Rabbit-Proof Fence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am

Starring: Everlyn Sampi and Tianna Sansbury
Director: Phillip Noyce
Year of original release: 2002
Genre: True-life adventure


Rabbit-Proof Fence is a controversial drama based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara. The story is about her mother, Molly Craig. As a girl, Molly ran away from a settlement camp for native children north of Perth in Western Australia, where she had been placed by the government's Aborigines Protection Board. The camp served as a place to re-educate mixed-race children to live a Western lifestyle. The year was 1931.

The film follows Molly and two other mixed-race Aboriginal girls during their nine-week journey on foot along a 2,400km-long fence built to keep out wild rabbits. At the end of their long trek awaits their home in the Aboriginal town of Jigalong. The girls are chased after by the authorities who want to return them to the camp.

On its release in 2002, the film re-sparked debate in Australia about the past practice of taking Aboriginal children away from their families to re-educate them. The film was not entirely accurate historically, but it was a powerful movie.

The plot

Molly, Daisy and Gracie live with their mother and grandmother in the remote town of Jigalong. On order of the Aboriginal Protection Board, the girls are taken from their home to a settlement camp. There, mixed-race girls are trained to become servants for white Australians.

The three girls escape and begin their long walk back home. They decided to follow the rabbit-proof fence, which they know will lead them home.

An Aboriginal tracker is sent to find the girls. Yet they stay one step ahead of him by cleverly disguising their tracks. But the long journey takes a terrible toll on the girls. After several weeks in the wilderness, they're on the verge of starving to death. And the last leg of their journey is the most dangerous yet.

The Stolen Generation

Australia's 'Stolen Generation' were Aboriginal children who had been taken away from their parents between around 1909 and 1969 to be re-educated. It was all done legally.

The Aborigine Protection Act of 1909 gave authorities permission to seize native Australian children. They were taken from their families and rehoused in special settlements, where they were trained to become guides, servants and farm labourers. This was seen as the best way of integrating them into mainstream white Australian life.

It is not known how many native children were taken away from their natural families during this sad period in Australian history. In 2008, then prime minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology on behalf of the Australia's government to the children and families of the 'Stolen Generation'.

The dreaming

Aborigines are the indigenous people of Australia. Their ancestors had migrated from Asia around 40,000 years ago. By the time Europeans began settling in Australia in the late 18th century, Aborigines had adapted successfully to the continent's hot and dry climate. They had a rich tribal culture of art and storytelling. They saw the beginning of the world as 'Dreamtime', when humanity rose out of the land to join with nature to form the earth.

Over time, the Aborigines were forced to assimilate into white communities - often under tragic circumstances. Once uprooted from their ancestral land and culture, many lost their identity. Entire communities disappeared. Today, there are only 400,000 Aborigines left. They account for just 2 per cent of Australia's population.

The No 1

Rabbit-Proof Fence

At the start of the 20th century, farmers in Western Australia had a problem. Thousands of wild rabbits began coming out of the bush and devouring valuable crops. The authorities came up with a simple solution: a fence.

Yet for it to be effective, the fence would have to cover great swathes of the seemingly endless landscape.

Officially called the State Barrier Fence of Western Australia, construction began in 1901. It was completed in 1907. The total length of the three sections of the fence covered 3,253km.

The main section went north to south with two smaller add-ons in the west and east-west. The fence cost a lot of money to build.

Camels and rabbits

An official Chief Inspector of Rabbits was appointed to see to the maintenance of the fence. Boundary riders regularly patrolled the fence's entire length on camelback.

Camels, imported into Australia from Asia, became an ideal means of transport in the Australian bush. They could travel long distances without water. From 1910 on, inspectors began using cars. Yet camels still proved better for the job: unlike cars, they didn't get stuck.

Each of four sub-inspectors was responsible for about 750km of the fence. Their duty also included destroying any colonies of rabbits that managed to chew their way through, or burrow under, the fence. For half a century the barbed-wire fence proved an effective way for keeping out pesky rabbits, whose ancestors had been introduced into Australia by white farmers.