Framing Evasion: Revisiting Rabbit-Proof Fence and the History Wars

by Holly Siân Weston

It was with a great sense of sadness that the world recently learned that Daisy Kadibil had died on 30 March this year. Daisy was the last of the remaining trio of women who, in 1931, escaped from Moore River Native Settlement as young girls to make the epic and perilous journey back home to Jigalong in the Pilbara region in northwestern Australia, using only the rabbit-proof fence as their guide. The journey, which the girls made on foot, spanned many hundreds of miles and took nine weeks to complete. Daisy was just eight years old when she and her sister, Molly, aged 14, together with their cousin, Gracie, aged 10, were forcibly removed from their family under Australia’s assimilation policy to become part of what is now known as the Stolen Generations.

The policy, which was predicated on the assumption of white superiority and black inferiority, proposed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be allowed to ‘die out’ in answer to what was seen by the settler culture as the ‘Aboriginal problem.’ In order to facilitate this so-called solution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families and placed in homes like Moore River where the principle aim was to indoctrinate the children so that they would assimilate into and eventually be absorbed by the white culture. In short, they would be ‘bred out’ of existence. The practice of child removal, which began in the early 1900s and continued until the early 1970s, has had a devastating effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a whole and led the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report, Bringing Them Home (1997) to conclude that the principal aim of eradicating Aboriginal culture constituted a cultural genocide.

It was against the backdrop of the report’s publication and findings that the story of Daisy, Molly, and Gracie, which tells of their heroic defiance and determination against this calculated violence and cruelty, captured the imagination of director Philip Noyce, whose award-winning film, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), brought their story and that of the Stolen Generations to international attention. As tributes come in from around the world to mark the passing of Daisy, it is of no surprise that the film should serve as their central point of reference in the commemoration of her life while simultaneously signposting the history of the Stolen Generations that Daisy, Molly, and Gracie have come to represent. Indeed, Rabbit-Proof Fence, as the first feature-length film to visit this history through the girls’ story has become in many ways the story of the Stolen Generations. Without seeking to dismiss the importance of Rabbit-Proof Fence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the question remains as to the ways in which Rabbit-Proof Fence was framed for a white audience that risks appeasing rather than confronting settler complicity.

The careful framing of Aboriginal writing to cater to the sensibilities and anxieties of a settler audience is not unusual. In fact, it is a commonplace function of (usually white) editors, particularly where the life story genre, to which Rabbit-Proof Fence belongs, is concerned. As Aboriginal author and scholar, Mudrooroo Narogin explains in Writing from the Fringe (1990), the life story, which is marketed as a literature of understanding to a predominantly white audience, ‘is a heavily edited literature often written and revised in conjunction with a European.’ Since Noyce’s film is an adaptation of the book, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), which was written by Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, the film exists as an edited version of the original Aboriginal text and can therefore be considered as being part of the wider publishing practices of white editing. The editing of life stories is highly interventionist because this work tells a history of dispossession, violence, and oppression from an Aboriginal perspective that has largely remained unauthorised within the dominant culture. Thus, as Australian academic, Michele Grossman writes in her essay, ‘Bad Aboriginal Writing: Editing, Aboriginality, Textuality’ (2001), ‘[t]he task of much editing of these “other” texts has historically been to manage such representations in ways that both rehearse and assuage the anxieties such work generates in the colonising culture.’ Central to this anxiety is the perceived threat Aboriginal peoples pose to the settler foundation myth and the construction of a national identity, legitimacy and sense of belonging that is centred on whiteness. In short, the ‘Aboriginal problem.’ In order to minimise the threat, representations of Aboriginal peoples and their history are tightly controlled via the editing process so that images of ‘otherness’ are framed in ways that accord with and are meaningful to the dominant culture. In the dissemination of tales of the ‘other,’ the aim is to secure rather than destabilise the moral and historical legitimacy of settler communities.

