Plot Summary: In Western Australia, 1931, children with mixed Aboriginal and White ancestry are forcibly removed from their families and incarcerated at the Moore River Native Settlement, to be trained as servants for White people. Sisters Molly and Daisy and their cousin Gracie escape the settlement. Their aim: to walk the 1500 kilometres home to Jigalong, across unforgiving terrain, pursued by the authorities.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog post includes discussions and/or mentions of forced removal of Aboriginal children, rape, racism, child abuse, sexual assault, racism and suicide. It also includes names and images of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
Rabbit-Proof Fence was a smash hit when it was released in Australia in 2002. For me, it’s one of the ultimate girl power films, and all the more powerful for having been based on true events. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.) At the beginning of the film, fourteen-year-old Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), the protagonist, lives in rural Jigalong with her mother Maude (Ningali Lawford), grandmother (Myarn Lawford), aunty (Sheryl Carter), eight-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and eleven-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan).
From the earliest scenes in the film, it’s apparent that Molly proving herself to be “as good as a boy” isn’t going to be part of this particular narrative. Molly already knows that she is smart, valued and beloved by her family. This is evident from the early scenes in the film, which show Maude imparting traditional knowledge to Molly.
We also see Molly’s family tracking a goanna together. Molly is congratulated for being a good hunter, and acknowledged to be growing up fast. She is shrewd and perceptive, always asking questions. Molly is also well aware that she, Gracie and Daisy are in a precarious position as “half-castes,” or people with mixed ancestry. Police officers on horseback often ride by the women’s camp, searching for light-skinned Aboriginal children to remove. All the women can do to protect their children is encourage them to lay low until they are safely grown up.
Rabbit-Proof Fence was released the year that I was thirteen, and from the first moment I heard about it, I was absolutely desperate to see it. This was, you must understand, just after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been released, so the YA film boom had not occurred yet. Films with heroic young girls were fairly thin on the ground. The fact that the girls in Rabbit-Proof Fence did not appear to need magic, guns or martial arts skills to go toe-to-toe with grown adults made the film absolutely irresistible to me.
One night, I went out to the cinema with my mother and older sister. To my consternation, we did not see Rabbit-Proof Fence, we saw Gosford Park instead. I pitched an epic strop and consequently remember absolutely nothing about Gosford Park, aside from that it seemed to go forever, especially when one was tantalisingly close to a screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence happening in the very next theatre.
Weeks later, I finally managed to see Rabbit-Proof Fence with Emily O, my trusty out-of-school friend. We saw Rabbit-Proof Fence at the small arty cinema in town, the first film I had ever watched there. From the first seconds of the film, the two of us were absolutely transfixed. Time seemed to stand still. After the film, we wound up at a scruffy little park near my house, with yellowed grass and chip packets crumpled in the bushes. The park was for sitting on the swings and talking about life, the universe, Harry Potter and everything. Politeness dictated that one’s guest was always offered the swing intended for an older child, while the host took the baby swing until the pain of it cutting into your bum became too intense, at which point you swapped. The park was next to a railway line, and custom dictated that every time a train went by, whichever friend I was with and I would scream and pull faces and throw up our middle fingers at the train rattling by.
I don’t think Emily O and I would have been up for flipping off the train that day. We spent the better part of three hours sitting on the swings in the dying sunlight, exhaustively discussing every facet of the film. We were just floored by it. Fancy actual history happening! In our home state! To girls our age! History that wasn’t the bloody insufferably boring pioneers or bushrangers, but injustice and struggle and tragedy and triumph … happening to girls our age!
At thirteen, I knew that if it were a choice between being happy and being good, the adult world would much rather I was a good girl, a little angel, never any trouble at all. Thus, I was very much in need of portrayals of girls whose struggles were taken seriously, girls who could take on the world and win. Molly Craig quickly became one of my cinematic and historical heroes. Just seeing an image of a girl my own age deciding that she didn’t have to put up with being mistreated, and using her intelligence to save herself and the ones she loved, was absolutely revolutionary.
- The heart-wrenching scene where the police kidnap Molly, Daisy and Gracie. Click here to see behind the scenes footage of the filming of this sequence.
