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Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003
It's just a 2,500-km walk home
By KAORI SHOJI
"Rabbit Proof Fence" is in a genre all of its own. Though the central characters are three girls (8, 11 and 14 years old), it's not really a children's movie. And while there's a lot of movement, it's certainly not an action movie. Between director Philip Noyce ("Clear and Present Danger," "The Bone Collector") and cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("Chungking Express"), they've managed to fashion what is best described as "physical poetry," in which the girls do very little except walk and walk and walk. Their figures are always receding into the distance, their straight backs and thin legs moving ever farther away.
Based on the best seller by Doris Pilkington (whose mother was the leader of the girls), "Rabbit Proof Fence" recounts the true story of three Aboriginal girls who escaped from a state-run "school" in 1931 and traveled 2,500 km through the Australian Outback to return home . . . on foot. You can gape at their amazing resilience, or shed angry tears at a political system that compelled them to undertake such a trek.
"Rabbit Proof Fence" focuses on what is known in Australia as "the Stolen Generation." From the late 1920s until 1970, when the practice was abolished, Aboriginal children of mixed race were forcibly taken from their mothers and raised in government facilities. (In the movie, a policeman snatches the children, puts them in the back of a truck and drives away, even as the mothers run behind the vehicle, screaming and beating on the windows.)
This barbaric practice was sanctioned by the Aborigines Act. The official objective was to "whitewash" children of mixed parents and incorporate them into mainstream society. In actuality, the children were trained to be factory workers or domestic servants. Many of the girls were sent out to remote farms as maids and subjected to all kinds of abuse. In one scene, a white middle-aged farmer strides into the maid's room at night, undresses without ceremony and prepares to climb into her bed. So much for "joining" mainstream society.
Originally from Australia, Noyce is better known as a director of solid blockbusters, but this movie is a labor of love that he shared with fellow-Australian Doyle, who had, until then, worked almost exclusively with big-name Asian directors, such as Wong Kar-wai.
For Noyce and Doyle, "Rabbit Proof Fence" was a story that needed to be told. But they shrewdly avoid the pitfalls of sentimental propaganda and high-handed documentary. The result is a poetic adventure story minus any fancy gadgets or 11th-hour deus ex machina -- the human body and an instinctive knowledge of nature are the only tools employed to get home, tools in which the eldest girl, and the leader, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) has placed her indomitable faith.
Molly is an incarnation of the old Aboriginal saying: "The more you know about the world, the less you need to take with you." Thus, the girls keep walking under a scorching sun, and through Doyle's lens the natural surroundings are never friendly: whitish, dusty terrain, rocky hills and a barbed-wire fence stretching on and on.
The girls find their way home by following this fence (hence the title): It was originally built to keep rabbits from devastating farmland.
While the girls flee, the official in charge of relocating mixed-race children, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), swears he will get them back. He puts the local cops on their trail and hires ace Aboriginal "tracker" Moodoo (David Gulpilil) to hunt them down.
Moodoo's eagerness to find the girls peters out, perhaps because he's impressed by their skill in outsmarting him. At one point, Molly steals socks from a clothesline and wears them over her sneakers to obscure her tracks.
As for the whites, to Noyce's credit, he avoids depicting all of them as horn-growing racists. The supervising nuns in the state home, for example, meant well. And the girls encounter some friendly white folk on the road. But what surfaces is their appalling lack of empathy. None of them understand the enormous (and quite natural) desire of the girls to return home and rejoin their mothers.
A most telling scene is when they receive unexpected aid from a farmer's wife who catches Molly stealing eggs. She tosses over some overcoats and feeds them, but she makes them eat on the dirt road below her porch while her blond, well-groomed little daughter stares at them with frank curiosity. The camera follows Molly's gaze as she stares at the woman, and then at her daughter. The woman looks back into Molly's eyes, but remains impassive at the rage and accusation that blazes there. In that moment, the film has said all that needs to be said. And so has Molly, though she remains silent. In the next frame, she urges the two younger girls to their feet, turns her face toward the wind and starts walking.