How to sell the stolen generation

by Philippa Hawker
The Age: 14th February 2002

Director Phillip Noyce believes ``every movie exists only when it finds its audience". And right now he is doing everything he can to make sure his latest film gets the widest possible exposure.

For the past few weeks he has been on the publicity trail introducing preview screenings around the country and making himself available for interviews.

How to present this film and how to bring it to a mainstream audience has been an abiding concern for Noyce.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three young Aboriginal girls - the children of white fathers - who in 1931 were forcibly taken from their families and sent to a distant settlement. They escaped almost immediately and walked home more than 2000kilometres across country to their home in Jigalong, West Australia, hunted all the while by authorities and trackers.

Doris Pilkington, daughter of the eldest girl, Molly Craig, wrote a book about the journey which was adapted by producer and screenwriter Christine Olsen.

Olsen sent her screenplay to Noyce, because she saw him as someone who could bring mainstream audiences to the film. She thought his 1977 feature, Backroads, showed that he made films which treated Aboriginal characters as people: but he also had acquired a Hollywood track record and the ability to reach a wide audience.

According to Noyce, the evidence suggests ``that Australian audiences won't go en masse to see films with indigenous themes". ``We've been trying our darnedest to rewrite that rule," he says.

Prior to the film's release later this month, there is strong demand for interviews with Noyce - the Australian director who has come home to make a movie after more than a decade of work overseas.

But the film-makers wanted to get coverage for their cast, Everlyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan and Tianna Sainsbury.

``We hope we can invest Australian audiences in those little girls as a mirror, a parallel story to the story that's on the screen," says Noyce. ``We hope that we can get people invested in the story as their own story. That's why we're spending a lot of time doing question-and-answer sessions introducing the film."

Pilkington and the young actors' mothers, who also have roles in the movie, are part of the ``travelling caravan". Noyce says their presence is important. ``It's one thing seeing the story up on the screen, but it goes on. The idea that the reality continues is part of the process - for Australians, anyway."

The presentation of this angle began early. The Today show broadcast segments about the casting and production of the movie.

``We thought of the Today show because we knew that one of our major constituencies was going to be Australian women. By being on that show we wanted, I guess, to have its mainstream qualities rub off on Rabbit-Proof Fence, we wanted (the show) to give a certain kudos, a certain acceptance to the film."

There has been a range of strategies to get the film attention, most of them cost-effective rather than big-budget. Mambo has designed a limited edition T-shirt, with $10 from every sale going towards projects in the Jigalong community.

TV Hits ran a double-page spread on the casting of the young actors, headed: ``Search for a star: we've created Popstars, we've searched for Supermodels and now Australia's next movie stars have been discovered."

Readers of Women's Weekly could win preview tickets and were asked to send an e-mail, explaining why they wanted to see the film. One of the thousands of replies was from a reader who said: ``I want to be one of the first in Australia to see this film, because I am the granddaughter of Molly Craig."

The woman wants to preserve her anonymity. She is, Noyce says, the daughter of Molly Craig's elder child, Annabelle, who was adopted out to a white family. There was an exchange of e-mails and the granddaughter was invited to meet Molly, now 84, at a screening in Jigalong.

It is the kind of story that doesn't seem to surprise Noyce. ``I had the advantage of going around to many different communities all over the country and I was hard pressed to find families that weren't affected by those policies. But I don't want to get into those issues, I don't want to be speaking for indigenous Australia. I hope the film provokes a discussion about them."

Noyce is articulate and passionate about the film and its subject matter, but he is also a little wary about how he presents it.

Recently, he says, a couple of talkback radio hosts have told him, ``well, everyone knows all about this", as if there's nothing more to be said about the matter. ``But do we really know all about it?" Noyce says. ``There's a difference between intellectual and emotional knowledge. That's the beauty of cinema. In the film, we've often used point-of-view shots: so much of it is acted into the lens, and the audience is asked to be either the children or the people they encounter."

No doubt, he says a little wearily, ``people will comb over the details of the retelling of the story and try and invalidate the whole story. What cannot be denied, because it is on record, are the essential facts."

Already, speaking on talkback radio, he has detected a ``resistance" to the film, manifested in the recurring question, ``do we need to see a movie that highlights negative aspects of Australian history?"

What he tries to emphasise in response to this kind of question, is the film's positive qualities. ``I think it gives people a chance to celebrate this story, which is part of our stolen history, a story of a remarkable journey by three completely unlikely heroines."