The stolen ones

A film dealing with the government's 'kidnapping' of part-Aboriginal children has caused fury in Australia. David Fickling reports from Sydney

Friday October 25, 2002
The Guardian


Nothing is better for an independent film than a healthy dose of government-sponsored controversy. The whiff of censorship provoked by official intervention lends a touch of rebel glamour without striking a penny from the marketing budget. For an indie struggling to arouse public interest, a politician weighing in to warn off the public is worth his weight in box-office receipts.

So Australian government minister Eric Abetz should really have known better this May, when he announced that he would use federal funds to sponsor a leaflet attacking a 3.75m) independent production called Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite the involvement of veteran Hollywood director Phillip Noyce and heavyweight US distributors Miramax, the film had been scheduled for a fairly low-key release in Australia. It would play the small houses and hope to make it to bigger screens in the state capitals; the suburban multiplexes and drive-ins would likely be foreign territory.

But Abetz was not so much concerned about the film's domestic release as its reception overseas. In particular, he took umbrage at the poster Miramax had selected for use in the US. Against a forbidding, deserted landscape, its tagline read: "What if the government kidnapped your daughter? It happened every week in Australia from 1905 to 1971."

The line is a reference to the thousands of part-Aboriginal children who were forcibly separated from their families and assimilated into white society during the 20th century. Aboriginal activists have been pressing the government for years to apologise, but Abetz turned the issue on its head by demanding that the film-makers apologise to the government. "They're asking me to apologise for the poster?" asked Noyce. "Maybe they could apologise to our indigenous citizens."

It seemed a great deal of fuss to be made about a film which, according to Noyce and scriptwriter Christine Olsen, was avowedly non-political in intent. But Abetz was only the most powerful of the conservative commentators who lined up to lay into the production. Piers Akerman, an influential columnist with Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper, accused Noyce of "playing fast and hard with the truth". Andrew Bolt, from Melbourne's Herald Sun, went further, bemoaning the use of 1.8m of "taxpayers' money" and attempting to discredit the film with a point-by-point attack on its "untruths and exaggerations".

His source for the attack was Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, the factual novel by Aboriginal author Doris Pilkington. In 1931, Pilkington's mother, Mollie Craig, was taken away from her family in the far north-west of Australia and transported to a settlement north of Perth, to be re-educated as a white Australian. Her escape with two cousins and their 1,500km journey back home, following the fence used to protect western Australia from the plague of imported European rabbits, formed the basis of Pilkington's book and the subsequent film. But Bolt seemed unconcerned when the novelist came out vocally in support of Noyce and Olsen.

"That sort of thing really angered me," says Pilkington, who also goes by her Aboriginal name of Nugi Garimara. "You find these people going through my book and deliberately misquoting it to support their views. It makes me really annoyed."

The attack didn't just come from the usual suspects, either. At a literary festival earlier this month in rural Victoria, Pilkington was confronted by a regional arts administrator from an immigrant family who took her to task over the issue. "She was saying, why should she and her family be asked to apologise for things that happened before they came to Australia?" says Pilkington. "But I wasn't asking her to apologise. We have a public holiday to recognise the soldiers who died in wartime before I was born, so why can we not at least recognise what happened to these children?"

The ferocity of the response shows that the stolen generations remain a tense issue in Australia - more so even than episodes such as the frontier massacres of Aborigines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It also shows that many in Australia are unused to being presented with the often unpleasant facts of their colonial history - least of all when the same facts are going to be shown abroad. Noyce is best known as a director of slick mainstream thrillers, from Dead Calm and Patriot Games to Sliver and The Bone Collector, and his name guaranteed a worldwide audience that would be out of reach to other Australian directors.

Part of the anger, according to Olsen, comes down to the fact that, unlike the frontier massacres, the stolen generations affected people living today. "The reaction didn't surprise me at all," she says. "The film was dangerous to people because it is demonstrably true. The two oldest girls are still alive. The documentation about why they were taken is still complete."

Another cause lies in the desire of conservatives to defend the people who promoted the policy, many of whom also remain alive. The removal of part-Aboriginal children was advocated on the social Darwinist grounds that their full-blooded relatives were dying out. It was believed that the assimilation of these children into white society would ease the inevitable passing into extinction of the Aboriginal people.

Such deep-rooted racism managed to taint even the character of benevolence, says Robert Manne, an expert on the stolen generations at La Trobe University. "None of the people involved were openly hostile to Aborigines," he says. "There were quite a lot of very decent people who genuinely thought what they were doing was for the best. They didn't think Aborigines were fully human, so they didn't think that they would suffer as much."

Making films about historical events is always risky, and the fine line between fact and fiction provided a rich source of ammunition for detractors. The objectors took particular delight in the moments when Olsen and Noyce departed from Pilkington's original story for the sake of drama, such as the harrowing sequence where the teenage girls are forcibly abducted from their families.

In the novel, Mollie's parents appear submissively resigned to their fate, and only turn to beating themselves in despair after their children have gone. But more violent abductions were frequent and well-documented, and it is little surprise that the film-makers were attracted by the more dramatic possibilities of kidnapping.

In any case, such licence cuts both ways. AO Neville, western Australia's "protector of Aborigines", played by Kenneth Branagh, emerges in the film as a misguidedly sympathetic character who believed he was doing what was best for part-Aboriginal children. Many historians would disagree, pointing out that, in reality, he was a passionate advocate of the cultural extinction of Aborigines who seemed to welcome the prospect of their disappearance. "Are we going to have... one million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?" he asked a 1937 conference on Aboriginal issues.

In the context of such changes, Noyce's and Olsen's assertions about the non-political nature of the film become more pertinent. Based on a true story it may be, but it is drama rather than documentary, an accurate summing-up of collective experience rather than a meticulous detailing of one personal history.

Noyce predicts that the secret history of Aboriginal dispossession will now become fertile ground for future Australian film-makers: "If drama comes from conflict, there's no greater conflict in Australian history than the conflict between indigenous Australians and white settlers."

That resource is already being explored. This year sees the release of four major films dealing with black-white relations in Australia. Three of them - Rabbit-Proof Fence, Black and White, and The Tracker - deal with episodes from Australia's history of black-white conflict, while Australian Rules frames the same issues in a contemporary context. The films mark a departure from the more typical portrayal of Aboriginality on film. Traditionally, Aborigines have either been used (as in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout) as a sounding board for the director's mystical ideas, or (as in the Crocodile Dundee films and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) in comic cameos.

More serious attempts have been rarer. The greatest successes have been those, like Charles Chauvel's 1950s classic Jedda, and Bruce Beresford's gritty 1980s film The Fringe Dwellers, which have dropped the mysticism and the mateyness in favour of a clear-eyed look at the political reality of race in Australia.

The backlash did little to harm Rabbit-Proof Fence's success, and it has become the most popular domestic film in Australia this year. In cinemas across the country it became the focus for a cathartic re-examination of the country's past, with former stolen children getting up on stage at the end of screenings to calmly recount their own tales. "The more you talk to indigenous people you realise that all of them were touched by this policy," says Olsen.

Pilkington was herself taken from her mother and brought up to think of herself as white. Her younger sister Annabel still denies her Aboriginal heritage and refuses to meet her; Annabel's children have seen the film, but their mother will not do do so.

"I'm very emotional after the film has been screened," says Pilkington. "I don't go in and sit through it now because I get so upset. But it's a story for the stolen generations as a whole," she says. "Any person who was a member of the stolen generations owns this story."

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