Rabbit-Proof Fence: Humanity Will Not Fail

A friend brought over the film AUSTRALIA for us to watch. I had told him of my visit to Alice Springs in the Nineties and my meeting with a band of Aboriginal grandmothers who taught me how to hunt. I loved being with them; and found the Australian vastness astonishing. That people had lived there for at least forty thousand years, seemed amazing. When the English took it over, they claimed nobody lived there. Everybody who was there was simply killed, enslaved, raped, chased into the desert, brutalized physically and psychologically, and left addicted to flour, sugar, salt, tea and alcohol. As far as I know, nobody completely escaped. On the island of Tasmania it is believed every single inhabitant was “exterminated.” The British rulers, who sent over their convicts to colonize Australia, wanted all the land and its resources, and took them; telling a million lies about the native inhabitants as they did so. The “half-caste” (half-white) children of aboriginal mothers were taken away from them and placed in boarding schools where they were taught to serve their English masters, domestically, agriculturally and sexually. As was done in North America with children, “half-caste” or not, of the Native American people. White Australians stopped kidnapping aboriginal children in 1970. The children taken are known as “the stolen generations.”

Twenty minutes into AUSTRALIA I began to feel queasy. I couldn’t continue watching this history turned into a comic book. My friend assured me the film improved toward the end, but that I will never know. Instead, I invited him to watch another film out of Australia, in 2002, called Rabbit-Proof Fence. It is the real life story of three “half-caste” sisters who are taken away from their mother and grandmother by the representative white “protector of aboriginals” and placed in a church-run school that is exactly like a prison. If you run away, you are tracked down, your hair is clipped off, and you are brutally beaten and locked in “the hole.” Our girls, Molly, Gracie and Daisy, ages 8-14 decide to run away anyway, and trek the entire nine-month, one thousand and something miles back “home.” “Home” being, primarily, their mother’s and grandmother’s love; by now the British have fenced in and claimed all the land, and so tribal people are homeless. The settlers think it will be impossible, because of their “rabbit-proof fence,” to have any more aboriginal movement, i.e. Walk-a-bouts, or spiritual journeys native people traditionally made without informing their enslavers. (Think of the fences and walls today, in Palestine/Israel and along the U.S./Mexican Border, to see how this idea of keeping people out of their traditional land is still active).

What is wonderful about films is that we have enough of them now to compare those based on truth and those based on what some people wish were the truth. For those of us who need to be reminded of who we were, what we were like, before colonization destroyed us as a people, films like Rabbit-Proof Fence are medicine for re-uniting parts of our psyches that were deliberately torn apart. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the fact that most aboriginal peoples have been under the boot of Nazi ideology for hundreds of years, not eight or ten, and that this story, so long in coming out and being listened to, is ours to know, to honor, to protect. It is told by the two remaining sisters, Molly and Daisy, now quite old, who are shown walking in the desert at the end of the film. It is based on the book written by Molly’s daughter.

The love of our people for each other was one of the strongest forces white colonizers discovered, whenever they came to our lands. There were, at times, cruel, stupid, sadomasochistic, sociopathic and greedy native leaders, horrid parents and vicious Others, but the bonds of family were fierce, especially the love between mother and child. This is the beauty of Rabbit-Proof Fence. Seeing it increases our emotional intelligence about our own existence, and shows the power of art, when it is informed with moral outrage as well as creative excellence and breath-taking honesty.

To understand more about the familial and communal bonds that existed among our peoples as they were tracked, captured, raped, enslaved, destroyed, read The Slave Ship, by Marcus Rediker. It is a rough read that is likely to send you to your bed. But you’ll recover. While in recovery, listen to the music of indigenous Australian, Archie Roach (and his wife, Ruby Hunter), themselves “children of the lost generations.” Their music, on the cd Charcoal Lane, will bruise, and soothe, those places you’ve been afraid to look. Because it remains faithful to the ancestral struggle that brought it to voice, it is full of emotion: great tenderness, enormous restraint. I met Archie and Ruby, in Australia, and saw them later in San Francisco. Embracing them, being embraced by them, was unforgettable; I felt our connection at so timeless a level, it was as if seams of gold-studded with plants and minerals – ran down our bodies, uniting us. I understood we had been together since all of us were earth.

Love is the force that will not be stopped is what Rabbit Proof Fence demonstrates to us descendants of colonized and colonizer alike. (Quite a mixed bag, this descendant thing is too, by now.) Believing this, humanity will not fail.

Jai Maa! (Victory to the Mother!)

You may wish to shout this at the end of the film.
©2009 Alice Walker

Posted Jun 23, 2009