Rabbit-Proof Fence was released zwann back in 1994, and it is still laudable for its age. With its subtly rendered portrayal of both Indigenous Australians and white colonizers, this film subtly depicts the ease with which normal people may participate in terrible systems, without ever realizing they are, indeed, villains. However, the film does not acquit characters that easily, employing just enough nuance to dissect the inherent prejudice of white settlers and their disregard for the
The tendency to anthropomorphize systemic oppression into one or a few characters is not uncommon, and until today, films do exist. This often leads to one-dimensional, evil caricatures that arent representative of reality's gray areas. Especially when it comes to child protagonists, it is even expected that the conflict should revolve around a particularly unkind adult.
Unlike in Rabbit-Proof Fence, these minor adult characters are never depicted as stereotypically evil. On the contrary, there is a certain kindness, although hollow, in the way these characters interact with the children.
Three Australian Aboriginal girls who were kidnapped from their families flee the internment camp where they were placed for nine weeks, returning to their families via a rabbit-proof fence that ran for 2,400 km. One of the girls is caught before being able to return home.
The real A. O. Neville, played by Kenneth Branagh, was the Chief Protector of Aborigines, meaning he was appointed by the Australian Government to act as the legal guardian of every Indigenous child in Australia. While A. O. Neville is nothing short of sympathetic, he remains composed, calm, and generally friendly towards the children in the internment camp. His employers, however, seem to intend to punish children for failing to uphold the moral code of civilization.
Yet, audiences can see how far his prejudice and misguided sense of authority can go. Like other white settlers of his time, A. O. Neville believes in the erroneous superiority of his ethnicity and wishes to erase Indigenous culture, through forced assimilation. The point here is that there is no need to characterize A. O. Neville as singularly antagonistic or extraordinarily immoral. He represents, in quite the literal sense, the mainstream way of thinking at the time, rather than ina
A. O. Neville's behavior is akin to what he does with another character, who is forced to flee the settlement. He is tasked with finding and returning the girls who try to escape. His own daughter is placed over his head as an extra incentive to stay. The tracker must stand up for his people, and he does not play into platitudes.
Although the tracker appears to be content, proud, or simply impressed by the girls' persistence and dexterity in avoiding him, he is left without a redeeming arc. Until the very end, the tracker does what he has been compelled to do, and it is not for a lack of effort. Institutions are evil, not people.
That is not to say that the film exempts individuals from any guilt. These white, adult characters still use corporal punishment and still disregard human suffering as part of a larger narrative that, surely, they must have understood was exclusive to their own culture. All ended up contributing to the same abuse and persecution.
What makes Rabbit-Proof Fence a genuine Australian film is the attention paid to their details. Their personalities are mere reflections of their upbringing, while the girls who were forced to flee the open desert are allowed to shine in their endurance, their commitment to family, and the uncanny feeling that something greater than life is leading them safely back home.