An extraordinary true tale of perseverance set against the deplorable backdrop of government-sanctioned racism in 1931 Australia, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is a stirring film about three kidnapped Aboriginal girls who run away from an indoctrination camp and walk 1,500 miles across the Outback to return to their native village.
The story takes place at a time when it was Aussie government policy to remove "half-caste" children (fathered by white men) from their Aborigine families and re-educate them to be adopted by white families, and director Philip Noyce makes no bones about showing the dismay induced by the enforcement of these laws. In one of the film's first scenes, 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are ripped from their mothers' arms at a remote trading post near a tribal community called Jigalong, leaving the women sobbing and wailing in the dust kicked up by government cars.
Dragged to the a compound on the other side of the continent where dark-skinned children have the Bible beaten into them and their native languages and customs beaten out by missionaries and nuns, the girls suffer at the hands of the policy that "in spite of himself, the native must be helped."
The champion of this program, called the Aborigines Act, was a bureaucrat blue-blood named A.O. Neville (played with slightly Hitlerian overtones by the sublime Kenneth Branagh) who genuinely believed he was upholding an honorable ideal by trying to make "these half-breeds become white."
It's after a visit to the camp by this "Mr. Devil" (as the children call him) that a defiant Molly gathers her younger kin and makes a break for it, not realizing how far she is from home or that their capture will become a face-saving priority for Mr. Neville's department.
The film gets its title from the thousands of miles of barbed wire that once bisected Australia's interior to protect remote farmland from nibbling critters on one side and provide good hunting on the other. With the help of a sympathetic farmer's wife, Molly and the girls find this fence, which also runs through Jigalong, and know they can follow it all the way home.
But a native tracker leading Neville's men on an all-out effort to find them knows this too, and thus begins a three-month trek of evasion, hunger and hardship.
Director Noyce (returning to his indie and Aussie roots after Hollywood success with "Clear and Present Danger," "Patriot Games" and "The Bone Collector" among other titles) brings the Outback desert tangibly to life through transporting wide-angle, low-angle imagery that gives a complete sense of the girls' point of view and the vast expanse they face on their journey -- emphasizing in turn their remarkable courage.
What the film doesn't do is provide much sense of any hurdles they faced along the way unless those hurdles relate to the determined men on the trail. Whole scenes are dedicated to how Molly, Daisy and Gracie outsmart their pursuers (wearing socks to disguise their tracks, walking only on the rocks in dry riverbeds). But only once in the course of the picture do they see nightfall on screen and little mind is paid to the procurement of food and water. And on a nagging but unrelated note, I'd be curious to know why there seem to be no Aboriginal men in Jigalong.
But the unparalleled story, the enveloping sense of place and the three captivating, completely natural performances from the little girls (all first-time actors) overpower the movie's weaknesses and do memorable justice to the so-called Stolen Generations whose uprooting has become the shame of recent Australian history (the policies carried into the early 1970s).
"Rabbit-Proof Fence," which was based on a book by Molly's daughter, closes with footage of two of the real women whose stories are depicted in the film, and provides information about the rest of their lives, which included even more hardship. But the tenacity of these three children to face down impossible odds and disregard the belittlement of presumptuous Caucasian superiority is inspiring in an honest, ingenuous way that movies designed by studios to tug at the heartstrings never could be.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 21st February 2002
Box Office USA: $6.0M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 122 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Philip Noyce
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