Which Rabbit-Proof Fence? Empathy, Assimilation, Hollywood

by Tony Hughes D’aeth

© all rights reserved

The decisive moment in the chase that structures Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (Miramax, 2001) involves a confusion between two rabbit-proof fences. The three girl-fugitives are known to be on the fence, following it home to Jigalong, so the authorities have set police to the north and south of them. Their capture could only be a formality. And yet the two teams meet without coming across the girls. In a flash it dawns on A.O. Neville, Western Australia’s notorious Protector of Aborigines and coordinator of the chase, what has happened. The girls have unwittingly found themselves wandering west on a spur line from the main fence. By a miraculous mistake they had eluded the plan he had devised. A moment of high melodrama, no doubt, but more interesting is the fact that this never happened. There are two rabbit-proof fences but Jigalong is on the near fence and the spur line which connects the two fences heads further east, not west. The device, however, is a crucial one because it enacts a gestural defeat of the inexorable, linear logic of the historical narrative of Aboriginal incarceration. The two fences are part of a logic of parallelism on which the film rests, and by which it offers up an alternative, liberatory historical moment. This essay seeks to consider the way that Noyce’s film is being positioned within an emerging history of the Stolen Generations and to evaluate the status of Rabbit-Proof Fence as the first feature film to explicitly treat this subject.

In the March 2002 issue of Australian Humanities Review, Anne Brewster put her finger on a dissonance that hangs between the “parallel universes” of Katherine Sussanah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929) and Doris Pilkington-Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), on which Noyce’s film was based. Whilst nearly 80 years intervene between the publication of these two texts, the stories themselves are nearly contemporaneous and each concerns the Mardu people of the Western Desert and their violent relationship with the colonising population. So much for coincidence, but the sense of an uncanny doubling of worlds is delivered, if I read Brewster correctly, by an ingrained expectation of singularity precipitated by the processes of globalisation. In other words, it ought not to surprise us that the “worlds” and “histories” of Prichard and Pilkington-Garimara are different despite their physical propinquity and temporal coincidence – and yet it does. The strangeness we notice in this difference might therefore be regarded as a register of the force with which we are continuously encouraged to unite all worlds and histories within the single teleology of the global.

The Rabbit-Proof Fence story concerns three Mardudjara girls from the East Pilbara who in 1931 were taken from their community of Jigalong to the Moore River Native Settlement as part of the policy of removing so-called “half-caste” children. After a short period at Moore River the three girls – Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Gracie (8) – escaped from the settlement and walked some 1600km home, much of the way along the rabbit-proof fence that runs from the northern to the southern coast of Western Australia. The story had a contemporaneous existence that can be traced in the local press as well as the archives of the WA Police Department and the Department of Native Affairs. Clearly it also existed as a story amongst the people of Jigalong. Doris Pilkington-Garimara, a historian and the daughter of Molly (the oldest of the three girls), published an account of the journey as Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence in 1996. Pilkington-Garimara’s account combined both the archival record and the oral record (what Brewster calls a “counter-archive”), which she derives mainly from her Aunty Daisy.

Pilkington-Garimara’s story was optioned by South Australian documentary film-maker Christine Olsen who adapted the narrative to write her first screen-play. As legend has it she rang expatriate Australian film-maker Phillip Noyce, critically acclaimed for Australian films like Back Roads, Dead Calm and Heat Wave, but more recently known as the director of the blockbuster Hollywood Tom Clancy-adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Noyce was initially cool on the script but when he could not secure Harrison Ford for the next Tom Clancy film decided to proceed (Urban 2002). In her foreword to the screenplay, Christine Olsen says that her biggest challenge was trying to discover why the story of Molly, Daisy and Gracie “moved her” so much and just as importantly for Olsen, why Molly’s story was also her own story. She writes:

At first it seemed that this was a classic fairytale: three children stolen away by a wicked witch and taken to her house. In this house everyone has been put under a spell of forgetfulness. The longer the children are there the more strongly the spell works on them. The three sisters escape and are pursued by the vengeful, angry witch every inch of the way. They must use all their cunning to evade her and get back home.

But then I thought, “No, this is a war story. The country has been invaded and taken over. Now, even deep in the hinterland, the invaders are reaching out and taking away the children. They are placed in camps from which only three escape. To get back home they must cross through enemy-occupied territory never knowing who their friends are, who is out to get them.”

