It was January 28, and the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence was making its world premiere. Jigalong, a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia (population 300), was the venue, and Molly Kelly, 85, was the guest of honour. It was her first movie premiere. In fact, it was the first time she'd ever seen a movie on the big screen. And she was in it, along with her 79-year-old sister Daisy.
The film tells Molly's story. The story of how, in 1931, she and Daisy and their cousin Gracie ran away from the Moore River Settlement, where they were taken after being forcibly removed from their families. The story of how they walked back home, a journey of 1600 kilometres, most of it along the rabbit-proof fence that runs from the north coast of Western Australia to the south.
Even these days, Molly's not much for sitting still. "When are me and Daisy going to come on?" she repeatedly asked her daughter Doris as the movie played out before her. "I think I should go home."
Daisy, though, urged her to stay. "It's a good story, this," she whispered to her sister, even though she too knew how it ended. "Stop here. I like this."
Molly and Daisy had dressed up for the occasion. The director, Phillip Noyce, had brought each of them a dress from Sydney, a blue floral number for Molly, a black linen one for Daisy. "A bit long," tutted Molly. The women of Jigalong prefer their frocks cut just below the knee.
Still, they wore them. They wore the perfume Noyce had brought them, too. Calvin Klein's Escape.
The crowd started drifting in for the big event around 6pm. Everyone in Jigalong was there, and more had come from the surrounding towns. There were folk from Cotton Creek and from the mining town of Newman, 150 kilometres to the west. Some had driven the five hours from Port Hedland on the coast. There were even a couple of coach loads from Perth. By the time the moon rose in a cloudless sky, more than a thousand people sat or squatted in the schoolgrounds, staring at a giant inflatable screen that looked like the side of a jumping castle, waiting for the main attraction.
Yes, there were stars (overhead in the night sky), there was red carpet (albeit of Pilbara sand), and the scent of perfume (wafting through the desert air). "And for a moment," says the film's director Phil Noyce, "I was back there on Hollywood Boulevard".
But to everyone else, it was pure Jigalong. Up on screen were their people; their language, Marduwangka; their country. Above all, it was their story. The story of how three young girls defied white authority and outwitted white police to walk back home. It was Molly's story, Daisy's story, an archetypal story of the stolen generation. And telling it had been a journey in itself.
Doris Pilkington Garimara, 65, is Molly's daughter. She was born at Jigalong but separated from her mother when she was four years old. She had to wait 25 years to see her mother again, and a decade after that to hear her story of the rabbit-proof fence.
"Mum would probably never have told me the story," says Doris. "She never tells me much, except what she thinks I should know. I used to believe she handed us over to the government. I even accused her. We were living at Geraldton at the time, and we brought her down for Christmas, and I said to her, 'Why did you give us away?' And she just broke down and cried and said, 'I didn't give you away. The government took you away from me'."
Doris spent eight years at Moore River. In some ways, the settlement for "half-castes" did for her what it was supposed to do - it gave her an entree into white society. She got an education of sorts, trained as a nursing assistant at the Royal Perth Hospital, and worked in Aboriginal health at Geraldton. But she became frustrated with her role there, with the fact that she had no ability to make decisions. So, in 1981, she went back to school.
She enrolled in a bridging course at TAFE, designed to help Aborigines go on to tertiary study. She picked journalism at Curtin University in Perth and eventually landed a job as a researcher at Curtin's Centre for Aboriginal Studies.
"Around this time I decided to go up to Jigalong to have some quality time with Mum and also learn a bit more about my history and my culture. At that time I wasn't interested in learning the language, because I still had terrible conditioning from the mission, where they taught me that my culture was evil and those who practised it were devil worshippers, horrible things like that. My Dad was a black man, so all this was very traumatic for me. I didn't know how I felt. I had mixed feelings going up there into a strange country."
