'Fence' tells of girls' flight before race barriers broken
December 21, 2002
In 1931, three mixed-race girls fled the Moore River Settlement in western Australia. The girls, who ranged from 14 to 8 years old, embarked on one of the longest walks in Australian history. On foot, they made a staggering 1,500-mile journey back to their hometown, the parched depot village of Jigalong.
Rabbit-Proof Fence, a stirring new movie from Australia, tells their amazing story. The movie opens Wednesday at the Chez Artiste.
The girls were part of what was known as "the stolen generation," half-caste children who were taken from their parents and sent to settlements where they were indoctrinated into the ways of white culture, a practice that continued until as late as 1970.
Rabbit-Proof Fence, one of the year's most moving movies, was directed by Phillip Noyce, who has spent the past 15 years working in Hollywood. Best known for the Jack Ryan adventures Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, Noyce returned to his native Australia to make a movie of striking simplicity.
At September's Telluride Film Festival, Noyce said the story of black-white relations in Australia is only beginning to emerge.
"The whole convoluted and distressed history of black-white relations was something we all knew but didn't talk about," Noyce said. "It wasn't written about. There were no histories. As much as the movie is about the 'stolen generation,' it's also about stolen history.
"Awareness of even the basic rights of indigenous people in Australia only really started in the wake of the black rights movement in America in the late '60s. At that time, aboriginal Australians could not vote. They weren't counted in the census until 1967.
"The reason for such low awareness is that Australia is even more urbanized than America. Most people live in the cities and on the eastern seaboard. The eastern seaboard is where first contact occurred between blacks and whites, but that was more than 200 years ago.
"There's a 200-year gap between contact on the East Coast and the West Coast, where the fewest people live. Aboriginal people were still coming out of the desert in the 1980s in western Australia where the story is set."
Stories told by indigenous people began to appear within the past 15 years. One such was written by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of one of the women who made the 1,500-mile trek along the Rabbit-Proof Fence, an unbroken, north-south line of fence that was built in 1907 to keep rabbits from invading farm lands. Garimara's book was published in 1996.
When you see Rabbit-Proof Fence you might be struck by the rigor with which the Australian bureaucracy applied its idea of racial standards. In the movie, these arcane rules are enforced by A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), who had the title of Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia.
"Guys like A.O. Neville were a product of their time," said Noyce. "Eugenics was a big subject at the time. There was a genuine belief that nonwhite people were less intelligent than whites. Some even went as far as to suggest they didn't have the same feelings as white people.
Branagh plays Neville as a man of conviction. He views the policies he enforces as a road to "betterment" for half-caste kids who were deemed different from an aboriginal population that was expected to die out.
There was a belief that children of mixed marriages had to be saved, Noyce said. "This was also within the context (or the belief) that children of mixed marriages were likely to be killed or rejected in some extended full-blooded family situations. I'm not saying that was true, but it was a belief.
"The theory was that the children had to be forcibly separated from their parents. The ideal age for that was 4. They were strong enough to survive without their mothers, but young enough to forget them. There was a belief that they needed to be put on a fast track toward assimilation."
At the time that Rabbit-Proof Fence moved onto Noyce's radar, he was in New York trying to persuade Harrison Ford to star in another Jack Ryan adventure, The Sum of All Fears. Ford balked. An apparently endless stream of script revisions began. (The movie eventually ended up in other hands).
Noyce decided to leave the Hollywood "sausage factory" and head for Australia to make a movie that first came to his attention with a 3 a.m. phone call from screenwriter Christine Olsen. "I thought, 'Oh my God, a writer has my number.' This is never going to end.'
"When I finally read the script I was absolutely knocked out by the story," which Noyce said had all the ingredients of great fiction. Its characters defy seemingly impossible odds, displaying the kind of strength and determination that Hollywood often turns into phony baloney entertainments.
Once committed, Noyce and his production team scoured the country to find children to play the leads.
"We organized a national TV competition on the Australian equivalent of the NBC Today Show. We announced that we were going to try to find these three needles in a haystack. We invited school teachers and families to write us and send photographs.
"From that we appointed teachers, community leaders and arts administrators all over the country. We sent them video cameras and asked them to go into small communities and start taping and interviewing kids, maybe in as many as 200 different locations.
"Finally, from all of those submissions we went and visited the locations ourselves. We quickly realized that for children to have unpolluted body language they had to be living in remote areas. Chidren in cities all over the world have been homogenized and turned into copies of each other by MTV and so on."
Everyln Sampi won the lead role of 14-year-old Molly Craig. Sampi traveled with Noyce to North America to help promote the movie, but had returned home by the time Noyce reached Telluride. Noyce notes, with some sadness, that it didn't take long for Sampi to develop a keen interest in basketball jerseys and baggy pants.
"The kids weren't asked to act. Everyln is very much like the character she's playing, stubborn as hell. She ran away three times while we were in preparation for the movie.
Two of the real women survive.
"They're well and strong and still determined. For me, that's the real finale of the film. They're still here. The system (of separation) is gone, although its effects linger. But these women lived on. These are strong people. They're indestructible."
Robert Denerstein is the film critic. Denersteinb@RockyMountainNews.com or (303) 892-5424