Eventually I came to realise that my story/Molly’s story was about home.
(Olsen, vii-viii)

Olsen does not say that Molly’s story is a story of the Stolen Generations, possibly because it was too obvious or possibly because it tends to expose the limits of what we might call the “empathetic collapse” of Molly’s story into her own story.

Empathy is indeed the key premise of a film like Rabbit-Proof Fence. With its origins in late nineteenth-century German idealist aesthetics, empathy (“Einfülung”, literally in-feeling, Malgrave and Ikonomou, 22) now generates an optimistic connotative field that reached its public apogee in Bill Clinton’s refrain: “I feel your pain”. It is reasonable to imagine that most who will see the film would not have had direct experience of being forcibly removed from their parents or having their children forcibly removed from them. In the place of this, the film (like many others) asks its audience to make that imaginative leap. Not all films ask this question explicitly, though the controversial poster for the North American release of Rabbit-Proof Fence does just this, reading: “What if the government kidnapped your daughter?” (Adnum 2002). The poster has been doubly controversial, attracting both right-wing criticism as “sensationalising, misleading and grossly distorting” (Adnum 2002), as well as raising left-wing eyebrows because the central image of Molly carrying Daisy has been digitally removed – lost, as it were, in the cultural translation. The problem, of course, is one of a double-audience; a relatively informed domestic audience and a relatively uniformed international audience. (One American reviewer described the film as based on a book by Doris Pilkington and Nugi Garimara.) The solution, on the face of it, is to speak in a universalising language of emotions. This is certainly the line taken consistently in the publicity surrounding the film and is prominent in the reactions and reviews. Noyce describes his experience of reading the script as follows:

I was overwhelmed by the story. Emotionally overwhelmed. I really strongly identified with the three girls, Molly, Daisy and Gracie, and that was not because they were black. It was just because they were young children who were powerless and had no redress and seemingly no escape from their destiny. And who, after an almighty effort, triumph. I found myself on their side, in their shoes, massively identifying with them, very soon into the story. (Urban 2002)

Like Olsen, who explained that she had to understand how Molly’s story was also her story, Noyce says that his threshold task as a director – the one he needed to accomplish before he could produce the film – was to achieve a form of empathy in which he could feel himself into “the shoes” of the girls. Amongst several potential ironies is the fact that for most of the film the girls do not wear shoes.

This is not to say the film did not take steps to ensure it was made in a fashion that was culturally appropriate. Pilkington-Garimara was employed as a consultant by the film-makers and by her own account was quite active in this role, recasting parts of Olsen’s script she regarded as violating cultural taboos (Pilkington-Garimara 2002). Pilkington-Garimara also has explained that Noyce incorporated her suggestions regarding the way film concludes. The film was also screened at Jigalong, where it played on a specially-built screen in the local schoolyard. The screening was attended by members of the cast and crew, including Pilkington-Garimara and Noyce, but also by Molly and Daisy. Pilkington-Garimara tells of how the film, once shown, had an important impact on the community of Jigalong, sparking a minor tourism boom in which people have wanted to see and touch “the fence”. The community school has also staged in its own theatrical adaptation of the movie. It is important to note these forms of ownership being (re)asserted over the story. It is also a complex study in the play of narrative remediation, not only between different communities of signification, but between modes of expression (orality and visuality, archive and performance).

Despite this emphasis on the local, Noyce explicitly approached the film as a universal story. Well-established (and well-founded) critiques of universalism are bypassed by the language of empathy, but also by an implicit understanding that Hollywood film acts as a de facto forum for final justice, for “global” justice. This anticipation can be seen in views such as those expressed by Pat Dudgeon, head of Indigenous Studies at Curtin University, who characterised the film as the first to bring the issues surrounding Australia’s Stolen Generations to an “international arena”. Whilst Dudgeon’s remarks call to mind the representations of indigenous groups to international bodies such as the UN and Amnesty International, they also chime with the publicity that surrounded Claude Chauvel’s 1955 film Jedda, which was heralded as “a film only Australia could give the world” (Beckett, 94). Indeed, with its atavistic subplot concerning the tracker “Moodoo” (played by David Gulpilil) signalled in the film by the extradiegetic intrusion of didgeridoo music, Rabbit-Proof Fence both looks back to Jedda and forward to Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), whose eponymous hero is also played by Gulpilil. In other words, the film’s subject – its problem – is one that is presented as soluble only by stepping outside of the debilitating frameworks of nationhood, further suggesting that this nation is indeed part of the problem.

