Why It’s Important
Rabbit-Proof Fence was warmly received by both audiences and critics upon its release in 2002. Grossing over $16 million at the international box office, the film received a raft of awards – including the AFI Award for Best Film – and positive reviews. On The Movie Show, David Stratton described it as a “bold and timely film about the stolen generations.”
The film tells the true story of three Aboriginal girls (as recorded in Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence) – Molly Craig, her sister Daisy, and her cousin Gracie (played by Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan in the film) – who are taken from their family in 1931 and sent to Moore River Native Settlement. Their abduction is justified by “Chief Protector of Aborigines” A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) as a solution to “the problem of half-caste” – children with Aboriginal and white heritage. The girls escape from Moore River and make the arduous – and long, stretching over nine weeks – journey home to Jigalong and their families, all along following the titular rabbit-proof fence.
Margaret Pomeranz, while describing Rabbit-Proof Fence as a “very good film”, noted that it “look[ed] at the children, rather than ever getting to know them.” Matthew Dillon’s Metro review makes a similar observation, noting that “we’re a little detached from the main characters”. This approach is somewhat explained by the film’s political agenda. As Larissa Behrendt notes (in her book on the film), “this is the film that took the story of the stolen generations to the world.” Australia had only abandoned its relocation program some three decades earlier, and despite the release of the Bringing them home report, the government at the time – led by John Howard – evinced no interest in apologising to Australia’s indigenous population.
Rabbit-Proof Fence’s importance, then, is as much political as artistic. The three girls are representatives of the real women they play, but they also symbolise the thousands upon thousands of children cruelly removed from their homes.
Release in a time when the Stolen Generations were a contentious issue, the film proved controversial; conservative commentators accused it of misrepresenting the facts. Andrew Bolt sneered at what he regarded as “untruths and exaggerations” and “Aboriginal leaders who falsely claim they were “stolen””. Des Moore and Peter Howson – who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1970s – argued that the film’s depiction of the girls’ “forcible removal” was fictitious and that “Neville acted responsibly.” Such naysayers found themselves on the wrong side of history in wake of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Rabbit-Proof Fence – whose fictionalised elements are all drawn from the accounts of other members of the stolen generations – undeniably played a role in shifting the national conversation around the stolen generations.
What It’s Really About
The distance created between the audience and Molly, Daisy and Gracie betrays Rabbit-Proof Fence’s intention to reflect upon the ways in which Australia’s white population failed its native peoples.
Mid-way through the film, the three girls encounter a fence worker (Ken Radley) who tells them they’re actually on the No. 2 fence, heading west, and suggesting a shortcut to reach the northward fence – and home. It’s a useful piece of advice, but scant assistance for three young children alone in the outback. As with the farmer’s wife (Edwina Bishop) who provides the girls with food and clothing, people are prepared to help – but only to the point where it doesn’t inconvenience them. Behrendt ponders the decision to include these scenes:
“What is the film telling us? Is it a sign of benign neglect on the part of white Australians? Does it reflect the ambivalence of an ‘at least we are doing something’ attitude, even if that something is ineffective? Or is the film showing us that although some white Australians in the 1930s might have wanted to help the Aboriginal families being torn apart, they too felt powerless in the fact of the Act and the power of the authorities?”
Rabbit-Proof Fence never provides a definitive answer to these questions, though given how long indigenous children continued to be removed from their families – up until the early 1970s – “benign neglect” seems the most fitting interpretation. But this is only one perspective on the historical treatment of Aboriginal Australians by white Australians; just as the fence worker identifies there are “three fences,” Rabbit-Proof Fence offers three distinct perspectives on how Australia failed – and continues to fail – the First Australians.
The film’s most intriguing figure is undoubtedly A.O. Neville. He’s the architect for the removal of the girls from Jigalong – along with countless others – but despite the racist undertones and deleterious ramifications of his actions, he’s presented not as a malevolent villain but rather a misguided ideologue. He says things like “In spite of himself, the native must be helped.” He believes his actions are necessary to preserve Aboriginal culture, not to destroy it, even as the children imprisoned at Moore River are punished for talking in their native language.
