Australian film confronts treatment of Aborigines

Australians have avoided films dealing with Aboriginal issues, but "Rabbit-Proof Fence" hopes to change that.

When Rod Bishop went to his local movie theater to see a preview of the new Australian film "Rabbit-Proof Fence" he wasn't expecting to find a full house.

But when Mr Bishop, director of the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School, found just four people in the audience for the critically-acclaimed film about three young Aboriginal girls' trek home through the desert, he became a little depressed.

What Bishop ran into was a long-recognized phenomenon in the Australian film industry: Films dealing with Aboriginal issues and themes don't make it at the box office.

The film, which opens in theaters across Australia Thursday and in the US this June, deals with one of the most sensitive subjects in Australia's history, the story of the so-called "stolen generations." They were the thousands of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families as part of government policies that stretched across much of the 20th century.

Their presence was first brought to light for many Australians in a 1997 report by the country's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

It detailed widespread cases of abuse in government- and church-run institutions housing the children and recommended a formal apology to members of the stolen generations.

Since then, the current conservative government's refusal to offer such an apology to the stolen generations has grown into one of the country's rawest domestic issues. But five years after the report, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is the highest-profile effort yet to tackle that issue by way of art.

In Hollywood terms it is a low budget ($10.5 million Australian (about US$5.5 million) production. But it has a Hollywood director - Phil Noyce, an Australian who has directed films like "Patriot Games" and "The Bone Collector"; a Hollywood star in Kenneth Branagh, who plays the man many people see as the architect of the policies that led to the removal of Aboriginal children; and even the backing of Miramax, which bought the film's US and European distribution rights.

The book on which it is based, "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington Garimara, tells the true story of the author's mother, Molly Craig. In the 1930s, Ms. Craig ran away from an institution with her sister and cousin after being taken from her family at age 14. To get home, they followed a fence designed to exclude rabbits - considered vermin in Australia - for some 1,500 miles across the outback.

Mr. Noyce, the director, says it is a film Australians have been clamoring for as they continue to deal with the past mistreatment of Aborigines, who even today are beset by problems such as alcoholism and high rates of incarceration.

"I could feel in the wind that white Australia wanted a vehicle - whether it was a movie, whether it was a book, or whatever - that got beyond the slogans and allowed them to come to terms with the history of race relations in this country," Noyce said in a recent interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

In broad terms, that history has been explored on celluloid before. According to Gary Maddox, film writer for the Herald, Australian filmmaker have produced some 20 films dealing with a broad range of Aboriginal characters and issues in the past 30 years.

But "Rabbit-Proof Fence" may be the best chance yet at breaking what Mr. Maddox calls a "four-decade hoodoo" for films tackling the race issue.

The reasons trotted out for past commercial failures rarely have anything to do with quality. "There's been some pretty decent films that have been made," Maddox says.

Some are prone to quietly blame racism. But in modern Australia, the truth probably has more to do with subtler components of the national character, like a propensity to avoid confronting uncomfortable issues. And as Geoff Mayer, head of cinema studies at Melbourne's Latrobe University, says: "Australians are still fairly uncomfortable with that whole issue of Aborigines and Aboriginal problems."

Despite the consensus about the commercial difficulties, a new cast of Aboriginal filmmakers is emerging in Australia. Director Rachel Perkins, for example, has won plaudits for her 1998 film "Radiance" and last year's "One Night the Moon."

As the director of Australia's most prestigious film school, Bishop has also been watching the ranks of his indigenous students grow. And he now considers the films of past Aboriginal students - such as Perkins - among the most exciting in Australia.

Bishop says it's important that a film like "Rabbit-Proof Fence" find an audience in Australia. After all, he says, if a high-profile, homegrown film with a Hollywood director can't find an audience because it deals with Aboriginal issues, what chance does a smaller film have?

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