At the Moore River Aboriginal settlement, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is called out of the assembly to be inspected by Mr AO Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Protector of Aborigines. Mr Neville checks the colour of her skin, to see whether she is light enough to be sent for training as a domestic at another institution. He decides she is not, which means she will stay at Moore River. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
The early scenes at Moore River are deliberately bleached looking, to give a sense of the strangeness of this new reality for the three girls. The whiteness of the sandy ground and the matron’s uniform also reinforce a sense of what the scene itself is about – the degree of whiteness of each girl.
In Western Australia in 1931, three mixed-race Aboriginal children are forcibly abducted from their mothers at Jigalong, in the eastern Pilbara. Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), 14, her sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), eight, and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan), about 10, are taken at the orders of Mr AO Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Protector of Aborigines, to the camp at Moore River, an institution for mixed-race children. They are scrubbed down and placed in a dormitory full of other Aboriginal girls, to be educated and trained as domestic servants.
After a few days Molly leads the other two girls in an escape. They are pursued by Moodoo (David Gulpilil), the institution’s expert Aboriginal tracker, but Molly knows how to disappear. They walk east, with help from strangers, both black and white, until they reach the rabbit-proof fence, the world’s longest fence. Molly realises this will lead them back to Jigalong. Pursued by State police and an increasingly sympathetic Moodoo, the girls walk almost 2,400 kms in nine weeks. Gracie is captured at Meekatharra, after she tries to catch a train. Molly and Daisy collapse on the saltpans, just before Jigalong. When they wake, the spirit bird, an eagle, is flying overhead. The two girls run to where their mother Maude (Ningali Lawford) has been awaiting their safe return.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is more than a significant film in the history of Australian cinema; it’s a significant landmark in the ongoing process of reconciliation between black and white Australians. For many white Australians, it was the first direct emotional experience of what it meant to be a 'stolen child’, and part of the 'stolen generations’. That identification with a history that was already contested made the film controversial. It was a popular success at the box-office, one of only a very few films concerning Aboriginal life that has ever been popular, but it remains very unpopular with some conservative politicians and commentators.
Conservative journalists and historians, such as Andrew Bolt and Keith Windschuttle, published articles charging that the film did not accurately reflect either the policies on removal of Aboriginal children of the time, or the circumstances of Molly Craig’s story, as recounted in the book on which the film is based, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, Molly Craig’s daughter. These claims were responded to by many, including historian Robert Manne, who accused Bolt of historical denialism, and the film’s scriptwriter, Christine Olsen, who published a detailed response to Bolt’s claims of inaccuracy.
In 2002 when the film came out, there were some criticisms of the film as being too soft, and too sympathetic to the character of AO Neville. Others claimed he had been defamed. The debate about the film’s accuracy and worth continues still, several years later.
What’s less controversial is the fact that it’s an extraordinary piece of storytelling by Phillip Noyce and his team. It was his first film on Australian soil after 13 years in Hollywood, during which he became highly successful. It was not his first film on an Aboriginal theme. One of the main reasons that Christine Olsen took her script to him was because she liked his 1977 film Backroads.
Noyce’s approach to the script of Rabbit-Proof Fence is unashamedly emotional. He has said he wanted to make a film in which every Australian viewer would become so emotionally involved that they would want to adopt the three girls as their own children. Most Australians have never read the Bringing Them Home report, nor personally met a 'stolen child’. Within a few years of its coming out, an enormous number of Australians had seen this movie – far more than had watched any previous Australian film dealing with an Aboriginal issue. It won best film at the 2002 AFI Awards, and the audience award at numerous international film festivals.
Rabbit-Proof Fence was released in Australia in 2002 and as well as being a box office success in Australia, sold to numerous overseas markets, achieving cinema distribution in key territories including the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows Mr Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia (Kenneth Branagh), inspecting the colour of Molly’s skin. It opens with Mr Neville calling Molly (Everlyn Sampi) out of the group of children assembled in front of the church at the Moore River Settlement. Another Aboriginal girl and the women in white uniforms encourage her to come forward. When Molly reaches him he speaks to her, bending down saying, ‘we’re here to help’ and then inspecting the skin on her shoulders. The clip concludes with his judgement, ‘No’.
Notes by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
At the Moore River Aboriginal settlement, Aboriginal children wearing simple white shifts sit on the dirt before two official-looking men and some nuns.
Man Molly Craig!
Girl That’s you.
Man Molly Craig.
Girl Go on, get up. Hurry up. They’ll whip you.
Sister Molly. Come on, dear.
Man Come on, young lady.
Girl They’ll put you in the (inaudible). Hurry up.
Man Come on.
As Molly stands up, one of her younger sisters goes to join her.
Sister Just Molly, please.
Girl Where you goin’? (drags younger sister back) Come back here. Sit down.
Sister Hurry up. Come along. It’s alright. That’s the way. Don’t be afraid. Come along.
Molly walks slowly up to Mr Neville.
Mr Neville Come on. I’m not going to hurt you.
Sister See? A bit further. That’s it.
Mr Neville It’s Molly, isn’t it? I know it all feels very strange, but after a few days you’ll feel quite at home. We’re here to help and encourage you in this new world. Duty, service, responsibility. Those are our watchwords.
Sister Molly, keep still.
Mr Neville It’s alright, it’s alright. It’s alright.
He inspects her skin and then steps back.
Mr Neville No.