In a 1940 play, dorothy L. sayers has a character wryly respond to the famous cliche "Every great man has a woman behind him" with "And every great woman has had some man or other in front of her tripping her up." Sayers, were she alive today, would revel in two recent films that illustrate such tripping, blessing their form as well as their content with her highest commendation for greatness: "good work well done."
Made in countries colonized by Sayers' homeland, Rabbit Proof Fence (Australia, 2002) and Whale Rider (New Zealand, 2003) focus on young women—girls really—who blithely defy stultifying male expectations. However, rather than painting maddening portraits of patriarchal misogyny, both films portray a misguided paternalism that saddens us—until we are overwhelmed with delighted admiration for girls who can transcend their tripping.
The admiration generated by Rabbit Proof Fence is especially intense, for the film embellishes the true story of Molly Craig, a fourteen year old living in the Australian outback of 1931. Ironically, while Sayers was garnering fame and riches for her publications in the mother-country, enabling her to write two quasi-feminist tracts called Are Women Human? and The Human-Not-Quite-Human, Molly was quite literally treated as a human-not-quite-human. She was part of the Australian "stolen generation": aboriginal half-castes who were forcibly taken from their mothers in order to make them more "human." As part of an official government program that lasted from 1900 until 1971, Australian children with one white and one black parent were placed into "native settlements" where aboriginal traits were removed like stains. The children's flesh, displaying a stain resistant to cultural detergents, was inspected by government officials, with the lighter-skinned separated out for selective mating, so that, in "just two generations," as one film character puts it, all aboriginal marks are bred away.
Early in the film, after we see Molly learning how to track food, Rabbit Proof Fence delivers its most traumatic scene. We see Molly, along with her eight-year-old sister Daisy and ten-year-old cousin Gracie, playing along the famous fence, which, a repairman tells Molly, runs 1,500 miles north to south in order to keep rabbits from invading farmlands to the West. As though to symbolize the division between aborigines and the new world, a modern 1931 automobile zooms up to the station where Molly's aborigine mother has just purchased provisions, its screeching brakes startling a more primitive form of transportation—a screeching camel—on the other side of the fence. A pink-skinned constable from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs jumps from the car and grabs up the three girls, fighting off the screaming mother and wailing grandmother as he crams the half-castes into the back seat of his car. In a scene that anticipates the abduction of the young boy in Mystic River (2003), who stares out the back window of the car that carries him toward abuse, the three girls gaze through the rear glass at the receding image of their grandmother, who hits herself in the head with a rock as she bewails her impotence to save them.
The film then neatly symbolizes government attitudes toward these half-castes: as pets needing an intelligent trainer to discipline them. We see the abducted girls in a train cargo-hold, caged liked rabbits, then hauled in the bed of a truck like sheep. Upon arrival at Moore River Native Settlement, a nun coaxes them from the truck, speaking to them as though addressing puppies. The girls are washed, groomed, and arranged in straight lines with other Moore River inhabitants so that they can listen to the favorite song of Mr. A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of the Aborigines, an actual title which a real Neville held for 25 years. However, when American viewers hear the half-caste children singing Neville's favorite song, "Way Down Upon the Swanee River," they are robbed of any self-righteous indignation about Australian colonizers, the song reminding them of their own checkered history.
Like those who developed elaborate apologies for slavery in the United States, Neville, played with invidious aplomb by Kenneth Branagh, has convinced himself that he is acting in the best interest of half-castes. "They have to be protected against themselves. If only they'd understand what we're trying to do for them!" Neville intones. Genuinely believing that the whiter the skin the brighter the person, he sees himself as humanely enabling deficient humans to become more fully human—in other words, more white.
