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Turrisi, Andrew T. III MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000292991.12072.52

Chairman and Chief, Department of Radiation Oncology Wayne State University School of Medicine, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit Medical Center

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‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ ***



Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tiana Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpili, and Kenneth Branagh. Written by Christine Olsen (screenplay) and Doris Pilkington (book). Directed by Phillip Noyce. Rated PG, 94 minutes.

Good fences build good neighbors according to Robert Frost. Do bad fences create bad neighbors or just define that fences rarely accomplish what they intend to do when it comes to cultural issues?

This movie certainly taps into these issues. The fence was intended to keep the wild indigenous rabbits away from the cultivated land of Australia's white settlers, but it had the unintended (or was it symbolically intended?) consequence of dividing the indigenous people, the aboriginal people, from the white settlers, and securing the Aborigines in with the rabbits.

The aboriginal people were brought into contact—at times too intimate contact—with the fence builders, and the meeting of the two peoples ultimately served both groups poorly and exposed a shameless era for a great land.

Mindless bureaucracies often produce a legacy of seemingly well-intentioned rules foolishly propped up by doctrines declaring what was really good and in everyone's best interest.

While we cannot judge some practices with today's light, we cannot look back without shame about certain episodes in our own past. With the exception of Trent Lott and a coterie of inveterate racists, are there many that still long for the days of Jim Crow rules about water fountains and separate bathrooms for the races?

It strikes me that when we have such examples, we look at them not for their quaintness or longing for the past, but so that they can shine a light on how we can stubbornly adhere to ideas even when they make very little sense. And the passage of time makes them look not only defenseless but also outrageous and absurd.

Phillip Noyce is an accomplished Australian director of a certain age who understands this quite well. Noyce has directed a number of noteworthy films, including the recently acclaimed Quiet American, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector, and Patriot Games, filmed largely in South Carolina.

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One of Australia's Darkest Clouds

Here, he takes the opportunity to direct a largely amateur cast in an assault on one of Australia's darkest clouds—its version of apartheid that existed from the 1930s when the film is portrayed until the 1970s.

In South Carolina, from which I recently moved and where Patriot Games was filmed, in 1968 there was a police riot outside a bowling alley about civil rights in an episode akin to Kent State known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.”

South Carolina politicians have been anything but patriots when it comes to candor and owning up to this tragedy. The governor, Mark Sanford, finally stood up and apologized for the event, which has not been properly investigated, but has been the subject of a book. He earned my respect and admiration for doing the right thing, but he certainly aggravated many of those who voted him into office.

The Rabbit-Proof Fence story exposes the blight of an Australian racial-purity policy. Its protagonist is Molly, whose daughter, Doris Pilkington, wrote a nonfiction book about the policy and her mother's experience with abduction and return.

The fence builders and farmers were descendants of convicts, who apparently had no moral problem having their way sexually with Aboriginal women. However when a child resulted, the racial policy was to separate the child from the mother, and abduct the child to a school to learn menial domestic chores.

Forbidden was allowing such a child to breed with another Aboriginal person, where the white genes would be admixed with Aboriginal, setting a cultural value scale on what is a superior set of genes and what is an inferior one. I guess the genes that permitted licentiousness of church-going, pale-skinned individuals are obviously superior to those whose virtue was compromised by lustful fence builders.

The movie takes its action from the abduction of three mixed-caste children taken for re-education at a Bleak House-like compound, and no, they were not educated in science and literature, but in proper methods of servitude for the upper classes.

The movie moves at an adagio pace with the girls traversing 1,500 miles, stalked by the expert “tracker,” Moodoo, who has proven indefatigable and accurate at returning runaways. Once returned to camp, runaways were cast into a tin shed to boil in the heat.

The adagio is punctuated by cadenzas by A. O. Neville, the central bureaucrat and racial purist, who would fit well in the Wehrmacht or Theriesenstadt defending the cleansing effect on society and beneficence for the boys and girls extracted from the hinterlands to serve useful roles.

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Brilliant Lunacy

These flourishes of brilliant lunacy are pronounced calmly and reasonably as only a deranged zealot can. Kenneth Branagh plays this prig well, and does not overdo the role into parody.

Australia, our staunch Anglophone ally in the coalition that defeated Iraq in 19 days, had this racial purification policy to keep the Aborigines, or at least their genes, in their place.

The “half-caste,” mixed-race children of whites and Aboriginal mothers were forbidden to marry other Aboriginal people. Audaciously this movie takes on the policy and boldly exposes it for the eugenic nightmare that this represents.

What is astounding is that the policy endured until 1970, when Noyce and I were young men worrying about Vietnam. More astonishing is the intransigence of John Howard, the current Australian prime minister, apparently without the courage of Governor Mark Sanford, to acknowledge that the policy as wrong and immoral. A true leader of good people should express sorrow and regret over such abusive transgressions.

Australia is about as far from the civilized world as one can get geographically, and it is surprising to see such an enlightened country behave so badly. It was founded as a penal colony, like South Carolina's sister state, Georgia.

“The movie works as a story, but the action can be slow-paced, and the moral dilemma ponderous. The young actresses are fresh and bright, and the finale with real people will be heartrending to some and maudlin to others.”

In Australia, much was built with convict labor, and harsh punishment was the norm, regardless of race. However, the first people hanged for murder in Melbourne, Australia were of aboriginal caste.

The parallels are too familiar, the message too haunting. We need to acknowledge the wrongs of the past before healing begins.

The movie works as a story, but the action can be too slow-paced, and the moral dilemma too ponderous to be enjoyed. The young actresses are fresh and bright, and the finale with real people will be heartrending to some and maudlin to others.

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‘Not an Easy Movie’

This is not an easy movie, nor a night's entertainment. It is work and sadness, and you leave wondering how far we are really from the Neanderthals.

Another millennium and we struggle still with genocide and religious jihads of one kind or another. We invest billions to feel more secure, and many are willing to give up fundamental rights to buy the illusion of security and safety. Can we really be secure if anyone's liberty is expropriated and never given a chance for a fair hearing or trial?

While sexual misconduct by the fence-building white society imposed on the native people was clearly immoral, the wrong was magnified by a cold-hearted empty-headed eugenic policy that seems ludicrous today but was reality for 40 years.

One can celebrate the freedom and the indomitable spirit of the girls, but I worry more that we now embrace Neville-like leaders that do not measure up under scrutiny as really being in favor of freethinking, when conformity of thought is what pleases them most and dissent frightens them into tyranny.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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