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How Native Australians Were Treated: Walkabout and Rabbit-Proof Fence

All countries have their shame. As individuals, and nations, we all have our dark secrets we refuse to speak of, but few are as well hidden as the way the indigenous people of Australia have been treated by white settlers since the colonization of the continent 1788. Alongside this history, there has been a complex, unfavorable depiction of Aboriginal peoples in Australian and global media. Though the films Walkabout (1970) and Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) are from two distinct eras of Australian history and seem very different, both discuss the problematic treatment of the Aboriginal people throughout history and today. These films show how looking through a patriarchal, Western lens fictionalizes the reality of Aboriginal life, distorts the values of indigenous culture, and dehumanizes people of color.

1993 represents a landmark cultural change in Australia. The Mabo land rights case that took place in that year was based upon the claim that Australia was rightfully settled by Europeans because no one lived there or owned the land, which is the concept of Terra Nullius. This was, of course, untrue. The Aboriginals had inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years before white settlers appeared. After ten years of legal battles the court ruled in favor of the Aboriginal plaintiffs and passed the Native Title Act. Not only did this result in the Aboriginals being given a million square kilometers of land, approximately fifteen percent of the country, but it also caused a cultural shift in the perception of the indigenous peoples by the Australian populace (Williams, 109-110). Walkabout and Rabbit Proof Fence are indicative of this cultural change, one belonging to pre-mabo culture while the other belongs to the more open post-mabo culture. Especially when one considers the stories these films tell and their production separately, it is clear how Australia and the world are changing their views on Aboriginal peoples.

The story of Molly, Daisy, and Gracie, the protagonists of Rabbit Proof Fence, and the “Stolen Generation” as a whole is essentially one of well intentioned cultural superiority. In an early scene of the film, Mr. A.O. Neville, chief protector of Aborigines, describes his plan to a group of white society women. As his title implies, and the government of the time supported, it was his duty to remove the mixed race children, referred to as “half castes”, and place them in settlements supposedly created for their own good. Colonists justified this by dehumanizing Aboriginals and willfully portraying their way of life as dangerous and barbaric (Pascal et. al). Neville, and Western society in general, believe they must protect Aboriginals and other indigenous peoples from themselves.

Mr. Neville fills a semi-paternal role, while the film implies the Aboriginal characters live in a matriarchal world. Throughout, we are meant to equate Aboriginals with femininity and matriarchy. All three of the main characters are females with absent fathers, and in the brief glimpses we see of their home in Jigalong, it appears that the settlement is populated entirely by women. In one of the first scenes of the film, the main protagonist, Molly, directly tells a male fence maintenance worker that “This is our side. This is women’s country”.

To Molly, at least, the fence is not only a simple fence, but a dividing line, protecting “us”, the Aboriginals, from “them”, the Europeans who sought to destroy their way of life. Already in the first 15 minutes of the film we see the fence beginning to become an important symbol. The fence that guides them home can also be seen as a symbol for all half caste children. It is, as Doris Pilkington Garimara describes, “a typical response by white people to a problem of their own making.” Colonists brought rabbits to Australia and they flourished, so they built a massive fence dividing the country in half to protect farmland. So too did these settlers bring disease, violence, and rape to Australia, and in the process, many mixed race children were born. As an attempt to further white supremacy in an increasingly mixed-race society, these white settlers resorted to violence; they further brutalized Aboriginal communities, removed their culture, and attempted to slowly breed out all signs of the Aboriginals’ existence. In Rabbit Proof Fence, the fathers of the mixed-race protagonists are workers on the fence. Considering the prevalence of rape and sexual violence against Aboriginal women, these men can be assumed to have contributed to both what they consider the “problem” of a biracial Australian population through their fathering of the protagonists and the “solution” of the dividing fence through their occupation.

Yet the fence provides a lifeline back home for the girls; it is an irreconcilable part of them. As they touch a fence post a familiar theme swells in the score and the camera cuts back to the mother and grandmother touching the same fence singing to their lost children (Williams 117-120). However, the fence, as a symbol of patriarchal colonialism, is fallible. In one of the climactic scenes of the film, Molly and Daisy lose track of the fence in a spot where it has broken. As the girls grow weak, a bird that had previously been pointed out by their grandmother soars overhead to guide them home. Here, we see the fallibility of the patriarchy and the protection of the Aboriginals, and hence the matriarchy. This can be interpreted as both the Aboriginal spirituality and maternal protection coming through to rescue the girls in their moment of need.