Though Doris was becoming closer to her mother, Molly's story remained unspoken. "I first heard it from Aunty Daisy," Doris recalls. "I didn't know that my mother and Aunty Daisy had been in Moore River. Aunty Daisy's daughter asked her to tell us the story of when they ran away from Moore River. 'What?' I said. 'Were you there too?' I thought it was an incredible story. They had to walk 40 miles per day. If they got a scare they'd keep walking all night, and sleep under the bushes all day. Walking, that was part of their lifestyle." Some time later, Doris was invited to give a speech at an Aboriginal family history event in Perth. There she repeated the story her aunt had told her. "After the speech, one of the lads in the audience came up and said, 'You know that story you told, about the girls running away - that's really well documented'. Then he sent me all these files."
The clippings and reports he sent to Doris provided the factual backbone for the story that would eventually become the book Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence. She wrote the first draft in 1985 and sent it off to a publisher. The publisher wrote back saying the work read a little like an academic treatise, and suggested she try her hand at fiction instead.
The result was Caprice, A Stockman's Daughter, which she entered in the 1990 David Unaipon Award. The award had been established in 1988 by University of Queensland Press when, as UQP boss Laurie Muller puts it, "I was deeply embarrassed to realise that we'd never published a book by an indigenous author".
To her immense surprise, Doris won and the book was published the following year. "That was a thrilling event, going to Queensland and holding a book with my name on it."
Thrilling maybe, but just a warm-up for the real thing. According to Muller, as soon as Caprice hit the shelves, Molly told her daughter, "Now you can tell our story".
Daisy had given her the framework, a friend had given her the factual reports, but what Doris really needed now was the emotional core of the story. Over the next few years and the course of many visits to her mother, she slowly teased it out. "I had to con her into telling bits of the story," she says. "I had to promise to do some little job for her."
In 1996, UQP released a reworked Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence. The first print run was of 7000 copies, and there was some mild media interest. Doris did an interview with ABC radio, aired late at night. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Tony Stephens happened to hear the interview, and thought the story would make for a great feature. His 1700-word story "The Long Walk Home" ran in the SMH in May.
``After the story was published, the phones rang hot for a couple of days," recalls Muller. ``People were calling wanting to buy the film rights. There were even two from LA - I have no idea how they came across it. And that's when Christine came out of the woodwork."
THE SCREENWRITER Christine Olsen is a tiny bundle of enthusiasm and energy. She's in her 40s, but she bounces around like someone barely out of high school. There's warmth there, and openness, but also, you sense, a kind of relentless determination to get what she wants. It's a quality without which Rabbit-Proof Fence would never have been made. Olsen read the story by Stephens, clipped it, and stuck it in a folder with all the other clippings and scraps of paper that she hoped might one day percolate down into script ideas. And there it sat for six months until she finally decided to do something about it.
``I rang UQP and said, `Are the rights still available?,' and they said, `Yes, but only just, and what we're doing is asking people to write in and tell us how they see the film, in three or four pages'."
Olsen did as they asked. ``I was completely upfront about it," she remembers. ``I told them I'd never made a feature film, my experience was in documentary. I told them what I thought about the story. Then, after I'd written the letter, I felt very strongly that Doris should meet me."
She rang UQP, saying she was prepared to fly over to Perth to meet Doris, but it turned out the author was on her way to Sydney, where Olsen lives, for a book signing. If she was prepared to cover the cost of an extra night in a hotel, Olsen could have her meeting.
So it was arranged. But on the day of the meeting, Olsen got a call. Doris was heading back to Perth early. ``So I said, `Well, can I drive you to the airport?"'
Doris said yes, they spent a couple of hours together in a car, and they got on. By the time Doris boarded her flight back to Perth, Olsen had the rights to her mother's story. ``And then I thought, `Oh, now I have to write the script'."
