Rabbit-Proof Fence: Phillip Noyce’s Social-Problem Film

After directing several blockbuster actioners in Hollywood (“Patriot Games”), Australian-born filmmaker Phillip Noyce returned back to his roots to make this powerful period melodrama.

Based on a true story, a lamentable period in his nation’s history, when European settlers first arrived in Australia, Rabbit-Fence Proof is a social-problem film about unbearable racism and social injustice.

A title card set the period and the context: the immediate, inevitable conflict between the recent arrivals and the nation’s indigenous people, whose rich cultural heritage bore little resemblance to that of the Europeans. By the mid-19th century, when white settlers had gained political control of the continent, many aborigines were forcefully removed from their lands and their cultures, wit their offsprings cruelly taken from them.

Under the erroneous, arrogant and colonial belief that the youngsters would be better off in a more “civilized” environment. Through most of the 20th century, it was official government policy that half- or quarter-caste indigenous children were to be taken from their families and raised as “white” children in orphanages, where they would be trained to work as domestic servants or laborers.

The story perse, takes place in 1931, Molly (the beautifully expressive Everlyn Sampi) and her younger sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan), three half-caste children from Western Australia, were taken from their parents under government edict and sent to an institution, where they were subject to physical and emotional abuse as they were taught to forget their families, their culture, and their lives.

In the name of cultural assimilation, they were forced to adopt Western manners and education and become members of “white” Australian society.

Gracie and Daisy cling to the stronger and more stubborn Molly for support, and Molly, inspired by the cause, decides they need to return to their parents at all costs.

With Molly’s plans for a risky and
daring escape, the three girls begin an epic journey back to Western Australia, travelling 1,500 miles on foot with no food or water, and navigating by following the fence that has been build across the nation to stem an over-population of rabbits.

A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the government functionary in charge of relocating Western Australia’s aborigines, takes a special interest in the case of the three girls. He thereupon brings in a veteran tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil) to help find them, deluding himself that he’s acting in their best interest.

Rabbit-Proof Fence was based on the acclaimed book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, whose Aunt Daisy was one of the three children, who had made the extraordinary journey and later helped her with the research for the book.

While the story is particular in time and place, its message is universal, suggesting the horrible conditions, and devastatingly tragic experiences that minorities (racial, ethnic, sexual) often go through, when their subculture is oppressed or denied by powerful Western forces.

No doubt, Noyce’s heart is in the right place, but his filmmaking tends t be overly simplistic, based on a dichotomy of the characters into either heroes or villains. Though the movie is emotionally touching, and in moments even heartbreaking, there is not much for the audience to do but nod with agreement over the film’s political ideology.

The distributor, Miramax, did a good job, and the movie, considering its subject and the fact that large portions of the dialogue were subtitled, reached audiences beyond the art and festival circuits, grossing the respectable amount of $6 million.


Running time: 94 Minutes.

Directed by Philip Noyce

Written by Christine Olsen

Released: November 29, 2002 Limited

DVD: April 15, 2003

Box Office: $6.0 million

Miramax Films