Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan, Tianna Sansbury, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilill
Director: Phillip Noyce
THERE has been a score of Australian films with central roles for Aboriginal characters as savages, mystics, trackers or saviours.
Until now, only seven Australian films have tried to tell a story from an Aboriginal perspective – Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955), Fred Schepsi’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers (1986), Tracey Moffat’s Night Cries (1990) and her BeDevil (1993), James Ricketson’s Blackfellas (1993) and Rachel Perkins’ Radiance (1999).
Rabbit-Proof Fence is the eighth, the most important and the best film in this category.
Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Gracie (Laura Monaghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) have Aboriginal mothers. Their fathers were itinerant white workers passing through Jigalong in Western Australia as they strung up the rabbit proof fence.
In 1930, Western Australia’s Chief Inspector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) decides the girls must be removed from their mothers and brought about 2000 km south to the Moore River Native Settlement where they can be trained for domestic service in white homes.
The girls survive only one day at the settlement, saying prayers, being inspected for their whiteness and, in a scene worthy of Spike Lee, singing “Way down upon the Swanee River” for Mr Neville.
The next morning the three girls run away and begin the long walk home. David Moodoo (David Gulpilill) is sent to track them down.
As fine as the three girls are in this film, and they are excellent, it is Moodoo who is the most complex character. He is a skilled tracker and it becomes clear he could have found the girls quickly but, in an act of resistance and colonial subversion, he lets them go.
Director Phillip Noyce handles this brilliantly. Moodoo is never questioned about his lack of success. His face says it all. His admiration for the girls’ courage and skill enables them to ‘go back home’. Something we assume the older Aboriginal man would like to do too.
This film is not without its flaws and some unnecessary overstatement.
Noyce allows the girls to maintain far too much direct eye contact with older Aborigines and white people.
Some of the white characters are more like caricatures. Mr Neville, for example, is just a bit too haughty and the nurses in their spotlessly white uniforms are a little too white. And the station owner’s wife presents the girls with coats in such a stylised way she looks like she is knighting them. But these are trivial in comparison to the overall success of this powerful film.
The most moving moment in this film is right at the end when we see the real Molly and Daisy now in their 80s.
I defy any Christian to see Rabbit-Proof Fence and then tell those two great-grandmothers that white Australia has nothing for which we should apologise.
Seeing Rabbit-Proof Fence could be the most creative preparation for Holy Week any Catholic can undertake.