- At Moore River, Molly meets several girls who show what could be in store for her, Daisy and Gracie if they stay institutionalised. Nina, an older teenage girl, serves as the dormitory boss in charge of the younger girls. Nina is Molly’s guide through the first harrowing day at Moore River (condensed down from a month in real life), telling her matter-of-factly that light-skinned children are “more clever than us, they can go to proper school.” Nina clearly hates life at Moore River, but her statement that, “None of us here got any mothers” indicates that she has been incarcerated for so long that she cannot imagine anything different. Another girl, Olive, is marched back into camp by Moodoo, the Aboriginal tracker whose job it is to recapture runaways. Olive had run off not to get back to her family, but to see her boyfriend. The camp authorities respond to this by beating Olive, cutting off her hair and locking her in the “boob,” a corrugated iron shed. “We’ll see if those boys at New Norcia find you so attractive now,” says one of them (a horrifying threat that I only caught on my most recent viewing of the film). Finally, there is Ellie, Moodoo’s daughter, who is being held hostage at the camp in exchange for her father’s service. When Moodoo wishes to go back to the Kimberlies, Mr Neville tells him, “There would be no question of her going, she will have to stay here and continue her training.” Moodoo is placed in the awful conundrum of being allowed to be in the same space as Ellie only by tracking down children who have been taken away from their families. He can’t hug her or even talk to her, but even this is astronomically more than any of the parents of the other Moore River inmates is allowed.
- After a day of eating disgusting food, being reprimanded for speaking her own language and witnessing acts of child abuse, Molly has had enough. We see her lying in the dark dormitory, picturing Moodoo, Mr Neville, the police officer who abducted her and one of the nuns. “Bad place,” she mutters. “These people make me sick.” This was a significant moment for me. Getting to see an image of a girl my age seething with rage and disgust at the injustice she’s had to endure was something entirely new. Molly remembers the Spirit Bird, and her mother, and makes her mind up: she’s going home.
- The character of Mavis (Deborah Mailman, an Australian national treasure whom I have adored since she presented Play School when I was small), an Aboriginal housemaid and former Moore River inmate, raises the stakes by showing what happens to Aboriginal girls after they are sent out into service. She invites the girls to stay overnight in her hut, where they will have food and a warm bed. Late that night, her employer, Mr Evans, walks into the hut and starts removing his clothes. He pulls back the blankets on the bed and is surprised to find the girls hiding there. He walks outside, where Mavis coldly tells him to go away. When she walks inside, Mavis’ eyes are full of tears as she pleads, “Don’t go, Molly. Please don’t go. He won’t say anything! He come back if you go.” In light of the recent online debates over the inclusion of arguably gratuitous rape scenes in series like Game of Thrones, this scene shows a different way of representing sexual violence onscreen. The rapist is an ordinary-looking married middle-class White man, Mavis is clearly capable of standing up to him in some respects (such as when children are involved), but her experience does not have to be seen to be believed.
- Throughout the film, Gracie continually questions Molly’s ability to get the three of them home safely. Being close in age and placed in an unbelievably stressful situation, it’s no wonder the cousins lose patience with each other. This culminates in a scene where a seemingly friendly Aboriginal man tells Gracie that her mother is at Wiluna, just a short train trip away. When Gracie asks if they can go to Wiluna, Molly tells her, “They’ll see us, they’ll catch us! We can’t stop now. We must keep going.” “But Molly, Mummy there. She at Wiluna. I want Mummy,” says Gracie. Her voice is small and sad, but just as determined as Molly’s. Molly tries the age-old “walking away from a disobedient child to entice them to run after you” trick, telling Daisy, “Don’t look back, don’t look back, she’ll come.” Gracie doesn’t run after them – she turns and starts walking in the other direction.
- Molly and Daisy go to the train station to find Gracie. Hiding behind a pile of wood, Molly whistles to call Gracie over. Gracie stands and gives a small, genuine smile, happy to see that her cousins came after her, even after their disagreement. She begins to walk over to them – but a car pulls up in the background. The authorities have arrived to recapture Gracie. Gracie starts to run, but thinking better of it, she stops in her tracks and goes back the other way, not wanting to lead the police to where her cousins are hiding. Molly’s helplessness as she watches Gracie pushed into the back of a car by a White police officer and the friendly Aboriginal man (who is promised a shilling for his trouble) is completely heartbreaking.
- After God knows how long walking through the desert with barely any food or water, Molly and Daisy collapse to the ground. They look close to giving up – until Molly hears the call of the Spirit Bird and finds the strength to carry on. She gets to her feet and scoops Daisy into her arms. This moment is the hero-shot that makes it onto the Australian poster, and honestly, how rare is that? How many posters have you seen showing a heroic teenage girl carrying a smaller girl – let alone two Aboriginal girls? After seeing the film at age thirteen, I tacked that poster up in my bedroom, where it stayed for several years. I can’t count the number of times it tumbled down in the night and clocked me in the face due to inadequate blu-tacking, but it was totally worth it to have an image like that up where I could see it every day.
- The close of the film includes footage of the actual Molly Craig and Daisy Kadibil.
- I was pleased to note that Everlyn Sampi and all the other major Aboriginal female cast members are credited before Kenneth Branagh, who plays A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines.
