Rabbit-Proof Fence, a beautifully shot movie recently released on DVD, retells a true story from the 1930s and is surprisingly current in the themes it covers.
The story, set in 1931 Australia, retells the story of three aborigine girls who were taken from their mother and moved to a camp 1,200 miles away. To escape, they must walk home across most of Australia using the titular fence, built across the entire continent in a futile attempt to keep the rabbit population out of the farmlands.
The basis for their deportation was a 1905 law, practiced well into the 1970s, which intended to integrate children of half-white, half-aborigine descent — so-called “half castes.” This law made one man, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the legal guardian of all aborigines in west Australia.
Within the 25 years during which he held the post, thousands of aborigines were moved across the country with the intent to integrate them into white society. These people, and those who were moved under the guidance of similar men in other parts of the country, are now referred to as “the lost generations,” as they live today without any sense of cultural identity.
Branagh plays Neville with an eerie restraint, ensuring that the character never comes across as purely evil, but rather as somebody with good intentions that are tragically misguided. This becomes most apparent when he says that “in spite of himself, the native has to be helped” and should “be advanced to white status.”
The three girls — all played by real aborigines ranging from age 7 to 9 who never acted before — play their parts magnificently. Unlike other movies that have starred children in key roles, their acting is never forced or over the top. Never once do they seem to only repeat lines they memorized but rather seem to relive the historical situations.
As shown in the 40-minute documentary included on the DVD, “Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence,” director Phillip Noyce is trying to playfully encourage the girls to overcome their fear of acting in front of a camera for eight weeks, and do so in ways that keep their action on screen fresh. This is also evident in the well-executed commentary track and is what makes the movie captivating.
The story, based on the book written by the daughter of one of the girls, shows that even well-intended actions sometimes have disastrous effects.
Like The Quiet American, another movie by Noyce depicting the involvement of the CIA in the outbreak of the Vietnam conflict, Rabbit-Proof Fence shows that meddling in other cultures without understanding them can do more harm than good.
In times where wars are fought to “liberate” entire countries and the United States is propagating its way of life throughout the world, the film’s theme should resonate with domestic audiences.
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