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'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

Australia's racial issues abound in 'Rabbit'

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Now that Trent Lott has segregated himself from the leadership of the U.S. Senate, maybe he should go see the movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence" so he can yearn for the not-so-good old days in Australia.

'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

Rating: PG for emotional thematic material

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Everlyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan

Director: Phillip Noyce

Critic's call:


In the land Down Under, it was legal until 1971 for the government to forcibly separate half-caste children from Aborigine parents and relocate them in camps where, if we are to believe director Phillip Noyce's quietly powerful film, they were trained to serve the domestic household needs of the white citizenry -- all in the name of assimilation.

If they could only understand the good we are doing for them, bemoans Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Chief Protector of Aborigines (a k a Great White Father) for Western Australia. He looks so pained by the ungratefulness of his charges that we can tell he actually believes what he says.

But in 1931, when the story is set, he doesn't have to pretend otherwise. Among those falling under his authority are three girls who live in the town of Jigalong, on the edge of the Gibson Desert. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), sister Daisy (Tianna Salisbury) and cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) live with their Aborigine mothers.

Their white fathers have moved away -- they were workers on the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a structure that runs the length of Australia to protect the long-eared animals from ravaging precious pasture lands.

The Man comes and takes them away -- 1,200 miles away, to be precise, to a settlement camp where Mr. Neville's missionaries will rear them and teach them how to cook and clean and such. But Molly will not listen when they try to tell her she has no mother. She gathers up Daisy and Gracie and sets off for an impossible trek across the desert, with the camp's tracker of runaways, an impassive black man named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), on their trail.

Their incredible journey forms the hard backbone of the movie. Molly's native intelligence, sure instinct and quick-thinking shrewdness keeps her one step ahead of Mr. Neville's minions. The longer the chase goes on, the more embarrassing it becomes for the government and the more sympathy accrues to the fugitives.

Noyce, directing Christine Olsen's screenplay based on a book by Doris Pilkington, doesn't feel the need to embellish the story with any more passion than it engenders on its own, which is considerable. Do the girls make it home? What happens to them? The answer is almost as amazing as their adventures.

The movie does stoke our emotionalism at the very end, when it shows us the real Molly and Daisy, who are now octogenarians. "Rabbit-Proof Fence," exclusively at the Manor Theater, is a true story and important enough to make this a controversial film in Australia as that nation comes to terms with its own racial history. People like Trent Lott, it seems, are not a wholly American phenomenon.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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