The fragility of settler legitimacy created a serious challenge for Noyce’s film because while there were a great number of life stories already in existence that dealt with the history and trauma of child abduction, it had hitherto remained an Aboriginal story. Suddenly, with the advent of Bringing Them Home (1997) that history was not only being authorised, it was in danger of becoming, as if it was not always already, the white story, also. Released just five years after Bringing Them Home was tabled, Rabbit-Proof Fence therefore made its debut in a complex domestic political climate regarding the Stolen Generations. While many among the settler population readily accepted the report’s findings, many others did not. The film’s success was therefore dependent on its ability to tread a delicate path because as Aboriginal author and activist, Tony Birch outlines in his essay, ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence, “Mr. Devil” and the Desire to Forget: “This is a True Story”’ (2002), the film ‘visits a history that many in non-Aboriginal Australia have been unable to visit without turning away in a denial of the past[.] [The Stolen Generations is] a history often subject to ridicule by those in white Australia unable to accept and own their story of oppression.’ This climate of denial is exemplified by the fact that it took until 2008 and, crucially, a change in government, before an official apology was issued to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The previous Prime Minister, John Howard, had repeatedly rejected calls to issue an apology because he refused to accept or give credence to what he referred to in his Sir Robert Menzies Lecture (1996) as ‘[t]his “black arm band” view of [Australia’s] past.’ In the absence of a national apology or even consensus regarding the Stolen Generations, the film’s attempt to make visible a denied history meant that it was faced with settler refusal. A settler refusal to not only acknowledge its violent history, but also – by extension – the rights and legitimacy of Aboriginal peoples in the present.

In this respect, Rabbit-Proof Fence is explicitly political because it aimed to do what a government apology would have done had it been given at that time: it sought to redraw what and who is considered legitimate within the national imaginary. In some ways Rabbit-Proof Fence does manage this, for as Australian scholar, Suzanne Langford notes in her essay, ‘In Search of an Australian Soul: Reflections on Religion and Spirituality in Rabbit-Proof Fence and Japanese Story (2009), ‘[o]ur sympathies are directed not only towards the girls themselves, but also towards the culture that they represent. We share in the perspective of the girls that see Mr. Neville and his attendant culture as dominating and alien.’ In view of the film’s domestic success, it would be unfair to cast the film as an abject failure against the objectives it set out to achieve. Indeed, Rabbit-Proof Fence is credited by many as having directly contributed to the national conversation around the Stolen Generations, with some critics even suggesting that it helped achieve the 2008 national apology that was issued by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. All this may be true; however, it does not detract from the fact that settler acceptance of this history is brokered in the film on highly suspect terms.

One of the few critics of Rabbit-Proof Fence to remark on its problematic fostering of settler acceptance has been Australian academic, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth. In his paper, ‘Which Rabbit-Proof Fence? Empathy, Assimilation, Hollywood’ (2002), Hughes-d’Aeth argues that acceptance of this history and, thus, the legitimacy of Aboriginal peoples within the national imaginary, has been constituted in the film through what he describes as an ‘empathetic collapse.’ Hughes-d’Aeth maintains that the settler audience is not being asked to own a history of oppression, they are being asked to share in a history of collective trauma. Indeed, what Hughes-d’Aeth is describing here is achieved by the way in which the film is shot, which rather than allowing the settler audience to take a position of distance as complicit witness, places them firmly within the traumatic scene.

The two main techniques that are instrumental in this positioning of the audience are the subjective shot and the hand-held shot. The subjective shot is used throughout the film to position the audience as witnessing through the eyes of the girls, which has a specific effect particularly in scenes where the girls are confronted with hostile actors of the state. As the characters that signify state violence look directly down the camera, the audience assumes the position of the girls. Seeing through the eyes of the girls, the audience is made to experience the violation of the racist colonial gaze. It has been popularly argued that this enables an empathic audience response regarding the plight of the girls and thus the Stolen Generations generally; however, such a reading, despite its repetition, is dependent on a misinterpretation of the effect the film’s use of subjective immersion has altogether. Instead, and in development of Hughes-d’Aeth’s argument, arguably what is being facilitated here is what academics, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang term a ‘settler move to innocence.’

In their paper, ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’ (2012), Tuck and Yang borrow Janet Mawhinney’s term, ‘move to innocence’ to further illustrate how settler evasions of guilt are achieved through what Mawhinney describes as ‘strategies to remove involvement in or culpability for systems of domination’ from which they have directly and indirectly benefitted. By allowing the audience to co-opt the girls’ experience, the audience is in effect permitted to play Native, which Tuck and Yang argue is borne out of ‘a settler desire to be made innocent, to find some mercy or relief in face of the relentlessness of settler guilt and haunting.’ Indeed, what has arguably been central to settler denial of the Stolen Generations has been a refusal to accept the difficult reality of guilt that further threatens to destabilise an already precarious sense of settler legitimacy. What better way to circumvent the burden of guilt than through the transformative power of a childlike innocence? This evasion of guilt is further compounded by the hand-held shot, which is used to film the abduction scene.

