Based on the true story of three young Aboriginal girls who walked across the perilous Australian Outback to be reunited with their mothers, Rabbit-Proof Fence might well be subtitled True Grit.
When it comes to issues of racism and how a nation treats its indigenous people, the former English colony of Australia is on a shameful par with the United States. The white settlers who began arriving on the continent in 1820 almost immediately began displacing — and in some cases slaughtering — the Aborigines, who had been there since prehistoric times.
The British — and, starting in 1901, the Australian — governments adopted a barbaric policy that removed mixed (half-caste) children from their homes. At state-sponsored schools, the children learned to be domestic servants and farm laborers. The kidnapped children were not allowed to contact their families, speak their native tongue or marry full-blooded Aborigines. Shockingly, this practice wasn’t abandoned until 1971.
The victimized children came to be known as the Stolen Generation. Molly Craig, a feisty woman now well into her 80s, was one of them. Her story was recounted in the 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, by her daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara.
Australian-born director Phillip Noyce, best known in this country for Hollywood fare such as Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, has returned to his geographic and emotional roots with this project. The result is an extraordinarily convincing and even inspiring saga — yet it fails to connect on an emotional level as effectively as it might have.
In 1931, fourteen-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her eight-year-old sister, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their ten-year-old cousin, Gracie (Laura Monaghan), are taken from their mothers and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement by order of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the chief protector (talk about a euphemism) of Aborigines in Western Australia. Molly immediately begins plotting her escape and, unwilling to leave behind her more pliant sister and cousin, bullies them into accompanying her.
Relying on her wits and the occasional kindness of strangers, Molly leads the girls across 1,500 miles of inhospitable terrain. Their saving grace is the rabbit-proof fence, a continent-bisecting chain-link boundary built two decades earlier in an attempt to keep hordes of voracious rabbits from devastating the continent.
Despite the sense of outrage the story evokes, Noyce faces a difficult task; there is little action other than walking, and almost no dialogue. Molly has no time for emotion, and it is the girls’ unusual stoicism that will hold some viewers at bay.
Sampi, an eleven-year-old novice, gives a tough, unsentimental performance as Molly that manages to suggest a hidden vulnerability. Sampi’s mother, Glenys, a member of the Stolen Generation, was abducted from her home when she was four years old. For them and many of the other people associated with this film, Rabbit-Proof Fence is living history.