Phil Noyce has not made a film in Australia for 12 years. These days he is better known for his work on American films such as Patriot Games and The Bone Collector than for his older Australian films, Newsfront, Heatwave and Dead Calm. Noyce chose to return and make Rabbit Proof Fence, the true story of Molly Craig and Daisy Kadibil, aged 14 and 8, who in the 1930s walked 1,500 miles from an Aboriginal mission home near Perth to Jigalong in the north of north-western Australia. Molly was a smart girl and she knew that the rabbit proof fence, completed in 1907 to keep rabbits from munching from the east to the west coast, would lead them home.
I read Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, Molly’s daughter, in 1996 and was captivated by this short, compelling story of survival and endurance of the human spirit. It seems Kiwi Christine Olsen, best known for documentaries such as Riding The Tiger (1992), was also impressed, bought the rights to the book and wrote the screenplay which won a NSW Premiers Literary Award in 2001. Olsen approached Noyce to direct the film.
There will be people who will say this film is a timely tie-in with the movement towards reconciliation and the general beating of chests about past wrongs and the stories of the stolen generations. This film does not descend into sentimentality but rather sticks to the story as told by Doris, Molly’s daughter, who incidentally, was taken away from her mother and didn’t see her again for 30 years.
Rabbit Proof Fence was photographed by Asian-based Australian, Christopher Doyle, who has increasingly been working outside Asia since 1998 and also teamed with Noyce on the yet-to-be-released The Quiet American. His photography on this film is surreal and creates images of the heat, dust, fear and emptiness that the young girls encountered on their journey. The three young girls are well cast. Everlyn Sampi (13), Tianna Sansbury (9) and Laura Monaghan (11) had never acted before and were selected after an Australia-wide search. Thanks to the efforts of the dynamic Rachel Maza, who coached the girls, their performances are controlled and believable. Ningali Lawford is excellent as the mother (Ningali’s mother Myarn plays the grandmother and sings on the soundtrack) as is Kenneth Branagh as the epitome of English zeal, Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr Neville, whom the kids call Mr Devil. David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman and Garry McDonald all have small roles.
This story is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what happened to so many Aboriginal families up until recent times. Rabbit Proof Fence deserves to be seen as much for the quality of the film as for the unique nature of the story.