FILMMAKING, AS MOST of its practitioners will happily tell you, is a collaborative process. But screenwriting is a long and lonely one. It took Olsen about three years and countless versions to knock up a script that she thought did justice to the story. In early 1997, she visited Jigalong with Doris, who introduced her to her mother, Molly, and her aunt, Daisy. She went back repeatedly. In early 1999, she spent three weeks there, sleeping next to Molly on the front porch of her tiny house. That was when the script started to fall into place. Though written as a feature, it bore the imprint of her documentary background (she and director husband Curtis Levy used to work together until they chose marriage over career). She knew it needed a little more work, and was collaborating with a script editor in Melbourne, but what it needed more was a director. And she had one in mind. His name was Phillip Noyce.
Noyce is an Australian who has worked in Hollywood since the 1980s. He's had some big hits - notably Dead Calm, starring a young Nicole Kidman, and the Jack Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, both starring Harrison Ford - but they weren't why Olsen wanted him. Way back in 1974, Noyce had made a film called Backroads, set in outback Australia. In it, says Olsen, ``He treated the Aboriginal people as people, nothing more, nothing less".
Olsen had a friend who used to live in Los Angeles. That friend had a friend who had a number. She gave it to Olsen. For two days, she carried the number around with her on a slip of paper, taking it out every now and again to look at it, to make sure it was real, that it hadn't faded away. Then on the third day she went out. Had a big night. Decided to make the call. It was only 9.30pm, she figured, maybe there's still someone in the office.
Only it wasn't 9.30pm in LA. It was 3.30am. And the number wasn't for the office.
``Hello. (Pause.) Aaah ... I'm looking for Phillip Noyce."
``Well, you've got him."
``Oh. (Longer pause.) Oh. Well, hello Mr Noyce. I'm really sorry to trouble you, but I've just finished writing this script and I think it's absolutely perfect for you."
``Look, I'm sure it's terrific, but it's 3.30 in the morning."
``Ah. Well. I'm so sorry about that. But I've always been a big fan of Backroads and this script is a fantastic story about Aborigines and I think you're the perfect director for it." ``Look, why don't you ring my office tomorrow?" (He gives her the number.)
``Will I get to speak to you?"
For his part, when he got that early morning call, Phil Noyce thought a crazy had got hold of his number. ``That's your worst horror within that world in Hollywood," he says.
``Everyone thinks that if you get your script to a director, you'll get your film made. So you spend your life hiding, really. You hope that a waiter's not going to buttonhole you, because every waiter is either an actor or writer or both, just about. With the bill comes the script. So you always have a silent number and you never give it to anyone.
``There's so many great manuscripts out there that unfortunately no one except a master speed reader would ever have the time to read them, so the truth is that probably the best films are never made because they never get read. Nevertheless, even knowing that, it was the middle of the night and this weird-sounding voice comes on: `I've got the perfect script for you and you're the perfect director for this story.' I was in the middle of working on this other film and I wanted to get her off the phone so she wouldn't keep ringing me. I wanted to discourage her."
Fat chance. The next day, Olsen rang Noyce's office, took down the address to which she was meant to mail the script, and sent it.
A month passed. Then another. Finally, she received a call. It was a reader in Noyce's office. ``I love your script," she said. ``I'm going to do a presentation to Phil."
Olsen was excited, but when another two months went by she became worried. ``So I rang back and said, `What's happening?' And the reader said, `Oh, he's so busy doing The Quiet American and The Sum of All Fears and I just can't get to him'. So I thought, `Oh well, that's the end of that'."
It almost was, in fact. Back in LA, Noyce couldn't help wondering if there was something in Olsen's persistence just a little bit Play Misty For Me (the 1971 film in which Clint Eastwood's late-night radio DJ is stalked by an obsessed fan). ``I was making that sort of film," he says. ``So I didn't read the script for months. I was very sceptical because I just remembered her as the crazy lady."