WE ARE THEREFORE DELIGHTED WHEN MOLLY refuses to follow Neville's program. While the other half-castes at Moore River simply play with Neville's name, whispering "Neville-Devil," Molly decides to escape the devil's clutches, taking Gracie and Daisy along with her. And the rest of the film recounts her brilliant evasion of authority—not out of ideological abhorrence for "the white man's burden" but simply because she wants to be with her mother. And this is what makes the film so powerful; rather than a tendentious invective against white supremacy, it offers us a tenacious girl who, motivated by love and aided by intelligence, walks over one thousand miles in nine weeks, sometimes carrying her companions on her back. When she finds the rabbit proof fence, she grabs onto the barbed wire and looks north, knowing that the fence leads to her mother. And, in a nice bit of cross-cutting, we see her mother looking south as she clasps the same fence; the wire becomes an umbilical connection, a barbed tie that binds.
Because the film pivots around the positive energy of mother love (in both senses of "mother love"), it avoids the negativity of simplistic dualisms: white versus black, male versus female. At Moore River the person who most officiously orders the students around is herself a half-caste who has internalized the institutional rules; the guard, who cracks his whip as he commands the girls to speak English, is a dark aborigine. In contrast, once Molly effects the escape, it is a white mother who generously supplies the girls with coats and food. Later, a half-caste woman, similarly raised at Moore River, exploits the girls (though we don't blame her), keeping them in her bed in order to ward off the sexual exploitation of her white boss. However, it is a white man who benevolently directs the girls on their trek, while a half-caste betrays them to the authorities. And the man most indefatigable in efforts to capture them is the darkest-skinned character in the film: Moodoo, an aborigine employed by the director of Moore River to track down escapees.
If Molly is the most inspiring character in Rabbit Proof Fence, Moodoo is the most intriguing. Wanting to live near a daughter confined to the Moore River facility, Moodoo has given up his voice as he obeys the commands of the white colonizer. The film visualizes his lack of voice, having him merely nod and point in response to the whites who address him, refusing to open his mouth while all around him people sing in church. Other than an untranslated greeting he gives another aborigine early in the plot, we don't hear him speak for most of the film. Deferring to those in power, he chases the girls, smiling in self-satisfaction when he finds their trail. Later, however, we see him smile similarly when he discovers they have eluded him, as though his loyalties have started to switch. Finally, after weeks of tracking the three runaways, he spontaneously expresses admiration for Molly's savvy abilities with his only English words in the film: "She's pretty clever that girl. She wants to go home." Significantly, Moodoo, as well, wants to go home, as we know from something Neville says to him earlier in the film; however, rather than kidnapping his daughter from Moore River, he has submitted to the dictates of patriarchy. His own diction becomes free only when he recognizes— and pronounces—the legitimacy of Molly's desires.
MOLLY'S CLEVERNESS, THE FILM IMPLIES, arises from umbilical ties not only to her mother, but also to Mother Nature. The opening shot of the film is a bird's eye view of the Australian landscape, and soon after we see Molly's mother point to a large bird hovering in the air, telling her it represents freedom and that its spirit will protect her. Through repeated use of a high angle lens capturing the action below, the camera aligns this bird with the mother, implying that her spirit watches over the children. During the girls' first night at Moore River, the camera dissolves an image of the bird over Molly's face as she lies in bed. Then, the first night of their escape, we are given a bird's eye view of Molly, Gracie, and Daisy curled up as they sleep in the brush; surrounded by twigs, they look just like chicks in a nest. Later, Molly lifts Daisy to an actual nest from which she grabs eggs for sustenance. And the white mother who provisions the girls does so after she finds Molly in a hen house eating food intended for birds. Near the end of the film, after Gracie has been recaptured, Molly and Daisy collapse in the desert. Looking dead, Molly finally opens an eye, and the camera cuts to what she sees: the bird of "freedom" hovering over her, inspiring her to get up and walk. Repeatedly, in fact, we are given a Molly's eye view of things: often the camera will cut from a close-up on her eyes to that which she sees, a character looming toward the lens as if toward her eyes. Clearly, it is Molly's vision, guided by nature and by love, that enables her to escape the colonizer and return to the arms of her mother.
