Following the fence to freedom Aboriginal girls' escape makes for gripping dramaJonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
Drama. Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil, Ningali Lawford and Myarn Lawford.
Directed by Phillip Noyce.
Written by Christine Olsen.
(PG. 95 minutes.
At Bay Area theaters.) ------------------------------------------------------------------------
It spotlights a shameful recent chapter of Australian history when racist kidnappings were part of that country's official policy, yet "Rabbit-Proof Fence" turns this dubious past into a breathtaking story of defiance and triumph that has to be considered one of the year's most sublime films.
Director Phillip Noyce based his movie on the lives of three Aboriginal girls who, in 1931, escaped from their captors into a shaky freedom that required them to traverse more than 1,000 miles across rivers, desert, mountains and other harsh terrain. Chased all the way by an Aboriginal tracker on horseback who takes his orders from a bigoted, arrogant official (Kenneth Branagh), the girls are frequently pushed to the brink of capture or death.
After just a few minutes of watching "Rabbit-Proof Fence," it's easy to understand why Noyce has said, "I thought this was a film that had to be made. " Between 1910 and 1970, the Australian government targeted mixed-race Aboriginal children in the outback and took them to reorientation centers. There they were forced to speak English, attend church and learn "skills" they would use as servants and laborers for white people.
One hundred thousand Aboriginal children were taken this way from their parents, according to an Australian government report released in 1997. Though there is still debate about what percentage of these kids the government forcibly abducted (as opposed to other means, such as taking them without familial protest), it's indisputable that people such as A.O. Neville (whom Branagh portrays) wanted to rid the country of lighter-skinned "half-caste" and "quarter-caste" Aboriginals. As Noyce's movie makes clear, Neville -- whose ironic title was chief protector of Aborigines -- directed the effort with a sick, efficient conviction.
"Are we to allow the creation of an unwanted third race?" Branagh's character asks in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," as he speaks to a group of white women and explains how to "breed out" the country's mixed-race children. "In spite of themselves," he adds, "the native must be helped."
Molly Craig didn't want that help in 1931, nor did any of her family, whose Aboriginal ancestors had lived on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years -- long before white Britons colonized the land. In "Rabbit- Proof Fence," the 14-year-old Molly is played with Oscar-worthy adroitness by newcomer Everlyn Sampi, who is in nearly every substantial scene.. Sampi's Molly is a tender-eyed teen who learns in childhood how to be strong and daring, how to respect nature and how to recognize opportunities when they arise.
As soon as Molly was kidnapped with her younger sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) and transported to a remote barracks far from home, she planned their escape. A key: the wire fence running the length of Australia that -- if followed -- would take her, Daisy and Gracie back home. The fence was built in 1907 to keep rabbit hordes from entering the west of Australia and is still in use today (though it's no longer the world's longest unbroken line of fence).
Nearly everything about "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is astonishing. Acting doesn't get much better than this. (The tracker, played by David Gulpilil, says few words, but his performance -- through gestures and expressions -- is unforgettable.) The panoramic scenes of the Australian outback and the close- in shots of Molly's village are visually searing. The soundtrack by Peter Gabriel is -- like the one he did for "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- both haunting and majestic.
Noyce, who was born in Australia and made his name there with independent films before moving to the United States and establishing a reputation for such blockbusters as "Patriot Games," is understandably proud of the independently made "Rabbit-Proof Fence." So is Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of Molly Craig, whose novel about her mother's kidnapping and escape ("Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence") inspired Noyce's film.
"Rabbit-Proof Fence" is proof that there will always be stories from real life -- and from other parts of the globe -- that are shocking and beautiful to behold. All movies should aspire to be this good.
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at email@example.com.