Movie Review: Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

Based on a true story, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) chronicles the journey home of three Aboriginal children, Molly Graig, her younger sister Daisy and cousin Gracie, who escaped after being abducted by the Australian government. The girls, age 14, 10 and 8, ran away from a government residential school for ‘half-caste’ children in 1931 and trekked over 2,400 km (1,500 mi) along the rabbit proof fence, a continent-long enclosure build by the settlers to manage another invasive species they brought with them, back to their mothers in the village of Jigalong. During their journey home, they alluded capture by White police, informants and a native tracker and as battled fatigue, hunger and exposure.

Unlike typical popular works of the journey-home archetype, the Rabbit Proof Fence speaks of the struggle of those oppressed under class society and offers a people of color feminist perspective of such struggles. The main protagonists, three young girls, are not returning from wars of conquest or besieged by temptation stemming from women or female-bodied characters. Nor are they escaping an out-worldly situation created through their own determined or capricious behavior. They are running away from a genocidal policy enacted against their community and back to the women who count as their family. They are hunted by those acting out normalized roles in a society where ‘race’ is the primary determinant of class. The villains, drawn from real life, are far scarier that any dehumanized or exoticized renderings. The chief antagonist is a settler-descended male acting as a functionary of the ‘progressive’ Australian state. Logically following, the lead character, Molly, represents the inspirational individual struggle against the hegemonic control the dominant section of society asserts over those oppressed and exploited.

In 1905 the Australian government passed legislation authorizing the forcible removal of children from aboriginal families if the child’s father was ‘Caucasian.’ The goal was to assimilate them into settler society and eventually breed and deculture aboriginal people out of existence. Rape of indigenous women was one large factor behind the birthing of ‘mixed-race’ children raised in traditional women-centered communities. Australian settler society and its state saw this ‘mixed-race’ population as a problem, which helped lead to the creation of the residential school policy. Children were taken to compounds far from their parents and taught English, settler cultural norms and labor associated with western gender roles. Between 1915 and 1940, A.O. Neville, who ordered the girls abduction, was the ‘Chief Protector of the Aborigines in West Australia’ for the Australian state. The policy officially lasted until 1970 and produced what is today known as the ‘Stolen Generation.’

Early in the film, police kidnap the children by order of Neville. The screaming children are snatched in front of their mothers and grandmother, who wail in despair. When the children arrive at the ‘school,’ the Moore River Settlement, they witness another child being punished for leaving the compound. Instantly they were made aware of the difficulties and risks of running away. A.O. Neville is described by another abducted child as ‘Mr. Devil.’ Shortly after, in a dramatic yet muted scene, Molly, the eldest child, leads Daisey and Gracie in a daylight escape while others are at church, using an approaching rainstorm to cover their immediate tracks. Molly uses her wits and quick thinking throughout the story to evade capture, secure food and persist forward to her family.

The experience suffered by the girls was not unique to Australia. Rather, the policy of abducting and assimilating children got its inspiration from similar policies in the United States and Canada. There, children were stolen and whisked away to ‘Residential Schools’ where they were forced to dress and wear their hair in a certain manner, punished for speaking native languages and taught to do manual or domestic labor depending on their gender. ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man,’ was the motto in North America. In all cases, children had their own culture and land base stolen from them while being forcibly acculturated into second-tier citizenship within First World, settler society.

Not surprisingly, many have described such policies as a form of genocide, especially as they were accompanied by previous violent conquest of the indigenous land base and massive drops in native populations. Australia, a settler-state like the US and Canada, carried out this policy through two World Wars, both of these wars in where Australia was on the victor’s side. In one early scene, the girls are transported in a cage on a train, eerily reminiscent of a more extreme fate that awaited millions in Europeans less than a decade later. Indeed, no side during either World War (except the democratic, anti-imperialist struggles that emerged from them) exemplified freedom and democracy. Rather, each were attempting to outdo the other in conquest and exploitation, leading to division and conflict amongst them.

The films main antagonist, A.O. Neville, comes across as delusional with power and self-assured about the morality of his actions. He attained this through the dominating power settler society and its state holds over Aboriginal people and the corresponding hegemony of ideas. Revealing his utter contempt of indigenous people, Neville states he is saving them from themselves and speaks graciously of breeding out all traces of native phenotypic features from the descendants of Aboriginal people. It was within the context of the patriarchal, settler-descended society that Neville’s ideas gained currency and power and he became a functionary of a social program that was exacted upon indigenous people for 65 years.

Within the context of this unequal power dynamic between settler descendants and Natives other aspects of their relationship can be understood. Along with domestic labor, young ‘half-caste’ girls were also expected to be sexual liaisons for their bosses. In one scene, the three girls, now fugitives, are hiding in the quarters of another half-caste girl when an older ‘gentleman’ enters, begins removing his clothes and is disappointed to find the strange girls-Molly Gracie and Daisy- and not his servant laying under the sheets. His mannerism is casual, revealing the normalcy of this type of sexual encounter. This type of act brings to mind the line of Catherine MacKinnon, that under patriarchy all sex is a shade of rape, and grounds it to the reality that under oppression socially-coerced sexual relations become normalized into ‘just sex.’ Molly and her younger kin were running away from more than simply having their culture taken from them.

The film also reveals other nuances in the contradiction between settler-society and the native population it dominates and abuses. Government and ‘school’ officials make use of an Aboriginal tracker to locate ‘half-caste’ escapees. The tracker serves the settler-government because his own young relative is held captive by the Australian state. Though the tracker pursues Molly and the other children as he’s instructed, he does so without the zeal of the bureaucrats and officials. He seems satisfied at Molly’s ingenuity in circumventing his traditional tracking methods, not disappointed at his inability to retrieve and return the girls to the ‘school.’

Molly Craig, the films main character, exemplifies individual resistance to a dominating situation. She is clear and direct in her intent on evading the clutches of the foreign society and returning to her woman-dominated family network. She succeeded against the Australian state’s efforts to kidnap her and her siblings and denativize them. As the eldest child, she leads her younger siblings with persistence and care. At no point does she expect or plan on being rescued by someone else. For much of the trip, she carried Gracie, the youngest. Though she was quick to use her surroundings to her advantage in securing food and even enlisted the help of Australian strangers for brief periods, she carried along the knowledge that she was solely entrusted with their safe passage home. Thus, her encounters with others are cautious and brief, and her sense of self-reliance is evident.

Though little else is as inspirational as individual struggles against oppression and domination, it is when such resistance takes on a social character that it becomes historically significant. Rabbit Proof Fence tells the story of one girl who, absent a larger organized resistance to a colonial policy, manages to free herself and those closest to her from the clutches of settler society.

Today, the scope of the world has changed to where oppressors rarely resort to kidnapping the oppressed but are more than willing to bring their culture and policy of servitude to bare on the oppressed through NGOs, lackeys and the media. The type of brainwashing generations of Indigenous people endured at the hands of settler states in the 19th and 20th century not only continues today, but has become more refined, widespread and encompassing.

Individual struggle against hegemonic imperialist culture continues, yet organized struggle is needed. Today, the imperialist First World, of which Australia counts itself a part, continues to attack and exploit the Third World while still championing itself as ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic.’ The struggle against imperialism is not unique to any single exploited or oppressed people but must encompass them all. Revolutionary internationalism, anti-imperialism and unity of the oppressed and exploited masses are all requisites of the struggle to end national oppression once and for all. Determined resistance and self-reliance, such as exemplified by Molly Craig when she broke free from Australia’s attempts to abuse and assimilate her, must be carried into much wider and organized resistance by oppressed people today.

-Nick Brown