Despite being portrayed as a young girls in need of protection from both the government and their families, Molly, the eldest of the girls and main protagonist, is actually close to the age of maturity for girls that was historically recognized in Aboriginal culture(Cain). She was betrothed and would be married shortly after her return to Jigalong. Perhaps this was not so much an intentional change to the film as a Western misunderstanding. Regardless it is Western myopia and not her objective age that results in much of her mistreatment and inaccuracies in her portrayal.

As we progress through time to the filming of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, we continue to see this infantilization, this removal of agency and capability. By showing that the Aboriginal is only able to converse with the child and not with the “proper, civilized” young lady, the film implies that the Aboriginal too is childlike. This is furthered when the little boy is playing with toy soldiers and gives the Aboriginal one after his sister prompts, “Why don’t you share, I suspect he doesn’t have any toys of this own.” These depictions of Aboriginal people on the cusp of adulthood as mere children, or perhaps more accurately as being childlike in their perceived primitivity, are not only inaccurate, but offensive to their very way of life.

Walkabout is, in many ways, an ethnographic film in that the Aboriginal is “othered”, his primary function is to act, and his culture is depicted as dying out. It is evident that we, the viewer, are meant to romanticize his carefree life and his limited understanding of the world without truly worrying about the issues he faces as a member of a culture that is being forcibly eradicated. One aspect of this created spectacle is exotixizing the Australian landscape and wildlife. Walkabout, one of the first films made on location in central Australia, exploits the viewers’ ignorance about the reality of its setting and places animals from across the continent directly next to each other, perpetuating this as truth (Sohat and Stam, 104). Roeg creates exotic scenery full of all kinds of lizards, snakes, birds, mammals, and even camels, a species not even native to the continent. Furthermore, he manipulates this wildlife to present the landscape, and all of it’s inhabitants – human included- as excessively harsh and violent. Lizards eat one another alive, snakes swarm trees at a moment’s notice, and vultures circle the children as if waiting for their death. At the moment when death seems most imminent, the Aboriginal rises out of the heat haze, strong and mysterious, spearing lizards, clothed in nothing more than a loincloth, with his dead prey at his hip and an omnipresent cloud of flies surrounding him. The camera pans over various parts of his body, giving the viewer, through the pretence of the naive eyes of the white children, adequate time to ogle his foreign, exotic body, claiming him from the first moments on screen as an, oddity, an object for our viewing pleasure.

Walkabout was among the first films to feature an actual Aboriginal actor, David Gulpilil, just three years after the tradition of blackface had ended in Australia (Walker, 98). Roeg hand selected Gulpilil not for his acting abilities, but for his reputation as a dancer. He was essentially hired solely for his body. Gulpilil spoke very little English when he was cast; he and the director communicated through improvised sign language and the few common words they could share, in much the same way the Gulpilil’s character converses with the boy in the film (Salwolke, 20). Furthermore, though he does speak a fair amount in Walkabout, there are no subtitles rendering all of Gulpilil’s dialog meaningless, no more than “savage babble”.

Structured absences are the intentional exclusions of minorities, with specific regard in this instance to their language. Stam and Spence claim that “…the absence of the language of the colonized is also symptomatic of colonialist attitudes…the languages spoken by ‘Third World’ peoples are often reduced to an incomprehensible jumble of background murmurs…” (Walker, 93). This prime example of structured absence promotes the idea that Gulpilil’s Aboriginal is meant to be seen as a “creature” of action.

Throughout the film Gulpilil’s character seems thoughtless, emotionless, and driven simply by action: a key component in the “romantic preservation” of ethnographic film (Rony, 104). We are not even given the right to understand what little he does say. He is given no real personality or identity. Even the lack of name for his character forces those who wish to discuss the movie at any length to refer to him simply by his race. Gulpilil may as well be playing himself, and perhaps that was the direction he was given (Rony, 118). Much of his presence on screen is spent in acts of “barbarism”, in killing and dismembering prey. Even the height of the character’s emotion, where he seems to be pleading for the girls’ understanding and affection, is conveyed through his physical prowess in the form of dance. This reiterates his shallow existence as a physical, non-intellectual being.

