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Study guide: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) 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.

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Year levels: 7 - 10

Curriculum: History, English, Media, Intercultural understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures

Stolen Generations

From the late 1800s to the 1970s, 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.

It is important to introduce the history of the Stolen Generations with sensitivity to the ongoing grief experienced by individuals and communities. The Learning about the Stolen Generations: The National Sorry Day’s Committee’s School Resource has a range of information and activities designed to help teachers explore this distressing topic with their students:

Further reading

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 angle) 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.

Narrative techniques

Narrative techniques are all about how a story is told and the tools and techniques used. In this film, director Phillip Noyce has told the story in a linear fashion; so that the events are told in the order they happened.

  • Would there be as much suspense in the film if viewers knew the outcome before watching the film?

As Noyce tells the story, he cuts between two very different worlds: Molly’s world, and A.O Neville’s world.

  • How does this editing decision affect our understanding of the story?
  • What aspects of the story does this contrast between the two different worlds and points of view highlight?
  • How does our growing understanding of A.O. Neville affect our response to Molly, Daisy and Gracie’s journey?


Setting rabbit proof fence sign

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.
  • 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?

Different lives, different worlds

Compare locations and settings in the film. Focus on: Molly’s family camp, as it is seen in the opening minutes of the film, the Moore River Settlement, and A.O Neville’s office.

Watch the opening scene and respond to these prompts:

  • Describe the music. What kind of atmosphere does it help create?
  • Describe the movement of the camera; is it steady, or unsteady? How does the camera movement make you feel?
  • Describe the colours. Are they dark or bright? How do they affect your response to this setting?
  • Describe the acting. What are the actors communicating about the characters?
  • How does the acting affect your impression of the children’s life at the camp?

Watch the scene where Molly, Gracie and Daisy are taken from their family. 

  • Describe the position and movement of the camera, and discuss its effect and impact.
  • Describe the acting.
  • What do you think the characters are feeling? What gives you this sense?
  • Describe the music, the sounds, and the dialogue. What does what we hear add to this episode?
  • What feelings is the director trying to evoke? What does he want the audience to feel?

Look at some images of the Moore River Settlement, particularly those shot inside the buildings.

  • Describe the colours. Are they dark or bright?
  • How do they affect our response to this setting?
  • What does the lighting communicate about this world?
  • How does the use of light affect our response?

Watch the scenes that take place in Neville’s office. The director Phillip Noyce uses many camera shots and camera angles, that don't quite represent a human's view of this space. There are several dutch angles used (where the camera is angled off the horizontal line) which makes this place feel quite off.

  • Describe the office in as much detail as you can
  • Is there much natural light?
  • Note the different camera angles used that don't fit how a human would view this space. Why do you think the director chose to film this space this way?
  • What is the affect of not seeing this space in the way that a human would, how does this make us feel about Neville and the work he is doing?
  • What does this setting say about A.O Neville? How does it reflect his character?


Characters Rabbit Proof Fence

Molly Craig

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

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.

AO Neville Rabbit Proof Fence


One of the most powerful minor characters is Mavis, a young woman who, like the girls, was taken to the Moore River Settlement as a child.

She is sent out to service and is in servitude to 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 First Nations adults are also in danger and disempowered under these government policies.

Mavis shows what life would most likely end up like for girls and women once leaving Moore River Settlement.

Mavis (Deborah Mailman)


Costume is really important, as it can say a lot about characters, and what they are going through.

  • What are the girls given to wear when they arrive at Moore River Settlement?
  • Describe the use of costume in this place and what it communicates about the purpose of Moore River.
  • Describe Mavis’s costume and how it connects with her time at Moore River. What does it communicate about her current situation and experience?
  • How does A. O. Neville’s costume add to your understanding of his character and what motivates him?


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.

At places like Moore River Settlement, children were forced to learn ‘white ways’, and in the film when Molly, Gracie and Daisy first arrive at the Moore River Native Settlement, we see how they are to be assimilated through indoctrination.

