Study guide: Rabbit-Proof Fence
Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on the true story of Molly Craig, her sister Daisy Kadibill and cousin Gracie Fields who, after being forcibly removed from their mothers in 1931, escaped from a mission settlement in order to find their way home. They make their journey by way of the ‘rabbit-proof fence’, which once stretched the length of Western Australia.
Year levels: 6 - 11
Curriculum: History, English, Media, Intercultural understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures
Context: Stolen Generations
From the late 1800s to around 1970, the Australian federal and state governments forcibly removed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Some sources say one in ten children was removed; others say it's closer to one in three. They were often taken thousands of kilometres away to live in state care (orphanages or schools), or on church missions, or they were adopted by white families.
The aim was "assimilation": the government hoped that the children would adopt white culture and forget their Aboriginal language and heritage. Many of these children never saw their families again. For years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families lived in fear that authorities would try to take their children. Parents often disguised or hid their children in order to prevent them from being taken.
The events explored in Rabbit-Proof Fence take place in 1931, 26 years after the introduction of the Western Australian Aborigines Act under which all Aboriginal people were made ‘wards of the state’, with the Chief Protector of Aborigines becoming their legal guardian.
Analysing a film text
When we analyse a film in English or Media, we look at some of the same techniques that we look at in written texts, like themes, characterisation, setting and plot structure. But a film has its own visual and sound language, and we need to show in our essays that we can write about this too.
You're probably familiar with using quotes as evidence in your essays; film language is another kind of evidence that we can use to support our interpretations.
Film techniques include:
- How the camera is used. Look for camera movement (eg. handheld, pan, dolly and tracking shots), camera angles (high and low angles, Dutch tilt) and the framing or shot size (long shot, mid shot, close up, point-of-view shot, establishing shot, two-shot)
- Acting, including expression, mood, body language, tone, and the way lines are delivered.
- Mise-en-scène refers to everything in the frame. You can use this to talk about the placement of props, sets and characters, as well as colour, lighting and costume. Sometimes it helps to analyse mise-en-scène in a film still (rather than watching a scene), because you won't be distracted by the action.
- Editing refers to the way shots and scenes are put together. Often we barely notice continuity editing, but we can talk about the way scenes are juxtaposed, montage, intercutting between scenes or locations, and many other editing techniques.
- Lighting including natural light (outside, lighting that looks warm like sunlight), dramatic lighting and the use of shadows.
- Sound including diegetic sound (sound that comes from within the story world, like dialogue, nature sounds) and non-diegetic sound (like voiceovers, sound FX and the soundtrack).
This is not an exhaustive list of film techniques, but if you know these, you'll always be able to find something to talk about in the scene.
Rabbit-Proof Fence begins in Jigalong in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, with Molly, Daisy and Grace transported to the Moore River Settlement near the Western Australian coast. Moore River Settlement.
- First, get your bearings. On a map, locate the Moore River Settlement and the rabbit-proof fence the girls follow on their return journey. Take a look at these photographs of the real Moore River Settlement.
- How far is Moore River from Jigalong? How far do you think the girls walked, in total?
- Rabbits were an introduced species to Australia. What impact have they had on the land?
- How many fences were there in total? And how many kilometres did they cover?
Molly is the main character of the film. The memoir that the film is based on, called Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, is written by Molly Craig's real life daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara (also known as Nugi Garimara). Molly proves herself to be resourceful, resilient and determined, leading and caring for Daisy and Gracie, and even carrying them on her back on the long journey from Moore River back to Jigalong. She outsmarts Moodoo, the tracker, and seeks out help when they get in trouble. We often see Molly's perspective in point-of-view shots.
A.O. Neville is also based on a real person. He was appointed to the role of Chief Protector in 1915. He oversaw the establishment of settlements like Moore River, which were designed to separate Aboriginal children from their families. He is the primary antagonist of the film and represents the government policies and attitudes more broadly. A.O. Neville believes in the paternalistic policies about removing Aboriginal children from their families for their own good, and for the good of the country.
One of the most powerful minor characters is Mavis, a young Aboriginal woman who, like the girls, was taken to the Moore River Settlement as a child. She is sent out to service and works for a white couple, and it is implied that her employer is abusive. She begs the children to stay with her, and through her story we realise that Aboriginal adults are also in danger and disempowered under these government policies.
Identity and Belonging
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a story about the characters’ determination to get home to their family, and the way they resist those who say they can’t be together. Along the way, we see the film is very much about identity and belonging, with the identities of the girls intertwined with their family and the area they are from.
- Describe the attempts made at Moore River Settlement to alter the identities of Aboriginal children. Give examples.
- Consider the character of Mavis. What does her life tell us about what the children at Moore River Settlement can expect from their future?
- Describe how we are shown that Molly has a strong connection to, and understanding of, country.
Paternalism describes an organisation, like a government, limiting people’s rights, liberties, and free will for what the organisation believes is in those people’s best interests.
- Describe how paternalism was at work in regards to the characters in Rabbit-Proof Fence.
- Describe the portrayal of A.O. Neville in the film. Do you think he thinks he is ‘doing good’ and is really acting as a ‘protector’ of Aboriginal people in Western Australia? Explain.
- Like Molly, many children escaped or attempted to escape places like Moore River Settlement, and trackers and police were often sent out to ‘catch’ them. What does this tell you about the actions of governments that encouraged the practice of removing Aboriginal children, and individuals like A.O. Neville who supported these practices?
Further historical context
Bringing Them Home Report, and the Apology
You can also look at some of the historical context around the film.
The Bringing Them Home Report was released five years before the film, with the Rudd apology coming six year after it was made. Both these events and the film could be said to show a change in awareness and attitude towards Indigenous Australians and what many of them suffered.
Watch this excerpt from ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations. Do you think watching the film helped you to better understand the Stolen Generations?
If you're teaching this text, we have a full teacher PDF resource that you can use to guide your teaching. Check it out via the link below.