Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
The most astonishing words in "Rabbit-Proof Fence" come right at the end, printed on the screen as a historical footnote. The policies depicted in the movie were enforced by the Australian government, we are told, until 1970. Aboriginal children of mixed race were taken by force from their mothers and raised in training schools that would prepare them for lives as factory workers or domestic servants. More than a century after slavery was abolished in the Western world, a Western democracy was still practicing racism of the most cruel description.
The children's fathers were long gone--white construction workers or government employees who enjoyed sex with local aboriginal women and then moved on. But why could the mixed-race children not stay where they were? The offered explanations are equally vile. One is that a half-white child must be rescued from a black society. Another was that too many "white genes" would by their presumed superiority increase the power and ability of the aborigines to cause trouble by insisting on their rights. A third is that, by requiring the lighter-skinned children to marry each other, blackness could eventually be bred out of them. Of course it went without saying that the "schools" they were held in prepared them only for menial labor.
The children affected are known today in Australia as the Stolen Generations. The current Australian government of Prime Minster John Howard actually still refuses to apologize for these policies. Trent Lott by comparison is enlightened.
Phillip Noyce's film is fiction based on fact. The screenplay by Christine Olsen is based on a book by Doris Pilkington, telling the story of the experiences of her mother, Molly, her aunt Daisy and their cousin Gracie. Torn from their families by government officials, they were transported some 1,500 miles to a training school, where they huddled together in fear and grief, separated from everyone and everything they had ever known. When they tried to use their own language, they were told to stop "jabbering." At the time of the adventures in the movie, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is 14, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) is 8 and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) is 10. The school where they are held is not a Dickensian workhouse; by the standards of the time, it is not unkind (that it inflicts the unimaginable pain of separation from family and home does not figure into the thinking of the white educators). The girls cannot abide this strange and lonely place. They run away, are captured, are placed in solitary confinement. They escape again and start walking toward their homes. It will be a journey of 1,500 miles. They have within their heads an instinctive map of the way and are aided by a fence that stretches for hundreds of miles across the outback, to protect farmlands from a pestilence of rabbits.