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Rabbit-Proof Fence

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Phillip Noyce
Rated: PG
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: November 2002
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Laura Monaghan, Tianna Sansbury, David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Racial profiling is a regular item in U.S newspapers. Arab- Americans are looked upon these days with suspicion in some communities. African-American drivers are routinely stopped by police in others. In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, Japanese- Americans were rounded up on the West Coast and placed into camps. In none of these cases, however, is the racial profiling even considered to be for the good of the unfortunate people involved. In a way, racial profiling is more insidious when it is done by people who think they are doing the oppressed folks a favor "uplifting" them or "civilizing" them according to the culture of the white society.

A smashing example of this, yet another piece of evidence that shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is manifest in Phillips Noyce's film "Rabbit-Proof Fence," based on a book by Doris Pilkington, the daughter of the one of the victims of a heinous, racist policy by Australia. In this account adapted from the book by Christine Olsen, we learn what few Americans and for all we know few Australians know even now. From 1900 to 1970, the Australian government carried out a policy of forcibly taking half-caste people, i.e. men and women who were products of matings between black Aboringinals and white settlers, from their homes in the outback and resettling them into training camps. The training camps, in which the young people were herded into bunks, presided over by strict personnel and offered food somewhat less appealing than that served at Lutece, would train these people not to be anything they can be but to be servants and farm laborers. Incredible, but true, even more unbelievable when you consider that this racist policy was abandoned a mere three decades ago.

The story could have been made into a talking-heads documentary; informative but dull as dishwater. To the credit of the filmmakers, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is instead a dramatized road-and-buddy film, but one more in a style that might be looked upon with approbation by Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railway that transported fleeing slaves from the American antebellum south into Canada, than by Todd Phillips, creator of the hilarious but unredeemably vulgar "Road Trip." The three girls were chosen from among 1500 hopefuls and was filmed in South Australia to take the place of the Western Australian regions in which the road trip takes place.

Just minutes into the story, fourteen year-old Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), her sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and her cousin Gracie Fields (Laura Monaghan) are picked up in their home in Jigalong, by a white constable, wrenched from Molly's mother (Ningali Lawfrod) and grandmother (Myarn Lawford), and driven far away to the Moore River Trainin School, where, terrified, they are introduced into the alien culture of the boot camp. Warned by the so-called Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) that any attempt to escape would be met with punishment, they are introduced as well to a black tracker, David Moodoo (David Gulpilil), who has a bloodhound's instinct to follow, find, and return any runaways. As determined as E.T. to go home which for all practical purposes is as far away as E.T.'s Molly takes advantage of a rainstorm to gather her relatives and lead them to a walk that deserves to be in the Guinness Book 1,500 miles, across grasslands and deserts, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and in one case overnight lodging. As they trek, followed by bloodhound Moodoo (as good an example of an Uncle Tom as could be found anywhere) and a few police from the province, they run into people, some sympathetic, some deceitful, testing the motivation of the girls and particularly the leadership qualities of the fourteen-year-old.

Kenneth Branagh does a fine job as a man who, though obviously racist, cannot be considered evil in the classic sense since he genuinely believes he is doing good. While the Australian government is interested simply in the withering away of the Aboriginal race in a few generations, by marrying the half- castes off to whites until the resulting octaroons would have all the Aboriginal bled out of them, A.O. Neville considers the welfare of the unhappy campers to be foremost. He genuinely believes that they would be better off integrated and assimilated into white society, forbidden to speak their own dialect or to practice the ways of the wilderness to which they had been accustomed.

The story of Neville and the girls is based on truth. In the film's epilogue we are introduced to the real Molly and Grace, now in their eighties, still apparently living according to the tribal ways of their people. Everlyn Sampi is astonishing as the fourteen-year-old leader, while Christopher Doyle trains his camera on a land that is so vast and empty we wonder why Australia to this day discourages immigration. A look at some Internet commentary on the film (imdb.com) is revealing. A fellow named M.P. Schoo from Melbourne, for example, states that he found the movie "honest, beautiful and ultimately showing the pointlessness and stupidity of racist laws and racism in general. Such a pity that our current government will not acknowledge it." B. Coster, from Nunawading, Australia, holds that the story is "wonderfully told, gorgeously filmed, and should resonate in Canada and the U.S. which also had similar policies towards their indigenous inhabitants."

The title comes from a long fence built by settlers to keep the rabbits out of farmland the very fence used by the compass- less girls to track their way back home.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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