Indeed, whilst it looks outward for its ethical resolutions, the film remains inescapably stitched into the national debate over the Stolen Generations. Olsen’s assertion that the film is “about home” echoes the title of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, which itself invested strategically in the white-picket fence vision of normality that underpins the Howard years. The issue of the Stolen Generations certainly informed the film’s critical reception. Robert Manne, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, asserts that Rabbit-Proof Fence is the “first important feature film on the subject” and adds that “no episode in our history is more ideologically sensitive or of greater contemporary significance for indigenous/non-indigenous relations that the story of the stolen generations” (23 February 2002). Former national Liberal leader, John Hewson writes even more stridently in the Financial Review about the political imperatives arising from the film:

John Howard and his ministry should, as a matter of compulsion, take the first opportunity to see and discuss the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. And, not just because of this movie, they should immediately say “Sorry!” along with, and on behalf of, the rest of us.

Something needs to jolt our political leaders into action on Aboriginal reconciliation. Hopefully this movie proves to be the catalyst. (12 April 2002)

Between the book (published in 1996) and the film (released in 2001), the national context for narratives concerning the forcible separation of Aboriginal children from their mothers was paradigmatically altered by the handing down and publishing of Bringing Them Home. The report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, commissioned by the Keating government, made a number of findings including, most controversially, that the policies of forcible separation constituted genocide within the terms of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This led directly to the demands for an apology which were rejected by the new Prime Minister Howard. It is the debate over saying “sorry”, as John Hewson makes clear, which continues to be the major focus for public considerations of these matters.

More than most public reports, Bringing Them Home foregrounded its methodology and particularly its reliance on testimony, which paralleled South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also the Shoah project to record the stories of Nazi Holocaust survivors. Indeed, the very first recommendation in Bringing Them Home is to fund agencies that can record – with sufficient counselling support – the experiences of the estimated 100 000 Aboriginal children separated from their parents between the 1920s and 1960s. In many ways, however, Rabbit-Proof Fence, whilst conditioned by Bringing Them Home, is antithetical to its precepts. Obviously, they are quite different forms of public expression, but it is worth specifying just exactly how they are different. While the report amasses 535 separate oral accounts of childhood separation and seeks to detail the differing situations and outcomes, the film chooses one story to stand for all stories. We learn next to nothing, for instance, of the fellow inmates of Moore River Native Settlement that we see in Rabbit-Proof Fence. To this extent the film exemplifies a tendency identified by Bain Attwood as the formation of “the Stolen Generations narrative” in which the specificities of experience are subtly drawn together into a single meta-experience (Attwood 2002). The distinctive importance of orality, inidividuated experience and testimony in Bringing Them Home are replaced in the film by an intense visuality. Chris Doyle’s colour-charged cinematography has a dominating effect on the sensorium, and the film, like its doppelganger The Tracker, subsists on remarkably few words. Part of the heavy-handed visuality of Rabbit-Proof Fence is an emphasis on icons, such as the fence itself, but also the wedge-tail eagle which is Molly’s totem in the film. Also, while the film is not, in my view, interested in the oral (but contrast Rooney 2002) it is profoundly interested in the aural and draws affective power from Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack Long Walk Home. Gabriel’s “world music” soundtrack, released under Virgin’s “Real World” imprint, has been reviewed appreciatively. One reviewer praised Gabriel’s sampling of “outback” sounds and his success in blending “historical aboriginal instruments with a modern eye for emotion and drama to yield a haunting CD” (Naldrett 2002).

