Friday, April 06, 2012


For many years I’ve heard about “Rabbit Proof Fence” but never got around to watching it, though I’m especially fond of Australian films and, of course, attuned to the theme because it is just like the same situation here in the US and also in Canada. The simplicity and beauty, the care with which the film is made, mark it as exceptional and classic. I’m glad I didn’t see it until the invention of the DVD commentary, because this one was a proper narrative, very valuable. It was not silliness or false praise, but truly illumined the film. Phillip Noyce describes what powers great art: emotional connection and fearless exploration, two of the most human elements.

Branagh’s character, A.O. Neville, was one of those unfortunate Brit managers who had to deal with forcing all involved parties up against something impossible. He thought he was “saving” “Stone Age” people by bringing them into 20th century Brit culture, which is one definition of Empire. As someone here in Valier remarked to me about Blackfeet, “it was all right to take the land away from them because they weren’t using it.” As a famous US military educator of Indians often said, “We will kill the Indian but save the man.” To do our work.

This film was part of the exploding realization that Western culture is not only damaging to the poor people, but also twists up the psyches of those who believe they are privileged, and gradually destroys the planet we all share. Australian aborigines, judged by their ability to live in the outback with only a walking stick spear and a boomerang, should have been our role models all along. It was in the Sixties that thoughtful people began to realize that a rich spiritual life is more valuable than oil. (I did not say religion and I did not say church.)

Thinking Darwinian meant that the Western world could see that evolution “rose” up through plants which are at the mercy of their environment, through animals that could travel to a better place, and then to humans who could stay where they were and force the place to accommodate them. It also fueled the domestication of animals into breeds, mostly successful at first. But now notoriously degenerated into the incestuous damage of inbreeding dogs for the sake of their appearance until they are grotesque sufferers from deformations that make them hardly able to breathe or walk. Properly managed, Angus or Hereford cows are an achievement. Improperly managed, we have a generation of self-destroying racehorses. This obsession with manipulating heredity became entwined with the inheritance of wealth and contempt for anyone not wealthy.

Weren’t aborigines simply more animal than the rest of us, to be helped to evolve into us? Well, not QUITE us, of course. Human enough to evoke compassion, but not human enough to be themselves. Good servant material, as the lower classes always had been. The result (I will say as I write on Good Friday) was the crucifixion of their culture and their lives. Branagh as actor is an enlightened man and famous enough that his presence helped finance the film. He did not play Neville as a monster or a dummie, but as a real person in a job he didn’t choose, trying to protect people by playing God. No consciousness at all of the evil he was doing.

Phillip Noyce carefully explains how he found the three girl actors, how they were coached and “handled,” though none of it would have worked if they hadn’t been such radiant personalities in the first place. The girls had an “acting coach” who operated much like Robert Chew for “The Wire,” a person of their own culture who also was skillful in the craft. Everlyn Sampl, the oldest girl, is still acting. There’s a clip of her on a Australian soap at:

But to be frank, the person whose story really touched me the most deeply was Moodoo, the tracker, played by David Gulpilil, whom we first met in “Walkabout,” the proud and anguished young man who ends in suicide. This is SO close to the situation of some Native Americans and also some blacks. David has a website. He also has some of the same troubles all indigenous peoples seem to have with alcohol and domestic violence -- symptoms of pain in every culture.

But he genuinely IS a tracker and kept proving to Noyce that he COULD track the girls, even with socks over their shoes, brushing out their tracks, walking backwards and wading in streams, even though the script called for him to be baffled. He indulged Noyce at the director’s request. Then when Noyce edited the shots of David’s face into the film, he discovered that David, on his own, had woven a bit of subtext into the film: Moodoo did not want to catch the girls. He would have liked to have taken his own daughter out of that place and could only admire the girls’ feat, but couldn’t imitate them because of his own obligations.

Making this sort of movie always kicks up a lot of controversy and some expected the aboriginal community to protest that they were once again being exploited by a white man, but it fizzled -- no doubt due to the very high quality of the movie and the constant consultation with tribal people. Noyce himself is a white native of Australia who grew up in contact with aboriginals. The British handling of indigenous peoples has always been more paternalistic than that of Americans (Brit reservations were closed), and the people themselves have picked up the self-protection of guarding boundaries so one can go to the community in the movie but only with permission from the people themselves. They have been quick to capitalize on the fame of the movie and no one should begrudge them that. Their tolerance has led to both “Whale Rider” and the pop Tom Selleck “Western” called “Quigley Down Under” which employed a very long list of aboriginals.

So -- if I can be indulged enough to stick with the Good Friday imagery, after repression of peoples comes first invisibility -- apparently no one in the tomb -- and then the resurrection, which is a kind of transformation. “Rabbitproof Fence” is part of that process, envisioning. The real work comes later, as when Jesus returned reincarnated to prepare breakfast on the shore for the disciple fishermen returning from a night’s effort.

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