Rabbit-Proof Fence: The stealing of children

Rabbit-Proof Fence: The stealing of children
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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As Constable Riggs (Jason Clarke) arrives, Maude (Ningali Lawford) realises he has come to take the children. They run, but Riggs cuts off their escape route and seizes the children one by one. He warns Gracie (Laura Monaghan) to stay in the car or he’ll lock up her mother. Tiny Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) is easier to subdue but the eldest girl, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), fights back. As the police car drives away, the mothers and Molly’s grandmother (Myarn Lawford) are left wailing in the dust. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

This is probably the film’s most controversial scene, as well as the most harrowing, partly because it’s different to the way Doris Pilkington Garimara describes her abduction in the book. The book’s description is more resigned and less violent, although it describes an aftermath that’s very similar, with the women wailing and beating their heads with rocks, to draw blood. One of the reasons the scene is controversial is that it leaves no doubt that the children were 'stolen’ from their families. That word is highly contested by some white historians and politicians, who argued that the removal of Aboriginal children was not stealing, but legal and necessary for the welfare of children at risk. The debate over the language used to describe the policy of forced removal continues to rage in Australia, 10 years after the Bringing Them Home report was published in 1997.

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 the removal of three Aboriginal girls from their mothers, the desperate attempts by the mothers to prevent them being taken and the subsequent mourning of the women for their loss. The arrival of a car interrupts peaceful play and Maude (Ningali Lawford) calls out to the children to run. Despite their struggles, the policeman (Jason Clarke) takes the girls. Their mothers cling to the car as he drives away, and are then left wailing in the dust. In voice-over, Mr Neville concludes, ‘As you know, every Aboriginal born in this state comes under my control’.

Educational value points

  • This clip conveys the desperate attempts made by Indigenous women to prevent their children being taken away from them and placed on missions or reserves. As soon as the car driven by the policeman arrives at the ration station, the women realise his intention and scream to their children to run. When the policeman grabs the children, Molly struggles against him, her grandmother threatens him with a stick and their mothers chase after the car.
  • This clip highlights the feelings of pain and grief experienced by Indigenous mothers and the children taken away from them. The image of the sad faces of the girls looking out the back window of the car is followed by the sight and sounds of the women in the dust wailing, and by the grandmother who strikes her head with a rock in a traditional sign of mourning. The emotion of these images is emphasised by the contrasting coldness of the final words in this clip.
  • This clip indicates the far-reaching power of Mr Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia who was based in Perth, thousands of miles from where these children lived. The policeman refers to ‘Mr Neville’s orders’ and says, ‘I’ve got the papers, Maude. You’ve got no say in it’. At the time Mr A O Neville was the legal guardian of children of ‘mixed descent’ and an Indigenous mother such as Maude had no rights according to law.
  • This clip uses many techniques to depict the children as stolen, taken violently from their resisting families. The many cuts from one view to another, the children running, the sounds of yelling and the pounding music build up the tension and convey the desperation of the situation. The darkness inside the car is contrasted against the bright light outside to convey a sense of deprivation and lack of freedom.
  • The clip depicts the removal of children dramatically, not as it was in the book from which this film was adapted. Director Phillip Noyce (1950–) and scriptwriter Christine Olsen have based their dramatisation not simply on Doris Pilkington’s account of her mother’s life in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, but on many other historical accounts of removal. However, this scene is true to the feelings of powerlessness and lack of choice portrayed in the book.
  • This clip from the feature film Rabbit-Proof Fence presents an Indigenous perspective on the issue of the Stolen Generations to a wide audience. When it was released, this scene was contentious because after the Bringing Them Home Report in 1997, the use of the term ‘stolen’ to describe such removal was disputed. Some politicians and historians argued that the removal of children from their families was both legal and necessary for the welfare of the children.

Education notes provided 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.

We see the children sitting outside. The man is feeding the camel. 
Man Come and get your rashers. Hurry up.

Constable Riggs’s car approaches. He gets out of the car. The girls’ mother and another woman grab the girls and start running away from the car. He gets back in the car and follows them. He catches up with them and gets out of the car.
Riggs I’ve come for the three girls, Maude. 
Maude No, no.
Riggs I’ll bring them over to the blackfellas’ camp. 
Maude stands in front of the children, trying to shield them.
Maude No, this my kids, mine. 
Riggs It’s the law, Maude. You’ve got no say in it. 
Maude No. Mine.
Riggs gets the youngest girl and puts her in the back of the car. 
Riggs (to girl) Listen, you move one inch, and I will lock your mother up. (To women, holding a piece of paper) I’m their legal guardian. 
The girls huddle behind their mother. The women are wailing.
Molly Get away from us. 
Maude No, no. Give me back my babies. 
Riggs (to second girl) You shut up. You stay. (To women) I’ve got the papers, Maude. You’ve got no say in it.
Maude No. 
The eldest girl fights back and resists getting in the car, but he overpowers her and puts her in the car.
Riggs Get in the car. Don’t move.
The girls’ grandmother comes up to Riggs and threatens him with a stick. He easily takes it from her.
Riggs There’s nothing you can do here, old girl. Nothing you can do. 
Maude (screaming and wailing) No. No.

Maude and the old lady bang on the car windows, trying to get the girls. The girls cry for their mother. As the car drives away, Maude and the grandmother are left lying on the ground, wailing and crying. The grandmother bangs her head with a rock.
Mr Neville (voice-over) As you know, every Aborigine born in this State comes under my control.