Where Bringing Them Home and Rabbit-Proof Fence reunite is in their gravitational dependence on the Nazi Holocaust as a foundational traumatic event. The report’s finding of genocide is specifically grounded in the immediate post-war international legal response to the Nazi Holocaust, but how is the linkage established inRabbit-Proof Fence? It seems clear to me that Rabbit-Proof Fence is closely linked in a conceptual sense to the single most influential Hollywood representation of the Holocaust, Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). These links are extensive and occur at a number of different levels. Both films are based on non-fictional accounts (by Pilkington-Garimara and Keneally) of traumatic events that were founded on survivor testimony. Keneally acknowledges his heavy debt to Leopold Pfefferberg, just as Pilkington-Garimara singles out her Aunty Daisy Kadibil. This non-fictionality, as well as a broader appeal to historicity and pastness, is conveyed in each instance through the use of black and white effects to simulate old footage, notably in Rabbit-Proof Fence in the stuttery establishing shots of St George’s Terrace in Perth. The stories themselves are each counter-historical (to borrow another term from Anne Brewster) in the sense that they represent narratives that go against the sweep of accepted history. In other words they are both survival stories that take place against a backdrop of non-survival, or alternatively, escape stories that confound a more general condition of imprisonment. Each film also seems conditioned by the expectation that they are bringing their respective traumatic events to “the world” and present themselves implicitly as representative of a multitude of similar stories. In this sense, the stories in Bringing Them Home(and the National Library’s Stolen Generations oral history project) are akin to the video archive generated through Spielberg’s Shoah project, and in each case Rabbit-Proof Fence and Schindler’s List stand as cinematic analogue and apotheosis.

Olsen admits that she conceived of the film as a “war story”, and this is registered in details like the military great coats the girls wear for part of the film. However, the sense in which we are watching not just a war story but a “Holocaust film” is brought home in incidental but cumulatively significant ways such as the incorporation of barbed wire into the lettering of the title of the film, which in turn picks up on the close-ups of the fence that recur through the film. The scenes at Moore River Native Settlement specifically evoke the concentration camp, including the shaving of Olive’s hair, and the “selection” scene where Neville separates out the children to be taken to Sister Kate’s. While not a strong feature of her text (when compared either with Olsen’s screenplay or Noyce’s finished film), Pilkington-Garimara herself depicts Molly’s first impressions of the dormitories at the Moore River Native Settlement in ways which, somewhat anachronistically, point toward the Nazi Holocaust: “It looked more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children” (Pilkington-Garimara, 70). It is significant that the three girls were in fact conveyed south to Perth by steamer from Port Headland, and not by locomotive as depicted in the film. Like Schindler’s List, Rabbit-Proof Fenceuses the train as a metonym for, on the one hand, violent displacement and, paralleled to this, misplaced modernity. In a similar fashion, both films condense their genocidal schemes into the figure of the middle bureaucrat, Amon Goetz and A.O. Neville, though Goetz’s sadism lends an extremity to his behaviour that escapes the underpinning ideas about the “banality of evil” and the bureaucratisation of violence.

Perhaps most significantly both Schindler’s List and Rabbit-Proof Fence conclude by rupturing the fundamental representational premise of realist cinema, which is that the screen is a window onto a fully-realised historical world. The premise is violated, in each case, by a “stepping out” of the fictional and a return to the present of those who have survived. The real Molly and Daisy, now aged but clearly undaunted, emerge in the final moments of the film into a new epistemological space – not cinema this time, but TV documentary which is signalled by the use of subtitles explaining where these people are now, which is to say, in the present-day lifeworld which TV articulates. In other words, both films actualise their aspirations to documentary status. In this sense, the expressionist moments in de Heer’s The Tracker, and the work of Tracey Moffat generally, offer an intriguing, non-realist alternative mode.

There are, undoubtedly, radical differences between Rabbit-Proof Fence and Schindler’s List. Most obviously, Rabbit-Proof Fence has no Schindler – the victims rescue themselves and indeed, repudiate their victimhood through their historic walk home. I have no desire to collapse the two films let alone the respective histories they stand for, but simply to underscore the extent to which Hollywood film, understood as a self-referential tradition rather than a geographically confined industry, perpetuates its own visual and narrative poetics and that this process is redoubled rather than abandoned in the case of traumatic social histories. Yet it is also important to recall that the two films do not just share an uncanny tropological coincidence, but grow out of a similar historical context of nationally endorsed racisms. Anne Brewster’s analysis of Pilkington-Garimara’s book makes the point that Australian assimilation policies were given legitimacy and impetus by an international mobilisation of eugenics which encompassed the United States, Canada and Europe – including Germany.

