In Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence the palette is all dusty oranges, greens, and browns, and the camera, for the most part, stays low to the ground. It may at first appear that the film means to emulate its child protagonists’ perspective. Molly, the unflinching leader, is 14, her cousin Gracie around 11, and her sister, Daisy, the smallest at 8. But this framing also replicates the traditional methods of Australian aboriginal storytelling: from a position seated on the ground.
And Rabbit-Proof Fence does function like a folktale, a delicate, reverential one, celebrating both the girls’ astounding true story (they walk over 1500 miles in 9 weeks to escape capture and to return home) as well as the way that they might tell it themselves. From the beginning, Noyce places the emphasis on the tellers. The real-life Molly (now in her mid-80s) narrates the opening and closing scenes, implying that what comes in-between is from her own mouth.
From the time Australia was settled by Europeans, officials regarded it as their duty to remove half-caste children from their homes and place them into special schools. “Half-caste” is a term that refers to children born half-aboriginal, half-white; nearly always the mothers were the aborigines, while the fathers, as in the protagonists’ cases, were workers on the country-spanning fence of the film’s title. “Civilizing” these children served the dual purpose of removing them from their culture and training them as servants for wealthy white homesteads. Children so “civilized” were allowed to communicate only in English, were forced to take on white culture as their own, and generally never saw their families again.
In 1935, Molly, Gracie, and Daisy are taken from their native Jigalong country and enrolled in a “special” school for half-castes. At the school, white women in robes scrub away the dirt from their bodies, encase them in shapeless white robes, and teach them to sing “Suwanee River” for Mr. A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the appointed “guardian” of all the half-castes. While the women are not referred to directly as “Sister,” their fluttering veils imply they are nuns, and their condescending ways appear to be a poke at Western imperialist and Christian missionary efforts. When these caretakers scour the girls “clean,” the images is abjectly metaphorical: it is the dust of their home and cultural identity that is ruthlessly and violently washed from the girls’ bodies, just as it is the memory of their homeland that the authorities try to erase.
But the stoic, hard-faced Molly refuses to forget. She rallies her cousin and sister while their companions are at mass: they begin walking the thousands of miles home to their families. As Molly, 11-year-old Everlyn Sampi is a revelation. On the film’s website, Noyce compares her raw “star quality” to what he saw in Nicole Kidman (whom he directed in Dead Calm). Sampi’s Molly is a girl on the verge of becoming a proud, defiant woman with an innate sense of justice. On the rare occasions when a smile breaks through, her face lights up with joy, but for most of the film she is a model of self-restraint, which is especially impressive considering the actor’s young age.
Molly, Gracie, and Daisy’s journey is mythic as much as it is historical. The rabbit-proof fence is long, sinewy, and deceptively low to the ground, both savior and trap. It keeps the girls on track, leading them back home, but it also makes it easier for the authorities to find them. The fence is a beautiful touch — functioning as both aid and obstacle to the girl’s journey, it symbolizes neither hope nor futility, but is more of a connective force in their environment. In one sequence, which might be cloying except for the fact that it is both short and understated, Molly grasps on to the fence, attempting to find her way; thousands of miles away, her mother touches the fence, too, and it is almost like, at that moment, their hands touch.
While at times it may feel too obviously politicized, Rabbit-Proof Fence works remarkably well as a testament to the unceasing desire for a homeland. Seeing Molly and Daisy as old women at the end of the film, alive in Jigalong country despite a life full of hardship (their troubles did not end when they returned home), is tremendously moving. In a time of globalization and shifting/multiple nationalities, Noyce’s deft ability to make us feel as though Molly, Gracie, and Daisy have told us their own, very personal, story makes one long for the girls’ certainty of home and place, and what it means (and takes) to return there.