more with their eyes than their voices. Their ability to act is convincing enough, though this film has the worst exhibition of fake crying I’ve ever seen.

In the case you are wondering, the rabbit-proof fence, once the longest fence in the world (spanning from the north to the south shores of Australia), is a wire fence that separates rabbits from the farmland.

Rabbit-Proof Fence, although definitely worth watching, does not require the big screen. Save yourself some money and rent it instead.