  • Look up the meaning of ‘indoctrination’; what does it mean, and how might it differ from the meaning of ‘assimilation’?
  • Describe the attempts made at Moore River Settlement to alter the identities (indoctrinate) of First Nations children. Give examples.
  • Rewatch the early scenes that take place at the Moore River. How does the colour and lighting make us/the girls feel about this place? What does the costumes/outfits all the children wear tell you about what is being done to their identity?
  • Consider the character of Mavis (played by Deborah Mailman). What does her life tell us about what the children at Moore River Settlement and settlements like it could expect from their future?

Watch the scene where Molly is summoned by A.O Neville at Moore River Settlement on the Australian Screen website.

  • A POV (point of view) shot is used in this scene, whose 'point of view' is the camera taking on?
  • How does this experience look and feel through the eyes of this character?


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 believes he is actually ‘doing good’? Why might his role as ‘protector’ of First Nations people in Western Australia be contradictory? Explain.
  • Watch the early scene where A.O Neville plays a slideshow explaining his view of First Nations people, and his plan for them. Describe why this might be better described as 'genocide' rather than 'assimilation'.
  • When reading a newspaper story about the three girls, what do the children who remain at the Moore River Settlement say every time A.O Neville’s name is mentioned? Does this suggest Aboriginal people saw him as their ‘protector’?
  • Like Molly, many children escaped or attempted to escape places like Moore River Settlement, and trackers and police were often sent after 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?
Rabbit Proof Fence landscape


It can be helpful to rewatch the opening scene of Rabbit Proof Fence where we first meet Molly and her family.

  • What is established about Molly and her connection with family, and understanding/connection to country in this scene?
  • What was the spirit animal Molly's mother identifies. List other moments in the film where Molly sees this animal.

Molly clearly has knowledge and connection to country, and we see this understanding proves helpful in making her escape from Moore River Settlement.

  • Describe the ways in which Molly uses her understanding of country and nature to make a successful escape from Moore River Settlement
  • Describe the ways Molly is able to outsmart the tracker Moodoo (David Gulpillil)

Molly also has a connection with her mother and family which is shown in the opening scene.

Rewatch the scene where Molly discovers the rabbit-proof fence and looks up the fence towards home. The film cuts straight to Molly's mother, without the normal types of shots and edits which filmmakers often use to move the film from one location to another.

This is called 'cross-cutting' - meaning, instead of having an establishing shot to show we are now with Molly's mother, or a fade to black to end the scene with Molly before starting the next with her mother, the film cross cuts directly from Molly to her mother. The effect of this makes them feel connected, and that even though a great physical space lies between them, they feel each other's presence.

Further historical context

Bringing Them Home Report, and the Apology

You can also look at some of the historical context around the film, to enhance students understanding of the film and what was happening the time it was made, as well as before and after.

The Bringing Them Home Report was released five years before the film (1997), 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.


Rabbit Proof Fence can be thought of being part of attempts at truth-telling; which refers to attempts to highlight injustices perpetrated upon First Nations people in Australia, including dispossession of land, violence, countless massacres, stolen wages, unpaid labour and servitude, and more.

The film is one of a number that have brought stories about the Stolen Generations to cinema, but is possibly the highest profile film to have tackled this issue.

It was made at a time when public awareness of the Stolen Generations was growing, but perhaps wasn't as great as it is today.

Text response prompts

Rabbit Proof Fence is very much a film about identity; how people try to take it away, and how one's identity can drive them to overcome. Discuss in terms of the characters Molly, A.O Neville, and others:

Molly's connection with family is ultimately what drives her to find her way back home, and her understanding of country is what helps her get there. Discuss:

Rabbit Proof Fence is as much about the strength of First Nations people as it as about the horrors inflicted upon the Stolen Generations. Discuss:

The injustices suffered by First Nations people are explored in a number of ways, through many of Rabbit Proof Fence's characters, not just Molly. Discuss