If, as I contend, the films share many parallels, then it follows that criticisms levelled at Schindler’s List might also extend to Rabbit-Proof Fence. There is an extensive literature about representations of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as the particular issue of traumatic realism and indeed Schindler’s List itself, but for a specific analysis of the criticisms of Spielberg’s film I will rely on Miriam Bratu Hansen’s excellent essay ‘Schindler’s List is not Shoah‘. One charge levelled against Schindler’s List that might be readily extended to Rabbit-Proof Fence is that for all its good intentions Spielberg’s film is still part of the culture industry and it is profoundly offensive to think that people are profiting from a commodity which trades on traumatic memories. On a wide reading, and taken as a prohibition, this claim would severely limit the subjects available for commercial media. I do not therefore regard it as a forceful criticism. A second charge that could be made against each film is that they are structured according to the dictates of classic Hollywood, including its demand for narrative closure. However, traumatic events by definition resist closure. There is also the problem of the kinds of closure that history allows as against the kinds of closure that Hollywood craves. Hansen endorses Alexander Kluge’s description of this as the problem of “how to get a happy ending without lying” (Hansen, 205). The climactic end of Rabbit-Proof Fence has Molly and Daisy reunited with their families and only quietly acknowledges that Molly and her two children (including Doris) were taken once more to Moore River in 1941.

A third and more complicated accusation against Schindler’s List is that it was shot “through German eyes” (Hansen, 206), often from the organising consciousness and moral position of Schindler, but notoriously there is a scene in which we look through the gun-sight of the Plaszow camp commandant Amon Goeth. This issue is sometimes discussed in film theory as one of the allocation of subjectivity. However, it is at this point that Rabbit-Proof Fence departs significantly from Schindler’s List. While Spielberg’s film is preoccupied with the issue of witnessing – which goes in turn to the historical complicity of those who watched and did nothing –Rabbit-Proof Fence typically allocates the film subjectivity to Molly. The difference in the visual sensibilities of each film is thrown into relief by a contrasting of corresponding traumatic moments from each film.

In terms of setting up an architecture of the historical gaze, the key sequence in Schindler’s List is that depicting the storming of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. We watch from a camera position high above and given to us by Oscar Schindler sitting on his horse with his girlfriend looking down on the events unfolding before him; just as he would if he were watching classic Hollywood cinema. Schindler’s eye, acting as surrogate to the eye of history, picks up the path of a single girl who acknowledges the gaze by turning red. Spielberg does not ask us to empathetically occupy the position of the victim, but forces us to assume the role of the complicit witness. The reverse appears to be at work in Rabbit-Proof Fence. The scene where the children are taken from Jigalong depot is filmed at ground level with a camera that keeps up with the action, a position in other words that is immersed in the traumatic scene. While Schindler’s List has been criticised for failing to allocate Jewish subjectivity, one might make the converse criticism of Rabbit-Proof Fence and suggest that its heavy reliance on first-person filmic techniques has the effect of portraying the events of the Stolen Generations as though they were unwitnessed, as though they took place away from any third person, outside the view of history.

The differing ways in which subjectivity is allocated in these two films points to an ambiguity in Australia’s self-awareness that is not present in the understanding of the Nazi Holocaust. Historical studies of both the social policy and experienced effects of Australian assimilation are still emerging (Gray 1998; Haebich 2000; Anderson 2002). The issues are complex and hot, with the consequences having ongoing effects in many people’s lives. Comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust are equally fraught and undimmed by a sense of their being “in” the past. Marcia Langton is right to question those who seek to draw a category distinction between the extermination of Jews in Germany and the extermination of indigenous Australians (Langton 1998). This comparison of enormities is admittedly repugnant, but it may be a necessary part of coming to a fuller understanding of the Australian predicament. At issue is the dual character of Australia’s assimilation policies that have a foot in each history: the failed and discredited eliminationist history of Euro-American eugenics and the redeemable history of liberal citizenship. This ambiguity besets Rabbit-proof Fence and is acted out in the character of A.O. Neville, the WA Protector of Aborigines played with a distancing Britishness by Kenneth Brannagh (although Noyce had hoped to cast Russell Crowe). Neville, a leading advocate and major architect of the policies of forced removal exclaims wistfully, but with bracing conviction: “The native must be helped in spite of himself.” It is probably not a coincidence that this remark by Neville is also quoted in Bringing Them Homeas evidence for the genocidal intentions of the forced removal policies. Importantly, the Neville of Olsen/Noyce/Brannagh (who might be compared with the Neville emerging from the plays of Jack Davis or the fiction of Kim Scott) embodies the vision of him as a slightly misguided and idiosyncratic fool, rather than as a symptom of an entire culture of indigenous devaluation.