Whale Rider also employs close-ups on eyes to communicate a young girl's visionary escape from patriarchy. The patriarch here, however, is a member of the girl's own aboriginal tribe: the Maori of New Zealand. The difference stems from the films' time frames. Rabbit Proof Fence, set in 1931, illustrates the misguided paternalism of a white colonizer who, attempting to weaken aboriginal power, seeks to transmit his cultural knowledge to young native girls. Whale Rider, set in the 1990s, illustrates the misguided paternalism of a Maori chieftain who, attempting to strengthen aboriginal power, refuses to transmit his cultural knowledge to a young girl. Both men, of course, adamantly believe their actions to be noble and fitting for the people under their authority. And both men are bested by girls who follow the lead of nature rather than the dictates of culture.
Koro, the patriarch in Whale Rider, is understandably worried about his native culture. By the 1990s, the white colonizer has won, not by the forced relocation of native children, but through the power of commodity. Koro's people dress in western clothes, live in western houses, get drunk on western beer, and cruise aimlessly in western cars. Therefore, reminiscent of Neville who oversees a school that might eliminate aboriginal values, Koro founds a school that might inculcate aboriginal values. Despite their opposite goals, the patriarchs of both films establish their schools in response to irresponsible fathers. In Rabbit Proof Fence, white men, after impregnating aborigines, "move on," as Molly puts it, leaving their half-caste offspring to the care of the women and ultimately the state. In Whale Rider, Maori men leave their children to the care of their women so they can pursue their own commodified desires. We see the father of one boy in Koro's class stop by to see his son perform, only to rejoin his dissolute buddies without spending any time with his emotionally hungry boy. Koro's first born son pursues an art career in Europe after his wife dies in childbirth, leaving his daughter, Pai, to the care of her grandparents. Koro is therefore desperate to train a leader who might replace him. However, when his beloved granddaughter, the twelve-year-old Pai, displays interest in the school, Koro viciously scolds her, making clear that only boys can have access to his training and knowledge.
Whereas molly feels the call of her mother along the rabbit proof fence, Pai feels the call of whales—the animal that brought Paikea, her people's (ab)original leader, to their land. And it becomes quite clear in the course of the film that Pai is fated to be the new Paikea—entirely in defiance of cultural expectations. In one scene, while all the boys who attend Koro's school ride a school bus, Pai passes them up on her bicycle, and she will later pass them up in the skills necessary for a chief. When, after the benefit of coaching by her uncle, Pai beats one of the boys at a traditional warrior stick fight, Koro is outraged that she has appropriated male power, believing that her actions will subvert the search for a leader. Koro therefore takes all his students out in a speed boat for a special test, leaving behind not only Pai, but also the boy who lost the stick fight to her. Once in deep waters, Koro tosses his symbol of authority— a carved whale tooth—into the ocean, explaining that the boy who captures it will be the next chief. When none of the boys can find the tooth, Koro enters a deep depression, and is therefore oblivious to the fact that Pai, during an outing with her uncle, successfully retrieves the whale tooth.
The real test, however, comes when living whales beach themselves on the sands adjacent to Koro's house. Knowing that they will die unless returned to the ocean, the whole village works to dislodge the huge mammals. When Pai attempts to touch the largest whale, Koro castigates her with his recurring reproach: as a girl, Pai impedes significant work. The film then fulfills a promised motif when the men attach a rope around the whale's tail in order to pull it toward deeper waters. We see the rope fray, strand by strand, until it breaks, rendering the men's efforts impotent. This scene echoes an incident earlier in the film, which operates as the first hint of Pai's potency. In the scene, Koro shows a rope to Pai, claiming it represents their people: multiple strands making them strong. However, when he attempts to start his boat's outboard motor with the rope, it breaks. After Koro walks away in disgust, Pai fixes the rope and starts the engine, only to be subsequently scolded by Koro for doing something dangerous.