Having been attacked by hunters and exposed to guns presumably for the first time, we are taken inside the Aboriginal youth’s thought process as he realizes his culture is on the brink of disappearance. It is, intentionally, a chaotic, unsettling place full of repeated graphic imagery of death and decay. He lays motionless, aparently lifeless on a mound of bones and arises, nude, painted skeletally to attempt to persuade the white children to stay with him, and when that fails, he dies. Though it is unclear if he died of exhaustion, heartbreak, or suicide, his death, and the assumed death of his culture, is meant to assuage any fear in the audience of the “threat” of the prevalence of non-western culture. In death, the audience and other characters of the story may continue objectifying him in a static, unchanging framework (Rony, 102). Furthermore, the of imagery of this death, positioned in a tree with his arms spread reminds one instantly of imagery the messiah on the crucifix, perhaps implying that his sacrifice was necessary to save the white children.

The Aboriginal, as one is forced to refer to him, is truly an idealized figure preserved in the girl’s memory. In the ‘epilogue’ of the film, we see the girl as a young housewife several years later. As her husband comes home to tell her of drama at his office, her eyes glaze over and she begins to daydream of her experience in the outback. However, the scene she pictures never happened. It would have been contrary to her character, but the memory she chooses to escape to is idealized, and free from the binding constructs of civilized society. She pictures her younger self lounging on the bank of a pool, in which the Gulpilil swims nude, as strong and silent in death as he was in life.

Walkabout clearly tells us that the Aboriginal, both the character and at large, belongs at the bottom of the gazing hierarchy and thus, the global power structure (Kaplan, 64-65). If the act of looking is considered to be a statement of power and ownership, then the looking relationships in Walkabout are highly complex (Sturken and Cartwright, 76). Shortly after the introduction of the Aboriginal boy, there is a long shot of the young Aboriginal’s buttocks. He slowly turns to see if the white children are following him and the camera remains at waist level, his genitals separated from our direct view by nothing but a loin cloth. We, the viewer, are meant to interpret this as the gaze of the girl, as she shyly looks away and blushes in the shot that follows. This interaction is read as nothing more than a healthy hetersexual curiosity. Compare this to the scene later in the film when the Aboriginal youth happens to see the white girl changing. His eyes go wide and he begins a frenetic, almost animalistic “mating dance” (as the director himself referred to it) while the girl cowers, covering her bare chest and attempting to hide from him (Gillard). Though similar to the earlier scene, it is clear through these interaction that the right to look in a way that is portrayed uncritically belongs to the white woman.

However, the scene where the young woman swims, naked and serene in a pool of water showcases the prevalent male gaze of this film. Though all three of the female characters of the film will be subject to this sexualized gaze, it is this scene that is, to me, most disturbing. The young woman’s pervasive modesty and the thought that she is alone gives this minute of full frontal nudity an eerie, voyeuristic feel. Through the eyes of the heterosexual, white, male director and cinematographer we see her for her intended purpose, as an object. Despite this, she is still allowed to look at the black man in a way he is not allowed to look at her. The Aboriginal is placed at the bottom of this power structure. He is removed of individual identity, largely dehumanized, and made a spectacle of for the sake of financial gain.

The story of Molly, Gracie, and Daisy too was distorted in order to make it appropriate for a wider audience and in return, make it more commercially successful. Walk the Rabbit Proof Fence, written by Doris Pilkington Garimara, Molly’s daughter, is the inspiration for the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Despite this, upon seeing the film Molly declared that it was “not her life.” She went on to elaborate that she meant that her life did not end with that triumphant return to her home and family in Jigalong. The film does mention, in simple text over a blank screen, that Molly and Daisy would be recaptured, that they would walk home again with Molly’s baby in her arms, and that her daughter would eventually be taken away to Moore River too. However, this part of the story, the majority of her life is minimized to ten seconds tacked on at the end of the movie. The story was obviously also dramatized in order to translate well to the silver screen. Real life stories, particularly that of Molly, Daisy, and Gracie, rarely contain dramatic moments hiding in the woods from the men that hunt you even once, let alone four times. Nor do they always contain satisfying and lasting reunions. The complex lives of these young women lacked the neat, succinct story arch needed for cinematic success.

