Feelings of lowliness & unease: How ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ denounces Aboriginal abuse in 1930s colonial Australia

Kenneth Branagh as Chief Protector of Aborigines Auber Neville in ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ (Phillip Noyce, 2002)
© Australia Screen Online

Australian director Philipp Noyce relies on character identification in its 1996 blockbuster.

Jigalong Aboriginal Community, Western Australia, 1930s. Three half-caste sisters – Molly, Daisy and Gracie – are torn from their family to be sent to Moore River, a native settlement for children of mixed descent. There, they are taught the English language, to say graces before meals, and are intended to marry white in order to “bread out” their Aboriginal heritage. The story focuses onthe sisters’ unwavering enterprise to return to their family, despite relentless efforts from the authorities to stop them.

Based on a true story by Doris Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), Phillip Noyce’s film sheds light on the recurring and yet enduring pattern of humankind doing evil while trying to do good, and the flaws inherent to human judgment and decision making. More specifically, it shows how human nature – in the historical figure of Chief Protector of Aborigines Auber Neville – is doomed to reproduce patterns of paternalistic and racist abuse in following imperial and humanist ideals, especially regarding assimilation policy-making.

THE FIGURE OF NEVILLE AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE PATERNALISM

Rabbit-Proof Fence centers around the figure of Auber Neville, who was Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia from 1915 to 1940. Neville personifies the imperial humanist ideals of his time, in the sense of the responsibility and apparent goodwill he feels towards the Aboriginal people.

Hundreds of half-caste children have been gathered up and brought here to be given the benefit of everthing our culture has to offer. (…) They [halfe-caste chidlren] cannot be left as they are. Inspite of himself, the native must be helped.”

Chief Protector Neville in Rabbit-Proof Fence

As Chief Protector of Aborigines, Neville was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children, a position created to protect them from abuse from white settlers. Ironically enough, the film shows the extent of Neville’s power in torning children from their families in order to send them to specific insitutions for Aborigines, such as Moore River.

Neville’s main concern regarded the fate of half-caste children, which increasing numbers were not being adressed by white society. In this regard, Rabbit-Proof Fence sheds light on the compensating mechanisms used by patriarchal society to come to terms with human desires and flaws. Half-caste children were often born out of rapes of Aboriginal women by white settlers. The film also shows how Neville’s plans to both culturally and biological assimilate half-caste children into white society were intrisically racist, relying on the assumption that white people were by nature superior to Aborigines.

What is to happen to them? Are we to allow the creation of an unwanted third race? Should the coloured be encouraged to go back to the black? Or should they be advanced to white status and be absorbed in the white population?”

Chief Protector Neville in Rabbit-Proof Fence

film techniqueS: CHARACTER IDENTIFICATION

Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the old refrain of white colonialists exceeding their sense of responsibility by trying to assimilate the ‘Other’. The idea of some kind of paternalistic abuse is conveyed in the film whenever Neville engages with Aborigines. Feelings of power imbalance and unease take hold in those scenes, thanks to astute film rechniques.

In a now emblematic scene of the film, Neville assesses the ‘lightness’ of the skin colour of the children in Moore River, including Molly. High- and low-angle shots build on the subjective camera in order to show the power imbalance that comes out of Molly’s and Neville’s relationship. Feeling of unease, on Molly’s side, is created by resort to an unsettling music as well as the use of fisheye lens that produce visual distortion.

© Australia Screen Online

REFLECTING ON THE PAST TO BUILD THE FUTURE

Through the controversial figure of Chief Protector Neville, Rabbit-Proof Fence sheds light on the recurring and yet enduring pattern of humankind doing evil while trying to do good, and the flaws inherent to human judgment and decision making.

The film is part of an ongoing process of “healing” from the Australian nation: On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd officially apologized to the Stolen Generation. This was the first time official apology was issued by the central government of Australia, 45 years after the position of Chief Protector was suppressed in the 1963 Native Welfare Act. “We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”, Rudd said during a speech at the House of Representatives. “For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry”, he added, restoring respect for those who had been subjected to racism. “We (…) request that this apology be received (…) as part of the healing of the nation. (…) We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians,” he continued.

Both Phillip Noyce’s film and Rudd’s discourse raise the question of the necessity for a nation to reflect on its past in order to build a better future, at a time when social and economic inequalities are still tightly linked to colour, in Australia as in other former colonial territories.

Melanie Russeil

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