Molly’s defiance was so special to me, when I first watched the film. That said, I don’t intend to universalise and decontextualize the film by implying that there is a universal girlhood that Aboriginal Australian girls in the 1930s and White girls in the 2000s experienced equally. The decentring of race from depictions or discussions of girls of colour has been a criticism of films like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood. One of the central tenets of my discipline, girls’ studies, is that there are as many girlhoods as there are girls in the world. These girlhoods are influenced by time, place and space, by age, race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, religion and countless other factors. It is thus of supreme importance to honour the specificity of girls’ experiences. Indigenous people all over Australia are still very much feeling the effects of White people’s attempts to destroy their culture, as well as facing numerous other issues, such as Aboriginal deaths in custody, lower life expectancy, reduced education and employment opportunities and continuing systemic racism.
The historical Molly Craig’s later life continued to be marred by the government’s removal policy. She married an Aboriginal stockman named Toby Kelly and had two daughters, Doris and Annabelle. She and her children were kidnapped again. She had to abandon three-year-old Doris at Moore River as she walked all the way home again, holding baby Annabelle in her arms. Annabelle was later removed, and Molly never saw her again. Her daughter Doris later made contact with her mother and detailed her incredible story in two books, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and Under the Wintamarra Tree. Click for a more thorough account of Molly’s life in her obituary from 2004.
Everlyn Sampi gives a phenomenal performance in the film. Despite being recognised as a talent on par with Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie (both of whom Rabbit-Proof Fence director Philip Noyce had worked with, in Dead Calm and The Bone Collector respectively), Everlyn Sampi did not appear onscreen again until she guest-starred as Leonie in several episodes of Australian series The Circuit between 2007 and 2010. (Trigger warnings for sexual assault, child abuse and suicide.) Last year, reading an interview Everlyn Sampi gave to The Guardian, I was shocked to learn that she had recently survived a near-fatal assault, and deeply saddened to learn that that by the time the film was made, Everlyn Sampi was a survivor of sexual abuse. Happily, she has made a full recovery from her injuries. You can follow her fan page on Facebook here.
Much of the freely available content regarding the film online pertains to the film’s supposed lack of historical accuracy. Much was changed from the original book by Doris Pilkington Garimara; significantly, the scene in which the girls are kidnapped by police reportedly did not occur in reality. They were not forced into a car, but taken away on horseback. However, I maintain that if the film had portrayed events in faux-documentary style – showing the girls being quietly taken away, given sandwiches and lemonade, and dressed in regular European girls’ clothes rather than prison garb – it would have made it easy for White people to claim that the Stolen Generations really didn’t have it so bad. Perhaps, in years to come, White people will be able to recognise that giving an Aboriginal child a sandwich doesn’t make it acceptable to systematically deprive them of their family and culture, to train them for a life of service to Whites and expose them to the threat of sexual assault and rape. However, in 2002, we weren’t there yet. And I still don’t believe that we are, in 2015.
One parenting-and-film web site I looked at listed only two questions to pose to your kids after watching Rabbit-Proof Fence with them. Both of them related to historical accuracy, rather than questions of institutional racism or the importance of family and culture. That was more than a little baffling to me – that someone would actually watch this film with their kids, then turn around and say, “But don’t worry, it didn’t really happen exactly like that, so you don’t have to feel guilty! I mean, that’s what you feel, right? Guilt, not sympathy?” I mean, geez. Heaven forbid your children feel something for people who aren’t them, or imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Rabbit-Proof Fence exposes one of the ugliest and most shameful parts of my country’s history. As far as screen girls go, Molly Craig is on my girl power dream team: resourceful, determined, courageous and fiercely loving. This is truly one of the all-time greatest screen treatments of a girl character.
- ‘Living in Our Country’: Indigenous Childhoods in the Counter-Nation by Sophie Mayer (Childhood & Nation in World Cinema)
- Remembering Mrs Pilkington and her classic story of the Rabbit Proof Fence by Cristy-Lee Macqueen and Clancy McDowell (ABC)
- Molly’s Story by Karl Quin (The Sunday Age)
- Rabbit-Proof Fence, Relational Ecologies and the Commodification of Indigenous Experience by Emily Potter and Kay Schaffer (Australian Humanities Review)
- Cheater, Christine. 2010. “Stolen Girlhood: Australia’s Assimilation Policies and Aboriginal Girls.” Girlhood: A Global History, edited by Jennifer Helgren and Colleen A. Vasconcellos. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 250-267.
- Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937 by Anita Heiss. A fictionalised diary of a ten-year-old Aboriginal girl who is adopted into a White family. One of my favourite books in high school, thoroughly recommended for kids aged 10 and over. Published by Scholastic.