The rabbit-proof fence is a versatile symbol throughout. For example, when the girls first encounter it on their trek to Jigalong, they embrace it passionately and we cut to a shot of their mother (Ningali Lawford), holding the fence herself, hundreds of kilometres way. Here it represents their bond to the land. But in large part the fence represents the futility and inadvertent cruelty of Neville’s policies. It is a symbol of division, a deep wound through the centre of the country. It’s also an irredeemable failure; intended to keep rabbits to the east of Australia, it proved entirely useless (there ended up being more rabbits on the west of the fence). The gulf between Neville’s intent and the effects of the Act is manifest in the film’s final act, when the girls encounter a ruined section of the fence – a fractured chasm representing the failure of ‘civilisation.’
Australian director Phillip Noyce – coming off a string of Hollywood hits and with the assistance of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer Peter Gabriel (of Genesis fame) – wields an impressionistic aesthetic throughout, creating a spiritual and intuitive atmosphere. In particular, the way the camera regards Neville suggests the film’s derision of his philosophies; he is introduced with a bevy of intimidating low shots and dizzying Dutch angles, but by the film’s final frames we peer at him from above. He is now rendered small, ridiculous …but not defeated. After all, his policies would endure for many more decades to come; even Molly’s own daughters would be taken by the system.
Just as the girls only traverse along two of the three rabbit-proof fences, the audience only receives a glimpse of the third perspective on white Australia’s treatment of indigenous Australians – vicious abuse. When the trio stumble across a remote farmhouse and its Aboriginal domestic servant (at the 50-minute mark in the full film above), Mavis (Deborah Mailman), its promise of respite is swiftly snuffed by the intrusion of Mavis’s master. The girls attempt to hide from him in Mavis’s bed, but when he stumbles into her room, leaving his trousers by the door, the reality of her life becomes devastatingly clear. (This is not an isolated incident: the Bringing them home report noted that 17% of females removed from their families experienced sexual assault in either the institutions or foster families they were placed in.)
This scene is critical to Rabbit-Proof Fence, reminding its audience that the plight of Aboriginals is not simply a by-product of benign neglect and well-meaning but ill-consider policies. As the film’s opening titles remind us, our country is the end result of “the invasion of [Aboriginal] lands by white settlers.”
What to Watch Next
There are numerous representations of Aboriginality in Australian cinema. Perhaps the strongest example is Rolf de Heer’s loose trilogy, composed of The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) – the latter co-written by star David Gulpilil, one of Australia’s finest actors. But films representing the plight of the stolen generations remain rare – unsurprising given the controversial nature of the issue.
Baz Luhrmann’s (gloriously successful) Australia (2008)– a bombastic if unwieldy attempt to condense the entirety of Australian history into a 170 minute film – does incorporate the issue into its runtime… if only briefly, and with little connection to real events. Inventing a new institution for stolen children – on “Mission Island” – is understandable. But the implausible abduction of Nullah (Brandon Walter) – after his unofficial adoption by Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Drover (Hugh Jackman) – is presented more as spiteful revenge on the part of antagonist Fletcher (David Wenham) than the outcome of national policy. Nonetheless, its (uncontroversial) incorporation into such a prominent production suggests the dramatic shift in the national discourse around the stolen generation in the years preceding Rabbit-Proof Fence’s release, particularly when the film concludes with a reference to Rudd’s apology.
If you can hunt down Darlene Johnson’s documentary Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – released on earlier DVD versions of the film, but not included on the current edition – it serves as an instructive insight into the behind-the-scenes processes and philosophies. Equally, Australian Film Classics’ book Rabbit-Proof Fence, written by 2011 NSW Australian of the year Larissa Bernhardt, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in delving beneath the film’s surface. Bernhardt, herself an Indigenous author who’s written two novels centring on the stolen generations, writes with warmth and intelligence, analysing in detail the film’s themes, history and aesthetics.
