Sunday, August 31, 2014

Australian Audient: Rabbit-Proof Fence

This is the latest in my monthly series looking at films made in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australian, Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania.

I have to admit, when I learned what Rabbit-Proof Fence was actually about, I was a little disappointed.

I figured -- or more likely, hoped -- it had something to do with the known bit of head-smacking Australian history in which a man named Thomas Austin released 24 wild rabbits on his property near Winchelsea, Victoria in October of 1859, for the purpose of hunting them, leading to a proliferation that may today still not be contained. See, rabbits are not native to Australia, but had been brought there in small, contained quantities for a variety of purposes prior to 1859. Austin, self-involved fathead that he was, wanted a Sunday morning activity prior to this tea, so he blithely set into a motion a sequence of events that would alter the ecosystem of a whole country -- actually, a whole continent. (And for the record, I thought the movie might be about this because the above poster was not the one with which I was acquainted.)

The titular fence in Phillip Noyce's movie was, indeed, one of several measures taken to address Austin's colossal blunder, some 50 years later when it was already well past controlling, but its function in this movie has nothing to do with the dividing of rabbits and crops. Its actually the path taken by three Aboriginal girls, separated from their parents as part of the government's attempt to civilize them, while trying to find their way back home.

And I tell you, this ended up being a much better subject for a movie.

The story concerns one of the most shameful practices in the history of Australia, the removal of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families as an attempt to breed out the Aboriginal blood over subsequent generations of marriage to and procreation with white people. Bureaucrats like A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) actually believed they were doing right by these kids, indoctrinating them into a more civilized world where their lives would be better. But the upshot was that the government was legally entitled to strip these children from their parents and raise them in facilities like the one at Moore River (north of Perth in Western Australia), where they slept in gymnasiums full of cots and were raised to become laborers.

The three girls in Rabbit-Proof Fence are not having any of that. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Gracie (Laura Monaghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) -- who range in age from about 7 to about 13 -- were all grabbed from a village in Jigalong, more than 1500 miles from the place they were eventually deposited. Rationally, they know that anyone who tries to escape Moore River is soon hunted down by an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) who works for the settlement, and then punished severely. But led by Molly's fierce will, they have to try. Otherwise uncertain how to get home, they soon realize they can follow that fence that runs from sea to sea -- since it also runs through Jigalong.

There's something incredibly emotional, at an elemental level, about these girls' journey. Part of that is the fact that I'm a parent, and the idea of having my children taken away from me just destroys me at a core level. But this journey in particular resonates because it reminds me of the desperate path to freedom taken by slaves in the American south. As those refugees escaped pursuing slaveowners via the Underground Railroad, a metaphorical transit line comprised of a network of friends and safehouses, Molly, Gracie and Daisy follow a more literal direct path toward their own freedom, while relying on the same friendly faces and being wary of the same threats. And just as blacks were often undone by turncoat members of their own race, known back then as Uncle Toms, so too is the girls' greatest adversary a fellow Aboriginal person, the nearly spiritually gifted tracker Moodoo.

What makes this movie so affecting, though, is its shades of gray. Let's start with Moodoo. While this man is a formidable foe with a penetrating stare, and there are times when he carries the same sense of impending doom as someone like Anton Chigurh, there's also a melancholy to the man, a sorrow overshadowing his nature. He is being repurposed by the white government in just the same way the girls are, but his undeniable strength and keen mastery over the landscape have not allowed him to do what the girls do: escape. His whole aspect is burdened by the solemnity of accepting his awful fate, or at least lacking the will to oppose it, and in a way he embodies the self-hatred that the government is teaching. Because it's the master David Gulpilil portraying this character, none of this needs to come out in the dialogue, and in fact, Moodoo speaks only once or twice in the whole film.

Branagh, too, is a character who might be a cartoonish villain in another movie. His perspective on breeding the black out of Aboriginal people is, of course, appalling on every level. But this doesn't mean he's twirling his mustache over all the ways he can subjugate these people. In fact, he has a deep spiritual belief in what he is doing, believing it to be humanism of the highest order. There's a line near the end where he says "If only these people could know what we are trying to do for them." The look in his eyes as he says this is not one of contempt or disdain. In fact, it is misty-eyed idealism. This man truly believes he is trying to save the world, and feels a genuine sorrow when he is opposed.

Anchoring the film, though, is the performances of the three child actresses, specifically Sampi as Molly. There are moments when these girls demonstrate the kind of blankness that you would consider typical of a non-professional actor -- better to do too little, in that case, than to do too much. Other moments, however, cast a different light on those blanker moments. You get the sense that Noyce has calibrated these performances in exactly the way he intends, and when the action calls for rare displays of emotion from them, it's all the more affecting.

Perhaps from what I am describing, you are getting a picture of a very realistic movie played in a very straightforward manner, but the final ingredient in the greatness of Noyce's storytelling is its dreamy atmosphere. As the movie is bookended by narration from a modern-day Molly Craig, it's clear the whole thing is her story -- and as such, displays some mystical techniques you might associate with Aboriginal storytelling tradition. Lenses and filters are used sparsely but effectively, and a particularly difficult path of the journey through the harshest parts of the outback is darn near expressionistic in its blending of the real and the majestic. I'm a sucker for the scores of Peter Gabriel (see: The Last Temptation of Christ), and didn't even know until the closing credits that he'd written this one. The music makes everything all the more ethereal.

Okay, only four more months in Australian Audient! I don't have a clear path to getting my hands on my next movie, but I know several movies I'm trying to find. Let's see how I do.

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