Philip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence is a film about three Aboriginal girls named Molly Craig, Daisy Kadabil and Gracie Fields and it explores the lives of these girls coinciding with the Australian western society during the Stolen Generation period. The police of the white Australians captured the girls due to their mixed-blood status; half white, half Aboriginal. They were taken from their parents and were put into a settlement with other mixed bloods known as “half-castes”. The film also tells of their escape from the Moore River Settlement and their return to their families, except for Gracie. The film is based on a book entitled Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence which is inspired by true events and is written by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of the protagonist Molly (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”).
The film attempts to untangle many issues of Australian history. It explores the issues such as the relationship between the Aborigines and the invading-settlers, explains the reason why half-caste Aboriginals were taken from their families and what happened once they are captured.
The ‘Stolen Generation’ consists of children of Australian Aboriginal descent who suffer the destruction of identity, family life and culture because they were removed from their families by the Australian and State government agencies under the Aborigines Act (“Bring them home”).
It is documented that the removals occurred in the period between approximately 1869 and 1970s (Marten 229, Australian Museum 1-6, Read 1-34). This was caused because, by the mid-nineteenth century, white settlers had begun their encroachment of native Aboriginal lands, resulting in inevitable mixing of white and Aboriginal blood. The children of this union were known as “half-caste” and their growing presence is seen as a threat to civilized society by the Australian authorities (Stratton 70).
Motives for the removal of the children from their families are heavily debated and include fears of miscegenation, child protection and a desire to attain white racial purity (Bates 243). In order to achieve the aforementioned motives, cultural imperialism and subjugation of the Aborigine will be discussed.
First and foremost is cultural imperialism. British colonial rule relied on the perception that non-white people and non-Western cultures as inferior and needed the ‘advanced civilization’ offered by Western culture. The colonizers found it beneficial for children to adapt to Western society as they believed that the indigenous people lived ‘unhappy lives’ and the thought of them conforming to the ‘western lifestyle to be ideal’ (Klages 147-152, Stratton 70).
Britain extended its national rule to countries and areas all over the world from the late seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth century (“Colonialism”). The British formed British colonies and in most cases took over the administration of the government in order for British laws and customs to rule the people who lived half a world away from Britain itself. British colonial rule meant teaching the indigenous people about the superiority of Western practices through the setting up systems of police, courts and legislatures following British laws (Klages 147-152).
It is also done by sending missionaries to convert natives to Christianity, establishing churches, setting up schools to teach British customs, and the English language to children and adults in order to make them more like British citizens. The Australian government itself stems from British colonial rule and thus followed the aforementioned things.
When Molly, Daisy and Gracie were taken from their parents by the police, they were transported to Moore River Settlement, more than a thousand miles away from their families. When they are at the settlement, they were forced to speak English, abandon their traditional beliefs and culture, taught to adopt to western society and were brought up to believe in Christianity as apposed to their own belief (Rabbit-Proof Fence). The Moore River Settlement disconnected the children with their families and this prevented the children from finding their families or returning back to their homes. Children at the Moore River Settlement were also taught to believe that their past (traditions and origins) to be an ‘evil thing’ and persuaded them through the use of force to never revisit their original way of life and continue on living in western society. This is done in order to ‘protect the child’ by making them conform to western lifestyle.
According to Mr. A.O. Neville, who is the Chief Protector of Aborigines, the half-caste children should be removed from their families for the fear of miscegenation. He states that there will be a ‘racial classification dilemma’ as the half-caste child could “allow a creation of an unwanted third race” and there will be a dispute on whether or not “the colors be encouraged to go back to the blacks” or “advance to the white status and be absorbed in the white population”. He further adds that half-caste children can be bred into ‘white people’ through after three generations of marriages with white people starting from the half-blood grandmother, leading to the quadroon daughter and the octoroon grandson as after “the third generation, no trace of origin is apparent…continuing infiltration of white blood…finally stamps out the black color”. This clearly shows the desire to attain white racial purity in which the Aboriginal is finally bred out. Second is subjugation of the Aborigine. The film the Rabbit-Proof Fence shows subjugation of the Aborigine through power and law. This can be seen through the use of characters, symbols and settings developed throughout the movie.
The most powerful character is Mr. A.O. Neville, chief protector and legal guardian of every Aboriginal in Western Australia in the 1930s. He represents authority as throughout the entire movie, he is portrayed as having perfectly combed and waxed hair and is always seen in a suit which is in immaculate condition. This is combined with his power to control every Aborigine in the state: “Every Aborigine in this state comes under my control”, he said. He displays his authority by signing an order for the institutionalization of Molly, Daisy and Gracie and by his formal pattern of speech; “I’m authorizing their removal. They’re to be taken to Moore River as soon as possible”.
Molly Craig’s character, on the other hand, shows the contrast to power and law. Molly’s hair is free and her clothing is simple to portray her carefree lifestyle without official rules. Molly’s speech is also informal and mostly made up of simple sentences; “Where your country? How far does rabbit fence go to?” When these two characters clash, we see the effects of power and law on the powerless Aborigine. From these two examples, it is clearly seen that the whites held the power to dominate the Aborigines because they held authority through law.