Another month went by. Then, in November 1999, ``the crazy lady" decided to give it one more shot. She rang Noyce's office and asked to speak to him. She was told she couldn't do that, because he was in Australia promoting his latest big-budget thriller, The Bone Collector. Olsen asked where he was staying but the assistant wouldn't tell her. ``So I rang (Australian producer) David Elfick and said, `Where's Phillip staying?' He said, `Oh, it's one of those harbourside hotels'. I thought, `Hmmm, the Hyatt'. So I rang the Hyatt, said, `Can I speak to Phillip Noyce?', and they said, `We'll put you through to his room'. Got it in one!"
Except that she didn't. What she did get was his voicemail. She left a garbled message and wondered if that was the end of the saga. But the following day she got word that she was to call Noyce. ``You'd better send me the script," he said. She didn't say, ``Well, I have", but she was tempted.
A month or so later she got another call: ``Phillip Noyce would like to meet you for lunch." It was January 2000, and he was in Sydney again. ``That was the first meeting," recalls Olsen. ``I got his script notes, then we had another meeting in April."
Olsen should have been over the moon. The script was progressing, she'd landed the director of her dreams, it looked like the film would finally be made. But it wasn't that simple. ``I began to realise that Rabbit-Proof Fence had become just one more script he was juggling," says Olsen. ``So I said, `What are you doing?' And he said, `Well, in the northern hemisphere I've got The Quiet American, and when I get back tomorrow I'm delivering a script to Harrison Ford ...' And I said, `Well, this script can't wait for you'. And he gave me this look. But I did mean it. I really meant it. I thought, `This can't wait five years while he finishes this film and goes on to another one. It has a time to it, and it's now'. And I think he agreed, because three weeks later he rang me and said, `Get the ending fixed and we'll make that film this year'."
AS THE END credits were about to come up at the Jigalong screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence, a giant bug flew into the projector and broke the film. But Molly's story keeps rolling on.
After she returned to Jigalong, Molly married and had two children, Doris and Annabelle. But the Western Australian Office of the Chief Protector of Aborigines wasn't finished with her yet. In 1941, Molly was again captured by white authorities, when Doris was four and Annabelle two.
All three of them were taken to Moore River. Again, Molly escaped. She took Annabelle with her but left Doris behind.
Molly again walked most of the way back to Jigalong (she got a lift for the last section of the journey), carrying and nursing Annabelle as she went. But the little girl later developed eye problems, and when she was three she was taken away for treatment. At Moore River, she was deemed suitably light-skinned to be a candidate for assimilation, and was moved to a home in Perth for the ``near-white".
There she was brought up to believe she was an orphan. When told that Doris was her sister, Annabelle said it was impossible; Doris was too black. Still, Molly never gave up hope of seeing her daughter again.
``Year after year," says Doris, who was reunited with her mother in December, 1962 , ``she'd ask when I'd go visit her, `Any news? Any news about Annabelle?' And I'd say, `No, not yet, we're still trying'."
And then it finally happened. They found her. ``I very happily sent off copies of my books and a letter saying how much I was looking forward to seeing her, as was the whole Jigalong community," says Doris, ``and if she was having trouble financially they'd send the fare money. And the package came back unopened, with the words `rejected by addressee' written on it.
``By gee, those words cut deep, like a cold knife in my heart. I thought, `How the hell am I going to tell my mother that her baby - the one she conceived and nurtured and carried back - has rejected her?' So I did tell her in the end. And she said, `Well, let her be dead then'. The pain she bears is on the inside. She doesn't say it out loud, but you can see it on her face."
IN THE END, Molly enjoyed the film, but with one reservation. She thinks it's about the wrong journey.
``On the second journey, she had to leave one child behind and carry the other," says Noyce, ``and then that child that she'd carried was taken from her and she's never seen that child and she's still waiting to hold that child. So that for her was more traumatic, because she mended the wounds of the first journey, she was reunited with her own mum. But the second part of this unbelievable story was that her child was taken, never to come back."
As the film ended at Jigalong, Molly turned to Phil Noyce and said, ``That's the story you should have told".