Wherever colonialism went the children suffered the most. In Canada some call it the “big scoop” and in Australia it’s known as the “stolen generations.” The Australian movie Rabbit Proof Fence does an admirable job of telling the story of three aboriginal girls who are forcibly taken away from their mothers and taken to a church-run camp where boys are trained to be farm hands and girls as domestics.
The three young actors who play Molly, Daisy and Gracie never acted before and were the result of an extensive search throughout the Western Australia outback by director Phillip Noyce, (Patriot Games, Dead Calm, Clear and Present Danger).
Racism is endemic throughout the story. The children are taken because they are mixed blood with white fathers and aboriginal mothers. Australians didn’t want a third race, and these “half caste” children were considered salvageable: they could be bred to have the aboriginal blood disappear in a few generations. The children are checked to see if they are fair enough to go to another school and be integrated with white children.
Based on a true story, the children are taken to a camp 2,400 km from their home, only to later flee. While it is a camp of wooden buildings and not the brick monoliths we have in Canada, it is still a familiar, repressive boarding school. The children entertain the staff with songs from England and the older students bully the new and younger ones. The aboriginal staff is used to do the dirty work and the tracker Moogoo (played by David Gulpilil) follows the girls into the desert but never finds them. At one point he appears to locate them but he does not follow through. It is as if he is their guardian and wants to see them safely home.
The movie title’s fence is also a character in the story. Originally put in place to control the spread of rabbits, it is now a metaphor for the separation of the aboriginal world and the colonial British overlords. But, here, it is also the way to freedom.
The children follow the fence, propelled with a simple message, “We want to go home.”
Australian actor Kenneth Branagh, who plays Mr. Neville, the aboriginal affairs ‘guardian,’ gives such a masterful performance that he almost makes you feel sympathetic to him. He honestly believes the native must be saved “in spite of himself” and that he is doing the right thing. It would have been easy to demonize Neville but it would have made the story a docudrama and a rant against the authorities. Neville wants what is best for the natives even if it means destroying them in the process.
Filmed in the Gibson desert, the landscape is at once forbidding for European eyes and familiar to aboriginal eyes. The girls are able to get water because they have been taught by their mothers. The desert is immense but it is their world.
If anything, this story is too kind to the system that broke up families and devastated a culture. About 10,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and one in five was sexually abused. As in the aboriginal population in Canada, the legacy lives on in Australia with social problems, dysfunctional people and a loss of innocence that pervades the whole society.
I grew up close to a boarding school and while we went to school in town and stayed with our parents, the students at the school confided in my sister and me about the violence and loneliness in the school.
Every so often one of the students would run away and head back to their reserve. Years later, a person in charge of a low-security jail told me we’re like homing pigeons. Whenever someone ran away they went to his home reserve and picked him up. Home is sacred to the aboriginal person. It’s where our roots are and it’s where we belong.
Students who ran away were usually rounded up and brought back to face punishment. Sometimes they didn’t make it and were found frozen beside a road or railway track.
In 1970 the movie Clod Journey, starring Buckley Petawabano and Johnny Yesno, told the story of a teenage student who ran away from a northern boarding school and was found dead of exposure. Based on a true story, it was seen as one of the nails in the boarding school coffin.
And Rabbit Proof Fence, too, is a true story. It is based on the lives of Molly Kelly and her sister Daisy. Today Molly is 85 years old and her sister is 79. They attended the premiere at their home community of Jigalong in a remote part of Western Australia.
These two proud women spoke for thousands in their story when they said, “All we want to do is go home.”
Freelance writer Doug Cuthand is also a filmmaker. In 2001, he released Childhood Lost, a documentary about the residential school experience.