Even when an aborigine acquires some power and law, as depicted in the character of Moodoo, he is still not powerful enough to go against the white oppressors. He can neither get himself or his daughter to totally abandon the Moore River Settlement. In addition, he also has to suffer with a lost of identity as he is not entirely accepted by the white or aboriginal communities because of his role as a tracker.
Symbolism is another way to represent power and law. Mr. Neville’s stationary especially his pen and rubber stamp are powerful objects. They are the most powerful tool because they are used to authorize the removal of the three half-caste girls. It is also a tool to grant permission to marry, visit children and buy new shoes.
The three aboriginal children were forced to fight the forces of the whites with their own set of powers without the help from the law. They have the power of culture, taught to them by their mother, Maude. They had learned native survival skills as part of their aboriginal education. Without their knowledge of tracking, hunting and survival in the bush, they would never have made it back to their home. These abilities were essential throughout their journey. This fundamental power of culture was an indigenous strength that allowed survival in a harsh land. It was also a strength that could be used in combat against their white oppressors.
Settings are also used to represent power and law. There are two main settings are social setting and physical setting. The social setting consists of patriarch society versus matriarch society. The white oppressors controlled the society that they oppressed by following a ‘patriarch rule’. The individuals with the most power in society are men while women played a subordinate role. Men road horses, drove cars and enforced laws. Women became housewives, secretaries and servants. The Aborigines, on the contrary, controlled their society by following a ‘matriarch rule’. Women became the head of their family and the breadwinner. Men only became an insemination tool.
It is also interesting to note that when these two types of social settings clash with one another, the physical power of the patriarchs together with their control of the law overpowers the matriarchs; Constable Riggs forcefully takes the three aboriginal girls from their mothers and grandmother while justifying his actions by saying “I’ve got the papers, Maude, there’s nothing you can do”.
The physical setting too shows the portrayal of power and law. Molly’s home is where modern living and laws are not reinforced. Molly enjoys a free and happy lifestyle because of this. Warm colors found in can be seen through the lush vegetation and large landscape of her home to represent this. Alternatively, Mr. Neville’s office is the home of laws. His office is linear and the objects in the office are placed in an orderly fashion which reflects Mr. Neville’s way of life and the issue of power and law.
Besides power and law, the role of education as well plays a role in subjugating the Aborigines. Most children at Moore River Settlement receive basic training to be domestic servants and farm laborers. Only fair-skinned children from the settlement will receive ‘higher education’ from Sister Kate because “they more clever than us, they can go to proper school”, according to Nina. This results in the children to be taken advantage off from the whites when they return to the society as they will become servants to them. A clear example is Mavis. She graduated from Moore River Settlement and she becomes the servant to a white couple and a sex slave to the couple’s husband. This proves that education is not a tool for social advancement but a regulatory tool for oppression.
As a conclusion, the central idea that flows throughout the film is a lack of understanding in the colonizer-colonized relationship. As white colonists gradually occupied the lands of the indigenous people, the latter’s traditional nomadic way of life is seriously eroded. Derisively seen as a ‘stone-age’ race, the aborigines came to rely on handouts as the structure of their society collapsed. Since the settlers were superior in force, the indigenous people were thought of as lesser beings and they felt no remorse for mistreating, controlling and deciding how the indigenous people were supposed to live (Stratton 70, “Colonialism”). The acts of the Australian government as portrayed in the film can be equated to genocide. To say that the Australian’s western society was right for doing such an immoral offence towards a once prosperous and content civilization is foolish. Their policy was definitely aimed at ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginality. Many Aboriginal people from the ‘stolen generation’ are psychologically damaged and continue to suffer the effects of destruction of their identity, family and culture.
The ‘white’ powers despite their authority have been unable to bring a complete makeover to aboriginal Australia. The young girls made it home, but their victory did not close the education settlement that housed the ‘stolen generation’ of aboriginal children. Years later, as we learn from the film, Molly is once again abducted by the authorities. She retrod her steps while carrying her youngest child to return to her homeland. Her elder daughter was too heavy to carry and she never saw her again. This shows that neither set of forces has ultimately been successful; the white powers of cultural imperialism versus the aboriginal powers of cultural preservation. The struggle between the two powers still continues up till today.
Australian Museum. Indigenous Australia: Family. 2004. 23 January 2009
Bates, Daisy. The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime spent among the Natives of Australia. 1983. Project Gutenberg of Australia. 23 January 2009.
Bring them home. 23 January 2009
“Colonialism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica . 23 January 2009.
Klages, M. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Great Britain: Continuum. 2006.
Marten, J.A. Children and war. New York: NYU Press 2002.
Rabit-Proof Fence. Dir. Philip Noyce. Perf. Evelyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan, Tianna Sansbury, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil, Garry McDonald. Miramax 2002. DVD.
Read, Peter. The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969. 1981. Department of Aboriginal Affairs (New South Wales government). 23 January 2009
Stratton, David. “Rabbit-Proof Fence (Motion Picture)” Film & Television Literature Index 25 Feb. 2002: 70- . EBSCOhost. West Virginia University Library, Morgantown, WV. 23 January 2009.