Rabbit-Proof Fence: The wrong fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence: The wrong fence
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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Mr Neville (Kenneth Branagh) tells the police inspector (Roy Billing) that the three escaped girls must be following the rabbit-proof fence north, to their home. He devises a plan to catch them, sending police troopers down the fence from the north, and the tracker Moodoo (David Gulpilil) up from the south. In the desert, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) carries little Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) on her back. They find food with a fence workman (Ken Radley), who tells them they’re on the Number 2 fence. Until this moment, Molly hasn’t known there was more than one. Gracie (Laura Monaghan) realises immediately they are on the wrong fence. They have come west when they want to go north. The workman sends them in the right direction, but their detour has saved them from getting caught. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

The movie uses all sorts of techniques to communicate the roughness of the country, and the heat and dryness, including very low and high angles, tilted horizons, shots aimed directly at the sun – all of which are evident in this clip. Sound is equally important in giving us the texture of the rocky ground, as when the car rumbles past loudly. Even the interior shots in Mr Neville’s office are shot at odd angles, to give a sense of disorder. He has accurate maps and the girls don’t, but even so, his men miss the girls on the fence because the country is far more deceptive than it appears on a map.

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 depicts the children trying to return home. It opens with Mr Neville (Kenneth Branagh) in his office pointing to a map and telling a policeman the plan to capture the escaped children by sending one man from the north and another from the south along the rabbit-proof fence. Images of an Indigenous tracker on horseback and a car near the fence are juxtaposed with shots of the girls. Molly (Everlyn Sampi) carries little Daisy on her back. Although fearful, they trust a fence workman who tells them it was the wrong fence and shows them how to go home.

Educational value points

  • This clip emphasises Molly’s courage and leadership and the children’s achievement in staying together and avoiding capture. When Daisy says she can’t go on Molly carries her. Close-ups of Molly’s face convey her wariness with the workman and the dialogue suggests the girls are cautious in what they say. However, Molly decides they can trust the workman, and his advice, combined with their earlier mistake, helps them to escape capture.
  • This clip dramatises the children’s achievement in surviving in a harsh and unknown land and avoiding capture. The car rumbles noisily over rough ground, and heat and dryness are communicated through the use of tilted horizons and shots aimed directly at the sun. Little Daisy, unable to continue walking, indicates their vulnerability in this challenging territory.
  • The children’s endeavours to return home are contrasted with scenes showing the resources available to Mr Neville to capture them. With maps, police troopers and the tracker, he can organise an effective hunt. ‘We can’t miss them,’ he says. However, even the interior shots in Mr Neville’s office are shot at odd angles suggesting that the hunt is not so clear. The land depicted is much more challenging than the maps indicate.
  • The clip presents the rabbit-proof fence as central motif and symbol of home and security. The children and their pursuers are depicted following a fence. The workman’s explanation about the three rabbit-proof fences conveys the difficulty of the children’s position as they knew of only one fence, but Molly relies upon the north fence as their way home. These fences were constructed to prevent the spread of rabbits from the eastern states.
  • This clip depicts the complex role of Indigenous trackers. Moodoo, played by David Gulpilil (1953–), works for Mr Neville and pursues the children. The job of a tracker utilised traditional skills, but the role could mean using these skills against Indigenous people so sometimes trackers were deliberately unsuccessful. It is a non-Indigenous workman who clearly helps the children, indicating also the complexity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships.

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.

In a darkened room, we see Mr Neville and the police inspector meeting.
Mr Neville They’re on the fence. They’re following the rabbit-proof fence.
Inspector Right.
Mr Neville Just because people use Neolithic tools, Inspector, does not mean they have Neolithic minds. This makes our task very much easier. Look, there’s a branch off here to the west, north of Yalgoo. Now, you put your man out here on the fence, north of this junction. He can start to come down it to meet them. I’ll have Moodoo come up from the south behind them. We can’t miss them.

We see a police officer in a car and another on horseback travelling in opposite directions alongside the fence, looking for the girls.

The girls are walking alongside the rabbit-proof fence in the heat of the day.
Gracie Where’s Daisy?
Molly Wait here.

Daisy is back some way, sitting forlornly.
Daisy My legs, Molly. They hurt. I can’t walk.
Molly I’ll carry you only once, alright? Come on. Come on.

The police continue their pursuit from both directions.

Molly Don’t think I’m carrying you all the way.
Daisy Camp, Molly!
They’ve come upon a fence worker’s camp.
Man Company…

The girls are sitting at his campfire, eating his food.
Man Where you girls headed? You goin’ to Mulawa? You got family there? 
Molly Where Mulawa?
Man Mulawa? West. The way you’re headed along the number 2 fence.
Gracie You got two rabbit-proof fence?
Man My oath. We got three of ‘em.
Gracie We on the wrong fence.
Molly Where the north fence? 
Man North fence? Back that way, where you come from. You can cut across. I’ll show you.