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The Great Escape: Laura Monaghan (right), Tianna Sansbury (center) and Everlyn Sampi make a break for home.


'Rabbit-Proof Fence': an honest heartbreaker

By Richard von Busack

BEFORE TOO much tsk-tsking at the Australians for the events depicted in Rabbit-Proof Fence, an inconceivable story of the "stolen generation" of Aborigine children taken from their families--before such finger-pointing remember that a similar plan was carried out on Native Americans, in the last century, to a similar lack of outcry. Indians here were stolen away to boarding schools, despite their parents' attempts to hide their children. (A short overview can be found in Frank Waters' book Masked Gods. A recent play has been staged, too, about abuse at Indian schools: M. Scott Momaday's The Indolent Boy. Its star, Michael Horse, joked to the magazines that he personally referred to the play as Touched by an Anglo.) Even by comparison to the history of mistreatment of Indians, Rabbit-Proof Fence tells a uniquely sad story.

In the 1920s, Australia was divided with the world's longest fence to keep a plague of rabbits out of the eastern farms. In 1931, three girls from the Jigalong encampment, near the fence, are rounded up and taken to be educated at a government school on the Moore River. The school, essentially a one-room corrugated-metal barn, relies on punishment to keep the inmates from escaping. The most light-skinned are taught enough manners and English to be taken into trade and domestic service. Three girls escape. Sisters 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi) and 8-year-old Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) set out on to find their way home on foot, despite the fact that their home is 1,500 miles away. On the way, the girls realize that following the fence will bring them back to their mothers.

The worst evil is the evil of self-righteousness, that evil that afflicts the gentle and the vicious alike. As Mr. Neville, the head of Aborigine affairs (the Aborigines call him "Mr. Devil"), the great Kenneth Branagh keeps his performance small and uninflected. He doesn't use this role as a chance for devilry, for snide villainy. Most of his scenes take place in his oppressive office, a leather-lined cell befitting a bureaucrat who is industrious, mild but firm, sad from overwork and absolutely insane.

At 94 minutes, Rabbit-Proof Fence seems a little attenuated; the countryside is monotonous, and the film flashes repeatedly between Neville, in hot water over the escape, and the girls. A detour to the girls' previous life in Jigalong would have been welcome. Moreover, you have to take it on faith that the escape would be big enough news that Neville would be under pressure to find them; that element is hard to credit when the girls had been treated like subhumans up to that point of their escape--and even kept in a cage. Still Phillip Noyce's film is a highly recommended all-ages movie, untouched by melodrama. The fantastic facts beggar the imagination as much any story of starships or superheroes or even hobbits.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (PG; 94 min.), directed by Phillip Noyce, written by Christine Olsen, based on the book by Doris Pilkington, photographed by Christopher Doyle and starring Kenneth Branagh, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan, opens Dec. 25 at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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