Finally, those wishing to compare the film to the text from which it’s adapted should check out Following the Rabbit-proof Fence, written by Doris Pilkington, Molly’s daughter. Screenwriter Christine Olsen’s adaptation retains the spirit of the text without necessarily holding true to all the facts; Pilkington’s book conveys a carefully-researched portrayal of history without forgoing a deeply inhabited emotionality.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
2 Stolen Generations
2.1 Terra Nullius and Aboriginal Society
2.2 Racial Policies
2.3 Child Removal and the Bringing Them Home Report
3.1 Freud and Trauma
3.2 Trauma Studies
3.3 Collective Trauma
3.4 Witnessing Trauma
3.5 Trauma and Memory
3.6 Representing Trauma
The daily overload of trauma in contemporary media is brought to the audience almost simultaneously to the actual event. Today reporters and camera teams siege the scenes of train and plane crashes, suicide bombings or school bombings shortly after their occurrence. The public is often left in shock assailed with impressions by the multiple channels of information as newspapers, radio, television or the internet. General interest of media hardly involves uncovering the long-term effects of such traumatic experiences. Hence media quickly loses interest if new traumatic events occur. Suitable examples for this exploitation of trauma are numerous, the latest one being of the earthquake on Haiti. After reporting several weeks about those who were exposed to this sudden disaster the topic got slowly dropped. The pictures of the suffering Haitians struggling to survive dominated television news, newspapers, radios and the internet. After stories of missed family members and personal tragedies had been exploited, everything seemed to be said. But how do people go on after incidents with such tremendous impacts? – These daily appearances of individual and collective traumatic experiences lead scholars as Kaplan to regard trauma as a basic experience for people of the twentieth century (Kaplan 2005: 24), which can without doubt be adapted to the beginning of the twenty-first century as well. Other scholars as Luckhurst even speak of a traumaculture to describe the contemporary culture’s obsession with the topic of trauma (Wald 2007: 2).
While media often leaves its audience stranded with the horrible images of traumatic events it is up to literature, movies and art to create a fully-fledged picture of the phenomena of trauma. As life offers daily new arrivals of individual and collective traumas, older traumas, which have been neglected, need to find their way to the public stage. The trauma of the Stolen Generations, which has been suppressed and neglected in Australia for a long time, has been given the centre stage in Australia in 1997 with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report. Over 150 years children had been removed and brought to state institutions or foster families to be assimilated into the white Australian society, today known as the Stolen Generations. Since the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report many art forms as narratives, films, songs and paintings have dealt with the trauma of the stolen children. This paper deals with one example, the film Rabbit-Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce, an Australian director. Rabbit Proof Fence displays one way of dealing with the trauma of the Stolen Generations. The film succeeds in representing trauma in such way that it offers a dialogue between the Stolen Generations and the audience. Therefore it holds the great potential of bearing witness and making the narratives and testimonies of the Stolen Generations a shared collective memory of all Australians.
The paper deals with different aspects of trauma theory which afterwards are applied upon the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. As a starting point, the first chapter presents topics related to the Stolen Generations. After portraying differences in the cultures of the settlers and the indigenous people of Australia the paper moves on to the racial policies concerned with the assimilation of Aborigines. As one aspect of special interest in reference to the film the racial policy of child removal is addressed. The start of the reconciliation process which began with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report then concludes the chapter on the Stolen Generations. The second chapter revolves around the concept of trauma. First Sigmund Freud’s theories of trauma are presented and complemented by those of contemporary scholars as for example Cathy Caruth. Then collective trauma and its trans-generational impact are treated. Afterwards the possibilities in dealing with trauma are addressed and raise the question of the connection between memory and truth-value of testimonies. This then leads to collective memory and the representation of such through film.
2 STOLEN GENERATIONS
The Stolen Generations have been a central topic for today’s Australian society. Just lately, at the turn of the new millennium with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report they have taken centre stage. The narratives and testimonies of removed children of the Stolen Generations have played a crucial role in the confrontation of the Australian society with this suppressed past (Kennedy 2008: 58). For a better understanding of the topic of the Stolen Generations this chapter deals with the historical background.
2.1 Terra Nullius and Aboriginal Society
With the start of the colonialism European countries sent out their fleets into the world to seek new lands and continents to be claimed as colonies. As they discovered new territories they claimed them to be terra nullius, land belonging to no one (Collins & Davis 2004: 3ff). This conscious misconception led to the dispossession of the indigenous populace all over the world, be it for the First Nations in Canada or the Native Americans in the United States of America. In Australia the claim of terra nullius made the indigenous inhabitants being deprived of their land by the new arrived settlers. In this context ‘belonging to no one’ means that the land in the view of the arriving colonizers was not organized as a sovereign state and could therefore be claimed. This western perception of land being possessed by someone based on the stately organized European nations with a written legal allotment of land. Contrary to the understanding of land being possessed is the perception of the indigenous societies of Australia.