On its face, then, the film is a critique of assimilation with Neville as the leading assimilator. The political debate over the film has tended to take it on its own terms and either endorse this critique or refute it, predictably following the contours of the broader debate about the Stolen Generations. I want, for a moment, to look through this debate to an issue that arises from the very character of filmic practices that we now accept as being natural. In particular, the film acts to promote a distinction between the presumptive discourse of assimilation and the liberal imperatives of empathy. The distinction, however unstable, appears to rely on the separation of “thinking into” (empathy) and “thinking on behalf of” (assimilation/paternalism). In Rabbit-Proof Fence, this distinction is not made in a conventional dialogical fashion – there is no one there to answer Neville directly, not even a wry, pragmatic Oscar Schindler. Instead, the film answers Neville, and by extension the discourse of assimilation, with another representational regime, namely the immersive practices of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

The key moment in which the two systems of assimilation and empathy are brought into collision is on the morning when the newly arrived Molly is inspected by A.O. Neville in front of the assembled girls of Moore River Mission, a scene which is theatrically informed by similar selection scenes in Schindler’s List. During her long walk up the hill to meet Neville, we are placed in empathetic occupation of Molly’s body, not just through the typical method of a hand-held first-person camera shot, but by the overdubbing of Molly’s breathing – a technique associated with horror movies and which seems by turns both inappropriate and strikingly apt. It seems to me that what we are being asked to experience – to “think into” – is not so much the Aboriginal view as the child’s view. I use these essentialist terms (“we”, “children”, “Aborginal”) advisedly and in an attempt to pin down the visual strategy of this sequence. It falls to the child, as it so often does, to provide the vehicle for cross-cultural translation. Who else but children are the “Them” in Bringing Them Home? These children are now adults but the title speaks to the figure of the lost child and the severed familial and cultural ties for which it stands (see Pierce, 198-201). In this moment Noyce neatly enfolds the predicament of understanding assimilation. We must ask: Who am I in this drama? The child, for we have all have been children? Neville? The kind-faced sisters? All productive questions, but entirely premised on the ability to inhabit multiple subject positions – a premise the film does not question and which we as watchers are also invited to ignore. We watch in disgust as Neville carefully scrutinises Molly’s body to judge its level of pigmentation, although we hardly pause when seconds earlier we casually occupy this same body. Our “being” Molly is, in my view, sanctioned by the empathetic imperative of Hollywood film.

I began this essay by considering Anne Brewster’s exposure of the dissonant universes invoked in Pritchard’s Coonardoo and Pilkington-Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. I experienced a similar sensation recently when watching the Black Swan Theatre company’s The Career Highlights of the Mamu, about the Spinifex people displaced by the “tests” at Maralinga. The moment which sticks with me – the punctum – was when the play’s author and star Trevor Jamieson disguised in black Kendo robes danced around a distraught Japanese woman who was declaiming a poem about Hiroshima. Behind them on giant screens played footage of the atomic devastation of that city. At this moment I comprehended that the Spinifex people and the residents of Hiroshima were bonded – as few other people in the world could be – in their first-hand experience of nuclear assault. Trevor Jamieson represented the relationship symbolically when he laid two spears (which had previously stood for the transcontinental rail) on the stage, no longer parallel but touching at their heads, to evoke the intersecting vectors of his people and those who unleashed the bombs at Maralinga. I thought of a stage littered with spears, each representing the vectors of separate histories – and how they might meet not just at Hiroshima and Maralinga, but Nagasaki, Nevada, Kazakhstan, Mururoa and the Montebellos. One might easily imagine another spear-littered stage. This time each represents the lives of indigenous Australians separated from their parents during the twentieth century. They point in a similar direction but they are not parallel; sometimes the points meet, sometimes they do not: this is the problem of the Stolen Generations.