Later, Pai follows her intuitions to do something far more dangerous than start an outboard motor: she starts the beached whale. After the rope breaks around its tail and Koro walks away in despair, Pai tells us in a voice-over, "He wanted to die; he had no reason to live anymore," her ambiguous pronoun referring, we assume, to either Koro or the whale. Approaching the creature, Pai touches her nose to the barnacles on its snout, mirroring the greeting Koro gives males throughout the film. Then she climbs atop the whale, guiding it out into the ocean while the other whales follow. As she is pulled under water, Pai tells us in another voice-over, "I wasn't scared to die." Tenaciously holding onto the whale's back underneath the ocean, Pai looks just like the image of Paikea on the roof of Koro's school, the swift water flattening out her face in resemblance to the carving. Then her grip fails, and she floats away, her hands crossing her chest in a corpse-like gesture.
REMINISCENT OF MOLLY'S APPARENT DEATH and bird-inspired resurrection in the desert, the hospitalized Pai comes back to life. However, she only opens her eyes when Koro addresses her in their native tongue: "Wise leader, forgive me. I am just a fledging to new flight." Endorsing this bird-like confirmation of the tribe's new chieftain, the last shot of the film echoes the first rope scene. Once again, Pai is generating the energy for a boat, but this time the power comes not through pulling a rope twined around an outboard motor. Instead, Pai chants out the rowing song for a traditional tribal canoe powered by the arms of multiple oarsmen who work in unison—like the multiple strands of a rope. And among the rowers are fathers, including Pai's, who have returned home. Implying that, under the proper leadership, people will choose community over commodity, the upbeat ending of Whale Rider makes a startling contrast to Rabbit Proof Fence, capturing, it would seem, the difference between fiction and real life. Unlike the triumphant Pai, who sits on the tribal canoe soaking up Koro's adoring glances, Molly's real life triumph is sullied by the words she sobs out when reunited with her mother: "I lost one." Of the three girls who ran away from Moore River, Gracie, did not make it. Ironically, Molly's statement adumbrates an experience later in her life. At the end of the film we are told that after Molly married, she and her two daughters were captured and taken back to Moore River. Once again, Molly escapes, carrying her baby over the same thousand mile trek. The film leaves us with this triumphal note; however, between the lines we recognize that, as before, she "lost one," the older daughter left behind.
FURTHER RESEARCH REVEALS THAT ANABELLE, THE baby who escaped with Molly, was recaptured, taken to Moore River, and then put in another institution because of her light skin. There the reeducation was so thorough that today she repudiates any suggestion that she bears aboriginal blood, refusing all contact with her mother. But even in the midst of this sad "real life" scenario there is hope; Doris Pilkington, the author of the novelized account of Molly that inspired Rabbit Proof Fence, is the daughter initially left behind when Molly made her second break from Moore River. Despite her indoctrination, Doris has embraced her half-caste roots, proudly proclaiming them to the world. And when Annabelle's children heard the proclamations, they made contact with Doris, asking to meet Molly, their amazing grandmother. Furthermore, though Molly died recently (January 2004), Molly-like heroines still inhabit the aboriginal bush, as Phillip Noyce, the director of Rabbit Proof Fence, discovered in 2000. To portray Molly, he hired a poor, inexperienced half-caste, Everlyn Sampi, whose own mother had once been taken into custody by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. But when, like Neville, Noyce told Everlyn how to act—expecting her to follow a script chosen by people with power—she tried to run away. More than once. Life imitating art imitating life. And quite a contrast to the Oscar-nominated actress playing Pai in Whale Rider, Keisha Castle-Hughes, who sat beaming in the Academy Awards audience—like Pai in the tribal canoe—wearing a patrician sounding name and an evening gown.
This is not at all to disparage Castle-Hughes' performance, which deserved the Oscar nomination, or the film, which I regard as one of the finest releases last year. It is only to foreground the difference between the successes of real life and those of fiction. Whether or not it is true that every great woman has had a man in front of her tripping her up, as in Whale Rider, the experiences of Molly Craig, both inside and outside of Rabbit Proof Fence, confirm what most of us know: that success is rarely painless and certainly never pure.
Crystal Downing's book on Sayers, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers, is due out from Palgrave Macmillan this August. She is indebted to Emily Rainville, who provided the background research on Rabbit Proof Fence.