Rabbit-Proof Fence: Mr Neville says no

Rabbit-Proof Fence: Mr Neville says no
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Access fees

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.

Rabbit-Proof Fence Synopsis

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 Curator's Notes

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

Education Notes

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’.

Educational value points

  • This clip concludes with the word ‘No’, indicating the power of Mr Neville in deciding Molly’s future based on his perceptions of the colour of her skin. His perception was significant because there were different outcomes according to the different categories. An Aboriginal child of ‘full blood’ would be left with their family, while ‘half-caste’ children would be removed and trained to fit into Australian society as domestic servants or farm labourers.
  • This clip uses several techniques to stress the power of Mr Neville as the Protector and of the other non-Indigenous characters. Long shots emphasise the distance Molly must walk, and the eerie music grows louder as she comes closer to him. The camera angles highlight his size and dominance in the physical inspection and the distorted close-ups of his head communicate her disorientation. Silences and the sound of Molly’s breathing convey her fear.
  • This clip depicts a scene at an institution set up for ‘civilising’ Aboriginal people in accordance with government policies. Moore River Native Settlement (originally Mogumber Mission located 140 km north of Perth) was one of many missions and reserves. It was state-run but included a Christian component as religion was seen as part of the process of cultural change. By the 1930s Moore River housed 500 Indigenous people from all over the state.
  • This clip indicates Neville’s perception of his role as one of ‘duty, service and responsibility,’ but also criticises it. Mr Neville speaks in a kindly way, as do the smiling women who urge Molly to come forward. This depiction fits with many accounts of people who at the time believed they were helping Indigenous children. However, this interpretation is countered by the whispered warning to Molly, ‘Hurry up, they’ll whip you’.
  • This clip presents a scene of inspection that is not in the book Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence, from which this film is adapted. The director, Phillip Noyce, uses it as an example of Neville’s racial theories and the distinctions, made later in the 1930s, based on skin colour – those deemed to have lighter skin were sent to Sister Kate’s Children’s Home and not to Moore River. These children were believed to be easier to absorb into non-Indigenous society.
  • This clip raises the issue of the policy that Neville promoted of ‘breeding out the black strain’. In his publication Australia’s Coloured Minority (1947), Neville set out his ideas on the ways this could and should happen over three or four generations of intermarriage. This was contrary to other ideas at the time that advocated the separation of races. Mr Neville’s portrayal makes the story a more coherent one of individual personalities as well as of policies.

Notes by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Olsen Levy Productions, Rumbalara Films
John Winter, Christine Olsen, Phillip Noyce
Executive Producers :
David Elfick, Kathleen McLaughlin, Jeremy Thomas
Phillip Noyce
Christine Olsen
Roy Billing, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, David Gulpilil, Myarn Lawford, Ningali Lawford (AKA Ningali Lawford-Wolf), Deborah Mailman, Garry McDonald, Laura Monaghan, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Natasha Wanganeen
Produced with the assistance of the Film Finance Corporation Australia and in association with the Australian Film Commission and Showtime.

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.