Rabbit Proof Fence too uses structured absence under the pretense of audience comfort. These actresses begin the film speaking only in their native dialect. With subtitles, Molly sets some of the historical and personal background for the film. However, shortly there after, all the Aboriginal characters switch to english. Once the three girls are brought to the Moore River settlement one of the women working there makes a point of telling them that “only the queen’s english is spoken here…none of that jibber jabber” though they had been, and would continue speaking english even after escaping. Not only is this a plot hole, but it also westernizes and detracts from the specific, individualized pain of the Australian Aboriginals and these three women in particular. Noyce assumed, perhaps not incorrectly, that the majority of the audience would be white, would not speak the Aboriginal language, and would be perturbed at having to read two hours worth of subtitles. This specific knowledge of the white audience, and desire to pander to them is contrary to Noyce’s goal of creating open honest dialog about the “Stolen Generation” and the treatment of Aboriginal people in general.

Many also claim that the true violence of this era, the deplorable conditions of the Moore River Settlement, and rampant rape and sexual assault were glossed over in order to achieve a PG rating and broaden the audience (Simmons, 45-46). The only direct reference to the prevalence of sexual violence against aboriginal women comes in one scene with an adult half caste maid who is “visited in the night” by her white employer. The only direct allusion to his intent is her plaintive request of the girls to say, claiming that “If you leave, he’ll come back for me.” To a young, naive audience member this could easily be misconstrued. Considering that the entire point of removing half caste children from their homes was to integrate them into white society was to slowly eradicate blackness from not only the culture, but also from their appearance rape was commonplace, accepted. This part, any singular part, of the atrocity cannot simply be ignored for the comfort of viewers or the popularity and accessibility of the film.

Perhaps it was edited so that the movie would be more comfortable, more palatable for white viewers who would in turn tell their friends and bring their families to see it further spread of the story of these members of the “Stolen Generation”. While the film did bring much needed attention to the subject, the repressed history, did Noyce have the right to parse it down, edit, and commodify it to promote its popularity? I, for one, believe the answer is a resounding no. A white Australian man, part of the very long tradition of oppression he is discussing, has no right make the gains he has off of Rabbit Proof Fence. Whether or not the financial benefits of his action were intentional the implications remain. It is clear that the story presented in Walk the Rabbit Proof Fence was fictionalized, dramatized for popularity and perhaps explicitly for commercial gains.

Much of the publicity surrounding the film was of dubious ethics as well. The director of Rabbit Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce, too “ventured” into the outback in search of “authentic Aboriginals” to display in his film much like Nicolas Roeg. The three young women featured in the film purportedly left home for the first time for the filming (Walker, 104). These facts were prominently displayed on magazine covers and talk shows throughout Australia. Though the two are clearly not perfectly analogous, the way that both the characters and actors in the film were both assimilated into white culture is an interesting parallel.

Another parallel between Walkabout and Rabbit Proof Fence is that David Gulpilil appears in both. His character in the latter, Moodoo the tracker, is forced to serve the government for his sexual relationship with a white woman and chooses to do so Moore River to protect and watch over his half caste daughter who is imprisoned there. Though he is a complex and nuanced characters, Moodoo is, in many ways, a perfect example of the tracker trope. He crouches to examine the earth, looks knowingly into the horizon and mutters a profound line. The white men assume he knows the land because of “his people’s” spiritual connection with it. These two tropes, that of the tracker and of the “noble savage”, seem to represent the two prevalent options for the talented actor and repeat in his films time and time again. Despite talent, Aboriginal actors, like Gulpilil, have very little opportunity outside of these limited tropes in Australian cinema and almost no place in international film.

While it would be easy condemn Walkabout as racist or sexist and laud Rabbit Proof Fence as an unflinching groundbreaking account of a dark chapter in history, as I had originally intended to do, this would be an unfair oversimplification. Much like Australian and world history, both have good point among the negatives. In truth, both films were considered progressive at the time of their release, and it is a sign of how far we have come on the path to righting our cultural wrongs as a society that we can critique films, or any aspect of our culture, in this manner. Truly we cannot vilify any single director or person, even one that history has since painted unfavorably such as A.O. Neville, as they were all truly doing what they believed was best under the circumstances. The only thing we can blame is the long standing patriarchal, colonialist system that has created the circumstances and try to question it as we move forward.

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