An insurmountable gap between Aboriginal and European cultural beliefs can be seen in this misunderstanding of the concept of land. For the settlers land presented cultivable ground which was possessed by someone. Aboriginal culture understands land as the root of peoples’ cultural identity (Zierott 2005: 8). Consequently Aborigines consider themselves to belong to land and form an undividable unit with it, as well as with nature. Especially as they see land as an equal and integral part of society. They believe that spirit ancestors created the land and they have to look after the land for them (Zierott 2005: 29). Furthermore Aboriginal identity is defined by another important element, the kinship society. The cohesion of family is made up by the links of descent and marriage. In Aboriginal societies everyone defines oneself by the connections to someone else because everyone is either brother, sister, mother, father or cousin in some way. This emphasizes the importance of communities in Aboriginal societies (Zierott 2005: 29). The film Rabbit-Proof Fence addresses these cultural differences with the first scene of the movie. As Molly is looking up to the sky watching an eagle-like bird her mother tells her that this is the “Spirit Bird” her totem. It will always be looking after her. The “Spirit Bird” appears another time towards the end of the film when Molly and Daisy have collapsed in the desert. While their mother is sitting in front of a fire chanting the bird seems to call for Molly who wakes up and utters ‘home’ when seeing the bird. This scene shows the union and cohesion existing between Aborigines, land and nature.
After the arrival and conquest of Australia by the settlers the Aborigines were more and more pushed off their land and finally lived on reservations. Later on, they were even deprived of their indigeneity, as the descendants of the European settlers claimed this nativeness for themselves (Macintyre 1999: 144). This seems to be ignorant as it is a historical fact that Aborigines have lived for more than 45,000 years on the Australian continent. Only after the Mabo decision in 1992 Aborigines were supported to reclaim their land. Therefore the belief of terra nullius was overruled and the Aborigines were officially acknowledged as the native inhabitants and owners of Australia. Still reclaiming land was not as easy as it sounds for Aborigines who often had been dislocated.
2.2 Racial Policies
At the beginning of the twentieth century census data seemed to support the belief that the Aborigines were doomed to be dying out (Macintyre 1999: 144). At the same time children of mixed parentage, which were thought to present the worst characteristics of both races, were increasing in number. It was believed that these children threatened the existence of the non-indigenous race of Australia (Beresford and Omaji 1998: 34). Fearing to be absorbed by this mixed race government called for solutions to the problem. Between 1890 and 1912 the State government reacted by officially making Aborigines wards of the state. Disguised as protection boards, agencies were from there on allowed to determine residence, employment, marriage and custody of children of Aboriginal descent (Macintyre 1999: 145). After the territorial theft Aborigines now faced the dispossession of their freedom and their children. These removed children became known as the Stolen Generations. Closely connected to the racial policies and the removal of children at that time is the name of A.O. Neville.
A.O. Neville advocated a three-step approach that involved the removal of ‘half- castes’ from their mothers, the control of their marriages and the encouraged marriage with the white community (Beresford and Omaji 1998: 46). All these measures were supposed to breed out the Aboriginal blood and seem to convey the idea of racial engineering. Aborigines were defined by their degree of whiteness. The employment of vocabulary as half-caste, quadroon and octoroon strengthens the impression of racial engineering. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence picks up the historical figure of A.O Neville, who functions as the antagonist of Molly and the opponent of all the Aborigines. Directly after the opening scene the action shifts to Perth where A.O. Neville as the Chief Protector of Aborigines is introduced. His powers over the lives of Aborigines is presented to the viewer as his secretary presents the current requests of Aborigines to him while the camera shows the queuing Aborigines in front of his office. In the scene next to the child removal A.O. Neville is shown as he presents his three-step approach to a group of women in Perth. While presenting pictures of the process of ‘breeding out’ to absorb the half-castes into the ‘higher white status’ the weeping and crying of the Aboriginal women is slowly blended out. Both scenes present A.O. Neville as a heartless man incapable of any kind of empathy and convinced of doing the right thing.
The policy of child removal can be separated in two different periods. Up to 1940 the dislocation of children was seen as a necessary need in order to biologically assimilate respectively absorb the children of mixed parentage. After 1940 the policy changed to a social assimilation of Aborigines. The Aboriginal children were brought to suburban family life in order to be fully assimilated over time (Zierott 2005: 25). A quotation which mirrors the policy of the second period of child removal comes from the Commonwealth minister for Territories, who confirmed the official objective of assimilation in 1951 by saying:
“Assimilation means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of Aboriginal blood in Australia will live like White Australians do.”
(Macintyre 1999: 226)