Truth and the Rabbit-proof Fence

Jane Mills

Laura Monaghan, Tianna Sansbury, Everlyn Sampi, Rabbit-proof Fence

Laura Monaghan, Tianna Sansbury, Everlyn Sampi, Rabbit-proof Fence

Even before I’d seen a single frame of Rabbit-proof Fence I was drowning in a sea of marketing spin-offs and moral blackmail.

First there was the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of Molly Craig—the oldest of the 3 Aboriginal girls to walk the 1500 miles back home from the River Moore Settlement to which they’d been sent in 1931 by AO Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. Then came a film tie-in edition (interestingly called “a fictional account” by the publishers) with the cover showing the, by now, familiar sepia-tinted still of Molly (Everlyn Sampi) carrying her younger sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury). The legend ‘A True Story’ appears just above the girls’ heads and under the author’s name, the inevitable ‘Now a major film…’

You’ve read the book, seen the film and yes, there is a T-shirt. There were also 2 trailers, a website, a ‘making of’ documentary by Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Johnson, a massive Channel 9 promotion that included free tickets for 1500 competition entrants to meet Noyce at a Fox Studios special screening, a study guide for schools from Australian Teachers Of Media (ATOM, supported by Qantas), free postcards, posters, the CD of Peter Gabriel’s score, and Christine Olsen’s screenplay from Currency Press (see interview p16).

I was reluctant to write about the film partly because I felt uncomfortably close to several people involved: I’d met Noyce socially, Olsen is a friend of a friend (we also share the same publishers), and Johnson is a former student and now friend. Mostly, however, I had grave misgivings about Noyce as a filmmaker.

I admire his early Australian films—Backroads, Newsfront and Heatwave—which skilfully critique aspects of Australian society by their formal marriage of innovative style with radical content. But I find his more recent Hollywood action-thriller movies—Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and The Bone Collector—uninspired, politically conservative examples of a genre I normally enjoy. The Bone Collector is a particularly nauseous combination of necrophilia and misogyny.

Everything about Rabbit-proof Fence sounded so worthy that my bullshit antenna was working overtime. Mambo was giving a percentage of the T-shirt sales to the Jigalong community where Molly and Daisy still live; a trailer stressed that OA Neville had the Aboriginals’ best interests at heart; first-time scriptwriter Olsen wrote how privileged she was to meet the girls and grannies of Jigalong; stories abounded about how both Noyce and international star Kenneth Branagh had accepted massive income drops and/or deferred payments because they were so moved by the story.

Was this another representation of Aboriginals as victims to assuage whitefella guilt? The quote from Noyce on the cover of the tie-in book summed it up: “This is a marvellous adventure story and thriller, celebrating courage and the resilience of the human heart.” This sounded straight out of The Player, Robert Altman’s parody of Hollywood manipulation.

I could not have been more wrong. I saw the film and was profoundly moved by the politically thoughtful approach taken by its white screenwriter and white male Hollywood director. I saw Johnson’s documentary and was profoundly moved all over again. I now believe the whole package that Rabbit-proof Fence has become offers a site to explore reconciliation from a place where emotion, truth, fiction and fact all merge.

Noyce thinks in an ideal world the film would be made by a black woman director who would have said something different to another audience. But he wanted to reach black and white audiences about a contemporary need for white Australians:

When I make a film [on a political subject] I wet my finger and put it up to the wind. Will it be blowing in my direction when the film comes out? In this case the wind was already blowing. The audience wanted a vehicle…to get beyond the rhetoric, the politics. I hope it is part of the reconciliation.

It’s no longer possible to…sweep it all under the carpet. It was genocide…it has to be genocide. It was deliberate and people were once in denial about it. But, since Bringing Them Home, there’s been a sufficient martialling of opinion opposing the view that the general population were simply confused. We almost destroyed Australia’s greatest resource. There is a need for white grieving.

To achieve this, Noyce admits to something seldom openly included as part of film art:

Hollywood knows how to reach audiences. I’ve learned the lessons in marketing and casting that Hollywood teaches. Now I have to use these skills to sell an Indigenous story into the mainstream. It’s not overtly political, but covertly. Hollywood can do this and can do it well…

I’m a sort of ‘migrant worker’ in Hollywood: you’re tolerated as long as you service the big machine…Rabbit-proof Fence is an antidote to what I’ve done in the USA. That was ‘escapist entertainment’ first and foremost. [Rabbit-proof Fence] has a story that could be the best of any Hollywood movie. Basically it’s an escape movie.

Noyce’s description of his film as a genre movie helps explain its potential for widespread appeal: here is a movie about a long denied subject using film language filmgoers are familiar with. But how to attract audiences reluctant to face up to historically repressed facts? This is where Johnson’s finely-wrought documentary enters the scene:

Phillip’s film is an emotional journey about a basic human right to be with your mother and live in your own home. My film is about getting a bigger audience for Rabbit-proof Fence.

Johnson focuses on the transformation of the 3 young actresses to mirror the transformation of the 3 girls who rejected the role of passive victim to white man’s well-meaning but racist designs for them. She made a bold structural decision to end her documentary not with the post-production process as many ‘making of’ films do, but with the filming of the scene where Molly, Daisy and Gracie are forcibly removed from their mothers. It makes this scene more emotionally distressing than it is in Noyce’s film where it takes place near the start, before we are attached to the characters. Johnson took this decision because she hoped it would deliver viewers to Noyce’s film.

Cinema plays a role in winning the hearts and minds of the Australian people to accept, understand and ultimately reverse the consequences of white assimilationist policy. In their own ways, Charles Chauvel’s Jedda and Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries, A Rural Tragedy also do this better than documentary, perhaps because they’re fiction and, unlike documentary, rely upon the mimetic for audiences to become absorbed and incorporated into the narrative. Johnson agrees:

Rabbit-proof Fence is better than a documentary which is always too actual, and can be too confronting. Fiction allows people to identify better. It makes for emotional attachment. Fiction uses storytelling devices…it allows us to get caught up in the story emotionally in a way that documentary doesn’t.

This slippage between fiction and actuality is too hard for some. Tabloid journalist Piers Akerman attacked Noyce for “playing fast and hard with the truth” (The Sunday Telegraph, March 3 2002). Responding, Noyce quoted Doris Pilkington: “Recognise what happened to us, so that we can all be healed.” Paradoxically, recognition requires the understanding that comes with the sort of emotional assimilation that Hollywood cinema can offer its audiences.

Paradoxical because, as Laleen Jayamanne points out in a thoughtful essay (“Love me tender, love me true, never let me go: A Sri Lankan reading of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy” in Toward Cinema and its Double, Indiana University Press, 2001) the definition of ‘assimilation’ is: “to make like, to adapt, to absorb and incorporate, to convert into a substance of its own nature; to absorb into the system.” For audiences, the mimetic, involving assimilation in a way that makes it an essential element of fiction, can lead to awareness of truth, rather than a denial.

By exposing cinematic mimesis, Johnson’s reflexive documentary reveals how Noyce uses the cinematic experience of audience assimilation into the emotions of a fictionalised narrative to arrive at a recognition of what really happened. This way grieving is possible for white Australians, and greater understanding is possible for all.

Rabbit-proof Fence, writer Christine Olsen, director Phillip Noyce, distributor Becker Entertainment, currently screening nationally. See page 16 for Hunter Cordaiy’s interview with screenwriter Christine Olsen. Darlene Johnson’s Follow The Rabbit-proof Fence, a companion documentary to the making of the feature film, was screened on Channel 9, February 3.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 15

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002