Stolen Aboriginal girls triumph in movie Rabbit-Proof Fence

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Rabbit-Proof Fence, directed by Phillip Noyce, made me feel ashamed to be an Australian. Much more positively, though, the movie provoked intense admiration for the courage and resourcefulness of its true-to-life characters.

Due for U.S. release in June, Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of Molly Craig — a remarkable girl who, with her cousin and little sister, successfully defied the system of ripping “half-caste” children away from their Indigenous communities.

Kidnapping to “assimilate.” In Australia, these children are called the stolen generation.

The goal of the government was to “breed the colour” out of them. To this end, they were separated from their families, culture and language.

Based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the movie recounts the saga of the author’s mother. The fence of the title was built to keep rabbits from the pastures of Western Australia, and ran from Port Headland in the north of the state to the Great Australian Bight in the south.

The tale begins in 1931 in Jigalong, a supply depot in the north. Molly, 14 (played by Everlyn Sampi), Gracie Fields, 11, and Daisy Craig, 8, children of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers, belong to a communal group that has moved in from the desert but maintains a strong tribal culture.

A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), known officially as Western Australia’s “Chief Protector of Aborigines” but to the Aborigines as “Mr. Devil,” issues a routine order for the girls’ removal to the Moore River Native Settlement, 1,500 miles south of Jigalong. There they will be trained as domestic staff for a white family.

In a juxtaposition that underlines the horror, we see the bureaucrat Neville make his passionless decision in his sterile office, and then we see the wrenching results.

The girls are dragged away from their mothers, fighting, crying, resisting, then collapsing into silence as they are locked in the car. The mothers run desperately after them, then throw themselves on the ground, wailing their traditional expression of grief.

Unbounded capacity for survival. Moore River is in effect a prison, where the inmates are locked up for 12 hours a day in a dormitory with barred windows. Children who attempt to run away have their heads shaved and are sent to the “boob,” a toilet-sized tin shed.

For most people, this would have been the end. But Molly has the bravery, the tenacity and, through the skills she has learnt from her people, the ability not only to escape Moore River but to survive the journey home.

She seizes her chance. The children slip away on a day that threatens a thunderstorm, which will cover their trail from the Aboriginal tracker who will be sent after them.

Molly soon discovers that they can follow the rabbit-proof fence to find their way north to Jigalong.

As the children make their nine-week trek, the depiction of the lunar landscape they travel through inspires awe at their ability to survive in the West Australian desert. They meet help from both Aboriginal and white people, and from both they also meet treachery.

The return is a triumph. We hear the sounds of the women’s ceremonies as they sing the girls home. In a wonderful scene, Constable Riggs, the man who grabbed the girls in the first place, goes into the bush to see “what the women are up to.”

He is met by Molly’s mother Maude and grandmother Frinda. In total silence they confront him, and Maude slowly points her long stick, like a spear — or a wand. As he turns and stumbles away, defeated, I wanted to applaud.

From Moore River to prison camps for refugees. If you want to know how the story ended for these girls, you will have to see the movie. It’s not the fairy-tale conclusion their heroism deserved, but you will still find it inspiring.

This film exposes a huge historical crime. It shows the inhuman cruelty inflicted not by a pathological monster, but by a man who believed that what he was doing was “in the natives’ best interests.”

It also shows the quality and the strength of the Aboriginal people and culture, which men like Neville rated so low and understood so little.

Set in the past, there is nothing “past” about the oppression it portrays.

Today, while the Australian government continues to abuse Indigenous people, it is also inflicting inhuman cruelty on asylum-seekers imprisoned in detention centers. On May 1, my comrades and I, along with many thousands of people as angry as we, successfully blockaded the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in protest.

Rabbit-Proof Fence not only acknowledges and chronicles evil, but is an inspiration to fight to overcome it. The film is one to see and to cheer for.

Delia Maxwell, a member of Radical Women and the Australian Education Union, is a retired teacher of English and history.

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