Filmed at ground level and viewed through the shaking, darting, panicked lens, the audience is placed yet again within the traumatic scene, viewing through the eyes of an unknown child. In so doing, the film sequence, as Hughes-d’Aeth suggests, ‘has the effect of portraying the events of the Stolen Generations as though they were unwitnessed, as though they took place away from any third person, outside the view of history.’ By enabling this double move to innocence in which the audience is not only allowed to play Native, but a Native child, it becomes clear that acceptance of the history of the Stolen Generations is brokered in the film through a denial of prior knowledge. Rather than accepting culpability as a complicit witness, the history of the Stolen Generations is framed through a move to innocence that claims both settler and Aborigine are victims of a racist colonial past, which, in the age of reconciliation, is ostensibly separate and distinct from the present. As the film redraws what and who is considered legitimate in the national imaginary, it is the past that is de-legitimated in order to allow for a shared legitimacy by way of the present.

The extent to which an equitable co-existence can be achieved, or how dramatically different the present is compared to the past, particularly when it comes to state interference in Indigenous family life, however, is open to debate. Indeed, rather than signalling a rupture with the past, the implementation of present-day child protection policies are seen by many as a continuation of the colonial tradition of ‘saving’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their ‘dangerous’ families and culture. The past is repeating on the present; however, in its crystallisation of the Stolen Generations as belonging to the historical past, Rabbit-Proof Fence ignores this fact. For a film that has framed the Stolen Generations in such a way as to facilitate settler evasion rather than confrontation, it is perhaps unsurprising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trauma has been truncated in this way. Indeed, if settler legitimacy and the continuation of its existence in perpetuity are dependent on the abjection of the past in the national imaginary, then the traumatic history of the Stolen Generations has to remain precisely that. It is perhaps to this aspect of setter evasion that Rabbit-Proof Fence most speaks to, because it has framed the Stolen Generations through a singular story that seemingly finds resolution.

Rather than seeing this as problematic, Australian scholar, Jane Lydon comments positively on the issue. In her essay, ‘A Strange Time Machine: The Tracker, Black and White, and Rabbit-Proof Fence’ (2004), Lydon argues that Rabbit-Proof Fence ‘allows the viewer to experience colonialism as nightmare but at the same time vanquish it- against the HREOC inquiry’s many testimonies and multitude of sad stories about wrecked lives, these little girls triumph over assimilation.’ Lydon’s view reiterates – although she did not intend to – precisely what is wrong with Rabbit-Proof Fence: it capitulates to the demand for narrative closure on which the evasion of settler guilt is dependent. In so doing and in addition to ignoring contemporaneous issues around the continuation of child removal, the film threatens to replace the less comfortable reality that not only Bringing Them Home attests to, but also the story of the girls themselves.

While Doris Pilkington Garimara was clear the story of her mother and her aunts was important to tell, in her book she included a biographical epilogue to prevent their story from being neatly packaged into a tale of happily ever after. In it, she explains that her mother, Molly, was taken back to Moore River with her two young daughters, Doris and Annabelle in 1940. In 1941, using the same route she had taken nine years earlier, Molly escaped with 18-month-old Annabelle, but had to leave Doris behind. Three years later, Annabelle was taken from her. Although there is mention that Molly and her two children were taken back to Moore River in the closing scene of the film, it is not told sufficiently to register above the emotional reunion of the real Molly and Daisy walking across their land with smiling faces. The continued trauma of the forcible removal of children is undercut in the film by images of return, which fails to properly acknowledge the whole of Molly’s story, or the actual story for many Aborigines who, for various reasons, can never return.

The desire to vanquish the past, which is simultaneously presented as being hitherto unwitnessed, speaks to a desire to contain the destabilising force of this history. In its obfuscation of the ongoing reality of harm, the film is made to salve the conscience of a settler audience that seeks to validate the continuation of its own existence in the reconciliation process while evading any interrogation of its impact – presently and historically – on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to exist. This has led Noyce to frame the story and the history of the Stolen Generations in a particular way that disregards and misrepresents the reality.

While many have argued to the contrary, the authoritative voice on the matter must surely be Molly’s. On the night of the Jigalong premiere, Molly listened to Noyce tell journalist, Karl Quin, the rest of her story. Noyce told Quin, who was reporting on the premiere for Australian newspaper, The Sunday Age (2002), that although Molly was reunited with Doris when Doris was forty-five, her other daughter, Annabelle, had refused all contact after growing up believing she was white. In relaying to Quin the intergenerational trauma of Molly’s story, Noyce casually reflects: ‘[s]o that for her [Molly] was more traumatic, because she mended the wounds of the first journey, she was reunited with her own mum.’ After listening to Noyce speak of her child that never returned, Quin reports that Molly simply replied: ‘That's the story you should have told.’