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Rabbit-Proof Fence (Miramax Films, PG-13)

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rabbitproof 75Rabbit-Proof Fence aspires to epic status, but it’s really more of a well-done genre film.

 

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In 1901, construction began in Western Australia on what would become the world’s longest unbroken fence: the famous rabbit-proof fence, intended to contain a foreign species that had become a serious agricultural pest. The definition of a pest, of course, depends on your point of view—and from the point of view of Australia’s European settlers, the rabbits were interfering with their economic interests.

Another type of pest, also as defined by the Europeans, was the indigenous human population of Australia. By 1931, the chosen method to eliminate them was to simply breed them out of existence—to remove half-caste children from their families, and “breed” them with whites, so that several generations later any trace of their “blackness” would be gone. Because, you know, it’s not like they were human beings or anything.

The irony of a fence built to contain one type of pest facilitating the escape of another is the central metaphor of Philip Noyce’s 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, based on the memoir Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, written by Doris Pilkington. The film’s primary story is its essence of simplicity. It follows the story of three aboriginal girls—Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy Craig Kadibill (Tianna Sansbury), and Gracie Fields (Laura Monaghan)—who run away from a settlement camp intended to teach them to be servants to white families, and set off on foot on an improbable journey to rejoin their families 1,200 miles away. Their guide is the famous rabbit-proof fence running the north-south length of the Australian continent.

Rabbit-Proof Fence aspires to epic status, but it’s really more of a well-done genre film, combining the inherent tension of the girls’ escape (will the Aboriginal tracker betray them? Can they trust this white person, or that one? Will they simply perish from exposure to the elements?) with a strong melodramatic strain, and packaged within a history lesson. It’s hugely entertaining, and a great way to open up a discussion not only about the Stolen Generation (the children of Aboriginal descent removed from their families by government edict), but also about cultural imperialism, in general. The United States has plenty to answer for in that department, and we’re not alone.

Subtlety is not a dominant feature of Rabbit-Proof Fence: White men, in particular, are painted with the broad brush of racism, and Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville, holder of the unintentionally ironic title of Chief Protector of Aborigines, so melodramatically that it’s a shame he was not supplied with a mustache to twirl. Details of the story have been challenged, but that’s a little like picking apart the minor details of Schindler’s List, as if identifying a few examples of narrative license could make the huge historical reality behind the story go away.

If the surface story of Rabbit-Proof Fence is about the details of three children’s lives, then the dominant theme is surely the vanity of human beings who attempt to impose their wills on the natural world, as well as on other human beings whose culture differs from their own. The vastness of the Australian landscape, highlighted by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, is a key character in this film, acting as a friend to Molly, Daisy, and Gracie, and as an enemy to those who seek to control them. | Sarah Boslaugh

Rabbit-Proof Fence will be screened in the Winifred Moore Auditorium on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. as part of the Webster University Film Series. Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster University staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper ID.

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