Rabbit-Proof Fence

Now that our family has successfully made it through Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Extended Version (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3), Gena and I were able to sit down and watch our next Netflix queue item last night – Rabbit-Proof Fence.  We’re still putting off To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been sitting on our mantle for roughly two months or more now.  Someday, we’ll get up the gumption to watch it (I watched it in 9th grade, but that probably doesn’t count any longer.  I’m sure it’s changed by now).

The premise is simple – three young girls forcibly removed from their Aboriginal mother because they are half-castes seek their way back home on foot – a grueling 1500-mile journey. 

Yeah, 1500-miles.

While the movie was interesting to me from a historical perspective (curious that the Australians had a similar program to ones that were implemented in the US) to improve native populations, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on history, but rather on the telling of this one sliver of history. 

I wasn’t overly impressed with the movie as a story-telling exercise.  The actresses who played the three young Aboriginal girls were compelling in their shyness and reserve – but this made them difficult to relate to and empathize with.  I’m sure that was probably partially intentional, but it severely limited my involvement with their plight.  Additionally, the sheer enormity of what they undertook is just unfathomable to me.  I can’t image doing it – and therefore it’s difficult for me to imagine them doing it.  How do you adequately depict that sort of emotional and physical undertaking?  Perhaps you can’t.  At the very least, I didn’t feel that this film depicted it adequately.  And that’s without discussing the rather anti-climactic and confusing nature of the film’s ending.

The girls were adorable, but again, I couldn’t relate to them in the least.  Kenneth Branagh was good as the extremely controlled and efficient A.O. Neville, who oversaw the program for 25 years.  David Gulpilil was amazing to watch.  He conveyed a great deal of emotion without words, and with a face held rigidly impassive for almost the entire film. 

The rabbit-proof fence is of course both a historical reality and a metaphor.  It represents – and is – the arrogant effort of one culture to impose it’s will onto another.  While we culturally pay lip service to abhorring such practices now that we know better, the truth is we all do this to varying degrees.  If we make the philosophical or theological move to say that humanity is on a linear track towards ever-betterment, then we are left with the recognition that some areas of humanity will be farther along on that development than others, and that the right thing to do is help those less fortunate and less developed cultures and societies to advance.  It sounds pretty philanthropic, until you see the sorts of decisions and actions it necessitates.  Humanists have not given up on this basic assertion, but they have been forced to be more subtle about methodology. 

I appreciated the fact that, while never shrinking from the cold-heartedness of the government’s policy, the movie refused to play into clear black and white categories (pardon the pun).  Neville is portrayed not simply as efficient and determined, but also as actually concerned for the welfare of his charges.  He is gentle with the children in the relocation camp, and he worries about the safety of the runaways as they make their way towards home.  And he even, ironically enough, understands that even though a culture may use “neolithic tools”, this does not mean that their thinking or their mind is neolithic.  He marvels at their ingenuity even as he attempts to eradicate it.  A very realistic depiction of the bundle of contradictions that make up the human being.

Actually, I much more enjoyed the short documentary Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence that was included on the DVD from Netflix.  it chronicled primarily the search for the children who would play the lead roles, and how they were crafted into actresses.  It’s kind of a quirky little documentary (is that redundant?), but it actually allows you to feel a connection to the people in the movie that the movie itself never permitted.  I strongly encourage you to watch the documentary after you watch the film. 

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