1 February 2002

Somewhere Man: Phillip Noyce on "Rabbit Proof Fence"

“I wasn’t looking for a script to come back to Australia. I didn’t think I could come back. I thought that I had become a nowhere man, that as a migrant worker working in America I had perhaps alienated my sensibilities from the way Australia had developed in the 10 years since I had left.”
At Fox Studios in Sydney, Phillip Noyce takes a break from sound editing to talk to Australian Style about Rabbit Proof Fence, the film that after 10 years in Hollywood has brought him home; the same film that, ironically, he hopes will secure his international reputation as one of the cinema’s leading visionaries.
Back in Australia now for almost two years, Noyce has been simultaneously directing Rabbit Proof Fence, to be released nationally this month (February), and The Quiet American, based on the Graham Green novel and starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (due for release late 2002).
A mountain of a man, unshaven and refreshingly unkempt, Noyce makes a habit of lighting up a cigarette, taking one drag then putting it out.
“I was an expatriate in two countries and two cultures. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, London and New York in the intervening years but made films principally on location in New York, Montreal, Washington, Mexico, London and Moscow. So I felt I was no longer equipped to interpret the Australian experience.
“So really it was the compelling nature of this story that pushed me to do it — with some stories not only can’t you them down but they can’t put you down.”
Noyce’s film is based on Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara’s best-selling 1996 book about her mother, Molly Craig. It details the true story of how in 1931 Molly was "stolen" from her mother at the remote Gibson Desert settlement of Jigalong and taken for her “protection” to the Moore River Native Settlement some 1500 miles away. The Western Australian Government’s policy, administered by the “Chief Protector of Aborigines”, AO Neville (played in the film by Kenneth Branagh), was to “breed out the Aboriginal race” from so-called “half caste” children like Molly, thus saving them from the fate of full blood Aborigines, whom, it was believed, were “dying out.” The “half castes” were taken to Moore River to be “prepared for their new life in white society” as domestic servants and farms labourers. Fourteen-year-old Molly would have none of this, and, leading her eight-year-old sister Daisy and 10-year-old cousin Gracie, she escapes the settlement and begins her epic journey along the rabbit proof fence back to her mother at Jigalong. A journey she completes, only to be taken back to Moore River, only to escape yet again.

When Molly escaped this second time, she left two daughters – including Doris – behind. Doris would not be reunited with her mother until 40 years later.

“We took a handicam and travelled with Doris, the daughter of the real Molly, to the remains of the Moore River Settlement,” Noyce recounts. “where, of course, she had been incarcerated for 16 years. Then we travelled by road back along the rabbit proof fence to Jigalong, where we met the two surviving women, Molly Craig and Daisy Craig. After that journey and those encounters I felt well armed to embark on making the film because I had absorbed the ghosts that they were running away from, the indomitable spirit of Molly and the place that she wanted to go home to, and where she still lives now all these years later.”
The finished film is at once tragic, uplifting, moving, and inspiring, thanks to Noyce’s unerring direction and the incredible performances of Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan - the three child actors who play Molly, Daisy and Gracie. Sampi, especially, delivers a stunning debut performance as the indomitable Molly that has wowed preview audiences in the US.
“The whole idea that we could find these kids to play these roles seemed at some moments to be a fool’s errand,” say Noyce.
“They were cast three weeks before shooting. At no point before we began shooting did I know this would work. I knew the kids looked right, but I had no idea how they’d respond in front of a film camera with up to 60 people standing around.” Noyce has worked with children before but not in such an intense way, where the success or failure of the film would depend on their performances. “And I had a really special task here,” Noyce continues, “because all of the history, heartache, the struggles and triumphs of indigenous Australia had to be conveyed in each one of them.
Phillip Noyce, 2002. Photo by Karin Catt
in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
“So I had to find three children who were identifiable as Aboriginal children – you couldn’t deny that – and yet they had to have a certain charisma, a certain quality that would allow white Australians to say ‘those are my children’ and in doing so I want them to be able to say ‘those black kids are me’ and in doing that to say ‘we are all black AND white’, which is something,” he pauses, grabs a deep breath, lowers his voice, and continues very deliberately, “that we’ve always denied. Completely.”
Our interview takes place two days before the 2001 Federal Election, with headlines dominated by the farce over whether refugee children were thrown overboard. Rabbit Proof Fence will put the plight of the ‘Stolen Generations’ on the world stage and will attract further international condemnation of Australia. 
“There will be a lot of press,” Noyce concedes. “And articles about the film will necessarily deal with the issues and we know how super-sensitive Australians are to international judgement, and how even the smallest article in foreign newspapers tends to be reprinted here.” Unearthing Australia’s shameful past will no doubt attract much approbation from supporters of the re-elected government, but after a decade making big budget thrillers like Patriot Games, A Clear And Present Danger, and The Bone Collector, Noyce is encouraged by the positive changes he has noticed on his recent trips back home.
“I’d been to Australia three times in 1999 so I could see the sea change that was taking place, in terms of white Australia’s willingness to embrace black Australia and to admit that there was such a thing (as the Stolen Generations). 