One can recognise and celebrate the vision of the makers of Rabbit-proof Fence who have brought the issue of the Stolen Generations into the most affectively powerful and demographically penetrating of media, particularly in a political context which is grounded in denial. A friend described how she saw fellow passengers weeping on the Qantas flight on which it was screening. There must be a value in this and a value too in the reclamations made by the people of Jigalong on the screening of the movie in their schoolyard. But by translating the story into the self-styled omnivorously global language of Hollywood cinema, is there not a danger that the metaphysics of Prichard’s universe recolonise the one articulated by Pilkington-Garimara? The empathetic investment on which the film is so heavily reliant constitutes in my view something of a Trojan Horse. There is no intrinsic throughtfulness or “thinking into” that is brought about by the use of first-person camera shots or other immersive film techniques. The arrogance of the discourse of assimilation can live just as easily within the polite filmic regimes of Hollywood cinema.


Tony Hughes-d’Aeth lectures in English, Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. He is the author of Paper Nation: The Story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (Melbourne University Press, 2001). “Which Rabbit Proof Fence?” was presented at the 2002 Association for Studies of Australian Literature (ASAL) conference in Cairns.

Works Cited

Adnum, Mark. ‘Advertising Oz.’ Spiked Culture (28 May 2002). http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006D909.htm.

Attwood, Bain. “‘Learning about the truth”: The Stolen Generations Narrative.’ Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan, eds. Telling Stories: Indigenous History and Memory in Australian and New Zealand. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2001. 241-260.

Beckett, Jeremy. ‘Sarah McMann’s Mistake: Charles Chauvel’s Jedda and the Assimilation Policy.’ Julie Markus, ed. Picturing the “Primitif”: Images of Race in Daily Life. Sydney: LhR Press, 2000. 91-104.

Brewster, Anne. ‘Aboriginal life writing and globalisation: Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.’ Australian Humanities Review 25 (March-May 2002)

Dudgeon, Pat. Speech introducing Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara’s “Curtin Reconciliation Lecture”, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia, 29 May 2002.

Gray, Geoffrey. ‘From Nomadism to Citizenship: A P Elkin and Aboriginal Advancement.’ Nicholas Peterson and Will Sanders, eds. Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: Changing Conceptions and Possibilities. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Haebich, Anna. Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families, 1800-2000. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. ‘Schindler’s List in Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory.’ Marcia Landy, ed. The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Pres, 2001.
Hewson, John. ‘A Moving Picture of Hope.’ Australian Financial Review: 12 April 2002.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Commonwealth of Australian, 1997.

Mallgrave, Harry Francis and Eleftherios Ikonomou. ‘Introduction.’ Empathy, Form and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893. Santa Monica, CA: Gety Center Pulbication Programs, 1994. 1-85.

Manne, Robert. ‘The Colour of Prejudice.’ Sydney Morning Herald: 23 February 2002.

Jamieson, Trevor and Scott Rankin. The Career Highlights of the Mamu. Black Swan Theatre Company. Octagon Theatre, Western Australia. May 2002.

Langton, Marcia. Response to Alexis Wright, ‘Breaking Taboos.’ Australian Humanities Review 11 (September-November 1998).

Naldrett, Peter. ‘Another Post-Genesis Spectacle.’ Review of Peter Gabriel, Long Walk Home, Virgin 2001. Music-Critic.Com, 17 June 2002. http://www.music-critic.com/sdtrks/gabriel_longwalkhome.htm
Olsen, Christine. Rabbit-Proof Fence: The Screenplay. Sydney: Currency Press, 2002)

Pilkington-Garimara, Doris. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2002 [1996].

Pilkington-Garimara, Doris. “Curtin Reconciliation Lecture”, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia, 29 May 2002.

Rooney, Monique. “‘Echoes across the flats”: Storytelling and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence.’ Southerly [forthcoming]. I am indebted to Monique for kindly showing me an advance copy of this article.
Urban, Andrew L. ‘Noyce, Phillip: Rabbit Proof Fence’. Urban Cinefile. www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?Article_ID=5770.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]