Rabbit-Proof Fence

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 23 09:37:37 MDT 2003

"Rabbit-Proof Fence" might be the only feature film ever to take up the 
question of forced assimilation. It deals with three Aboriginal children 
who flee a state-run school and walk 1000 miles back home along a fence 
set up originally to divide rabbits from farmland. This review will be 
based on the newly available DVD, the book the film was based on 
(co-written by two Australians, one of whom is Nugi Garimara, the 
daughter of one of the three aboriginal children) and a 28 minute 
documentary titled "Strong and Smart: the rise of the Cherbourg State 
School" that was co-produced by my good friend and Marxism list 
subscriber Gary MacLennan.

For many viewers, "Rabbit Proof Fence" will evoke some classic 
children's films about returning home through long treks across 
wilderness. In "Rabbit Proof Fence", however, home is not a cabin in the 
prairies or a suburban split-level. It is instead a hut made of twigs, 
whose denizens are shown hunting for lizards for their morning 
breakfast. When Molly, the oldest of the three children, spears a nice 
fat one, she is praised by her mother and grandmother. Although this 
appears to be a meager existence, it is also what Marshall Sahlins calls 
the original affluent society in his "Stone Age Economics":

"We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they 
don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as 
free. 'Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all 
cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them to enjoy life.'"

Since Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie, her 
8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin 
Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are all "mixed breed" children, they fall under 
the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Act, which more properly 
should have been called the Aboriginal Genocide Act.

Since one of the goals of the legislation was to place such children in 
residential schools where "primitiveness", including their native 
language, will be indoctrinated (or beaten) out of them, it would 
certainly qualify as genocide in terms of the United Nations. Article II 
of the UN Convention on Genocide stipulates that "Forcibly transferring 
children of the group to another group" for the purposes of assimilation 
qualifies as genocide. Despite the paternalistic language of the 
Australian drafters of this legislation, they had much more in common 
with Heinrich Himmler who stated: "I consider that in dealing with 
members of a foreign country, especially some Slav nationality…in such a 
mixture of peoples there will always be some racially good types. 
Therefore I think that it is our duty to take their children with us, to 
remove them from their environment, if necessary, by robbing or stealing 
them…" (Telford Taylor, "Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials", p. 203. This 
was cited by James Michael Craven in an indictment of residential 
schools in Canada.)

In one particularly chilling scene, A.O. Neville, the Australian in 
charge of removing such children from their parents and played to 
perfection in an understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh, lectures a 
group of genteel white women about the goals of the policy. Pointing to 
three large pictures of aboriginal children on the wall--a full-breed, a 
half-breed and a quarter-breed--he explains coolly that in another 
generation all the "blackness" will have been bred out of them. At the 
residential schools, not only would they learn proper English. They 
would be taught useful skills, such as how to clean the houses of their 
white Australian masters and care for their children.

The three children are determined to resist these beneficent plans with 
every fiber of their body. After they are wrested from their family by 
the cops and dumped off at the Native Settlement School at Moore River, 
north of Perth, they begin to plot their escape immediately. Waiting for 
the first rainy day, so as to better hide their tracks, they make for 
the nearby outback in pursuit of the rabbit proof fence.

Although the prospect of walking 1000 miles in the Australian wilderness 
might seem daunting, the three girls, especially Molly the eldest, felt 
like they could rely on exactly those skills that people like A.O. 
Neville considered out-dated and necessary to purge:

"Now the question is, how does anyone keep traveling in a northerly 
direction on a dismal, grey day without a map or compass? It would be 
difficult for an adult without the most thorough knowledge of bushcraft 
not to become disoriented and lost in a strange part of the country 
where the landscape is filled with thick undergrowth and without the sun 
to guide the way. Well, Molly, this fourteen-year-ld girl, had no fear 
because the wilderness was her kin. It always provided shelter, food and 
sustenance. She had learned and developed bushcraft skills and survival 
skills from an expert, her step-father, a former nomad from the desert. 
She memorised the direction in which they had traveled: it was north by 
car from Perth to Mogumber siding, then west to the settlement. Also, 
she had caught a glimpse of the sun when it appeared from behind the 
rain clouds at different intervals during their tour of the place on the 
first day. That enabled her to determine that she was moving in the 
right direction."

Phillip Noyce, the director of "Rabbit-Proof Fence", is Australian and 
committed to progressive values despite all the difficulties facing 
creative people after 9/11. As the director of "The Quiet American", a 
film that was released around the same time as "Rabbit-Proof Fence", 
Noyce was scrutinized like Chris Hedges and fellow Australian Peter 
Arnett for possibly "hating America". When "The Quiet American", a film 
based on Graham Greene's powerful indictment of US imperialism in 
Indochina in the 1950s, was previewed in front of test audiences, they 
discovered that many hated it, in exactly the same manner that students 
at Rockford College hated Chris Hedges commencement speech. They 
couldn't stand the truth, namely that the US was a colonizing bully.

Noyce had an interest in Aboriginal people from the beginning. His first 
feature, "Backroads", made in 1977, was about Aboriginal itinerant 
workers. It was this film that led the screenwriter of Rabbit-Proof 
Fence, Christine Olsen, to approach him 20 years later. In a profile on 
Noyce that appeared in the Melbourne Sunday Age on January 19, 2003, she 
says, "He treated the Aboriginal people as people. Nothing more, nothing 

If you rent the DVD, you will be able to view a supplement that shows 
how Noyce recruited the three Aboriginal children to play the three lead 
roles, none of whom had acting experience. It is fascinating not only as 
a document of the contemporary social setting of such people that is far 
removed from the outback existence depicted in "Rabbit-Proof Fence"; it 
also gives some insights into the craft of directing as Noyce steps the 
children through a crash course in acting. The ones who make it to the 
final circle have already passed a kind of screen test. They walk 
through the door and try to convince a skeptical Noyce that one of their 
chums (imaginary) is in great danger and needs help. Most break down 
into giggles, but the three who make the cut are altogether convincing.

The other casting coup is David Gulpilil as the Aborigine tracker, who 
is sent to catch the children. His first film role was in Nicolas Roeg's 
1969 "Walkabout", when at the age of 14 he played the lead, a young 
Aboriginal out on a puberty rite of survival in the outback.

While Aboriginal society is prone to the same dysfunctions of such 
peoples everywhere in the world, including spousal abuse and alcoholism, 
there has been a struggle to create an alternative for their children in 
places like the Cherbourg State School, which was originally run by 
missionaries. Now in the hands of the local community, whose members 
serve as teachers and teachers' aides, the school has raised literacy 
rates and reduced truancy in rates unheard of in the past.

"Strong and Smart" depicts how this was done. Largely based on 
interviews with the principal Chris Sarra, who is of Aboriginal descent 
himself, it shows children being taught basic skill such as math, 
reading and writing but traditional lore as well, including how to 
identify native flora and fauna using the words that their ancestors 
used. In other words, these children are a living testament to the 
resolve of Molly, Daisy and Gracie to proudly remain Aboriginal.


Cherbourg State School: http://www.cherbourss.qld.edu.au/

James Michael Craven indictment of residential schools: 


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