"I’d also seen the change in terms of recorded history of black experience, the re-examination of what came to be known as the invasion of Australia as opposed to the settlement.”

“So I rang Christine Olsen (the screenwriter) and said ‘let’s make this movie’ and about nine weeks later we started shooting. I flew back to Australia and wasn’t sure where we’d get the money but I started pre-production on the credit cards anyway. Kenneth (Branagh) joined after the project was financed. I asked a number of Australian actors first – from Russell Crowe to Geoffrey Rush – but as it turns out, Kenneth was the perfect choice: AO Neville was an expatriate Englishman, and came here as a young adult. Kenneth didn’t hesitate to take the role.”
The film has since been picked up by the world’s leading ‘mini-major’, Miramax Films, for worldwide distribution. “For a film which has three unknown Aboriginal child actresses who have never acted before it has pre-sold in every major film market in the world,” Noyce declares. “I’m hopeful it will succeed. I can only go by watching the test audiences in America who became extremely agitated after the screenings; they became emboldened in ways I wouldn’t have imagined, I guess because it’s a story of children in jeopardy and any child in jeopardy becomes our own child. “But the theme of family reunification, of a child who will stop at nothing to get home is one that’s really very timely. It’s a universal theme.”
Noyce is no bandwagon jumper when it comes to dealing with themes of race and indigenous relations. His first AFI award winning film, the 1975 docudrama, God Knows Why But It Works, is about medical care among Aborigines and his first feature, 1977’s Backroads (which he also produced and wrote), starred Aboriginal activist Gary Foley alongside Bill Hunter in a brutal, raw tale of race relations in the Outback.
“There were all sorts of assumptions I made when making Backroads that I learnt from in terms of consultation with indigenous people. Black Australians have spent 200 years being told what was good for them so even though Rabbit Proof Fence was always going to be told through white eyes we tried as much as possible to consult with those whose story we were making.” Arguably the most important Australian film in 20 years, Rabbit Proof Fence is in the activist tradition of films like Noyce’s own Heat Wave (1982), which starred a still rising Judy Davis fighting the corrupt dealings of Sydney’s property developers in the 1970s.

Why do Australian filmmakers today tend to shun controversial political subject matter? 

“For whatever reason, not since Jedda in the ’50s has a film that’s dealt with Aboriginal themes been successful at the box office in Australia. There’s a truism in the Australian film business that black films don’t sell; that nobody wants to see stories with Aboriginal themes. That’s one reason for the paucity of Australian films dealing with the Aboriginal experience. Another is that we’re not only dealing here with stolen generations but it’s within a context of stolen history, for instance, Aboriginals have always been extremely marginalised, and that their tradition of storytelling is largely oral – till very recently there haven’t been any comprehensive histories of black Australia.”
Noyce modestly hopes that if Rabbit Proof Fence can succeed, film financiers and makers will realise “the treasure trove of extraordinary stories that are waiting to be made into films. “The number of Braveheart-like stories of charismatic, determined Aboriginal rebel leaders around Australia is extraordinary, I mean there’s one in almost every centre of population, just waiting to be made into spectacular, involving, action-adventure stories. We’re now seeing the emergence of some really talented indigenous directors and they’re probably the ones who are going to turn this treasure trove into movies.”

First published in Australian Style magazine, February 2002

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