Film Scouts Interviews

Phillip Noyce Press Conference on "Rabbit-Proof Fence"
at the 2002 Taormina BNL FilmFest

by Philipp Hoschka
Having directed Hollywood movies such as "Sliver" and "The Bone Collector", Australian director Phillip Noyce returned to his native country to make "Rabbit-Proof Fence", a film on Australia's "stolen generation". For many years, the Australian government abducted Aboriginal children into camps were they were reeducated to better fit into white society. Noyce's movie tells the story of three girls that manage to escape from such a camp, and walk 1,500 miles through the Australian outback to return to their family.

The movie created a lot of political controversy in Australia, where there is still a debate on whether the story told in the movie is actually the historic truth. At the 2002 Taormina Film Festival, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" screened for the first time outside of Australia.

In a press conference at the Festival, Noyce explains how he managed to make the first movie about Aborigines that people actually wanted to see.

How much did you know about the "stolen generation" before you read the book that the film is based on ?

Phillip Noyce: In a way, there is not only a stolen generation in Australia, there is also stolen history. In the village I grew up in, there were three groups of people - the Anglo-Irish, the Italians and a group that seemed to exist only as ghosts - the Aborigines. They lived behind a barbed wire fence 15 miles outside of the village, in something very similar to the Indian reservations in the US. During all the time I lived there, I was never taught who they were or anything about their history. Reading the book that the film is based on was a revelation about stolen history. Over the last 200 years, the Aborigines could not record their history - they were too busy trying to survive. Only in the last 20 years, this situation has changed, and the indigenous people have started recording their history.

In 1997, the Labor government in Australia started an inquiry on the children that had been taken from their parents. They issued a report entitled "Bringing them home" which, to many Australians, was complete news, and came as a shock. Australians generally consider themselves as "Crocodile Dundee" types. We're the good guys, not the bad guys, and everybody in the world likes us. The government report was attacked as fiction, as is my film today.

What new projects are you planning ?

Phillip Noyce: I am working on a number of projects - some of them in Hollywood, some of them in Australia. The Hollywood work actually helped finance "The Rabbit-Proof Fence". One of the Australian projects is a sequel to "The Rabbit-Proof Fence" based on the story alluded to at the end of the film - Molly and her children were actually abducted again into a camp, and Molly managed to escape again.

What was the response of the Aborigine audience to the movie ?

Phillip Noyce: I can of course not speak for them, but the response around the country was interesting. I had actually expected that the movie would be attacked, since it is me as a white person telling black history. You should realize that many black Australians are affected by this story. When you take away people's name, language and personality it may be worse than actually killing them - they live their lifes as ghosts. People were grateful to me that I showed what really happened. There is a strong movement in Australia to convince people that what I describe in the film never actually happened. I read a comment by an indigenous leader on a Web site that if the film had been made by an indigenous director, it would have used indigenous language throughout the film. That is a negative reaction I remember, but most other reactions have been positive.

The film was a catalyst - in the events we organized around the screenings, Aborigines in the audience got up and told the story of their abduction. There is also an organization called "Link Up" that I didn't know about previously that tries to help people to find out who they are. But it will take many generations to repare the damage that we have done.

How did the relationship between you and the children develop ? How did you find them ?

Phillip Noyce: We searched for these kids all over Australia. In the end, they were chosen for the usual characteristics that you choose actors for. We also had to find the "universal child" - the child that everybody would want to adopt. They children were very much typecast - for example, Evelyn, who plays the main role of Molly, actually ran away three times during the shooting of the film - she does not respect authorities, especially film directors - so this was ideal, the children were not really acting, they just had to play themselves.

Did the tracker from the movie actually exist in reality ?

Phillip Noyce: The figure of the tracker in the movie is based on speculation. We did research into historical records and talked to people that were retained at the camp. So we know that black trackers worked at the camp.

Actually, David, the person playing the tracker in the film, is one of the best trackers in Australia. He was upset every time he had to play a scene where he lost the track of the children. For instance, in the scene where he looses track in the river, he pointed out to me that he could exactly see where people had walked. I said to him that if he would find the girls at that point, there would be no movie. So in the end, he said "you're the boss" and did the scene. In the other scene at the farmhouse, he said again that he did not think it was possible that a tracker would loose the track of the girls. I had a crew member put on socks and walk over rocks, as the girls do in the movie to cover their tracks. Again, David could say exactly where the crew member had walked, and could even find the places where we tried to deceive him. So in the end, I finally understood what he was trying to say - I asked him "So you think the tracker cannot find the tracks not because he is unable to, but because he does not want to, right ?" That's how the scene with the tracker smiling got into the movie.

David is actually currently playing a very similar role in an Australian movie called "The Tracker".

Why did the children speak their native language at the beginning and the end of the film, but English in the middle ? Especially since they are being forced to speak English in the camp, I found that a bit illogical. Did you want to avoid subtitles ?

Phillip Noyce: It is difficult to have commercial success with movies involving indigenous stories. My movie made millions of Australian dollars at the box office, but before, the most money made with a movie with an indigenous story was 700,000 Australian Dollars. I did not want to marginalize the movie by using subtitles - I did not want it to become an art house movie. I also did not want the audience to have to read subtitles and thus escape the emotion of the movie. There is also a tradition in cinema where you start with another language and then change to a language that your audience will actually understand.

Is this the first movie dealing with the topic of the "stolen generation" ?

Phillip Noyce: There have been other films, for instance a documentary called "The Stolen Generation".

What has your film done to expose the question of the "stolen generation" ?

Phillip Noyce: Before this movie, there was a truism that movies treating indigenous topics were box office poison. I wanted to get this story into the multiplexes. I hope I created a new truism which is that an indigenous story means box office success. Hopefully, indigenous directors will now be able to find the funding that they need for making the films that tell the stories they want to tell.

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