The release of Bringing Them Home report provoked extensive public discussion about the issues of the ‘Stolen Generations’19. Furthermore, the report raised public awareness concerning the hardships Aboriginals have suffered from and it also created a vast campaign against the report’s findings. “Some politicians and academics claimed that the report damaged Australia’s good name and that was an act of treachery” (Collins and Davis 136). People were confronted with more than 500 personal testimonies which introduced the hidden agenda of Aboriginal child removal as being racist and genocidal. The report “had a profound impact on national identity and it was an intense moment of national shame and collective remorse” (Collins and Davis 135)
As a response to the report, the feature film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) was released. While not the first film to deal with this subject, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a ‘breakthrough’ film bringing the traumatic events surrounding the ‘Stolen Generations’ to an international public. Whilst the report, with more than 500 testimonies, tried to piece together a detail depiction of all differing situations and their outcomes, the film chooses only one story to stand for all stories (Hughes D’aeth 3). The film is based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996) written by Doris Pilkington Garimara, daughter of the main character Molly Craig. The film received positive reviews as well as negative ones as some critics argued that “the film’s depiction of historical events and figures were misleading to audiences” (Collins and Davis 135).
Nonetheless, the main aim of this film is not to present all the details accurately but primarily to approach the film as a universal story. In order to find the emotional truth, not only of the story of these girls, but of the countless members20 of the ‘Stolen Generations’ – to bring their traumatic experiences to the international audience. Rabbit-Proof Fence seeks to remind people what was happening and, most importantly, to do it through the child’s view. This makes the film even more touching and compelling – the realization that the same misfortune and suffering affected hundreds of other innocent Aboriginal children.
The story of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence is a story of three young Aboriginal girls, Molly (14), Gracie (11) and Daisy (8), who live with their families in Jigalong, Western Australia. The girls are taken away from their mothers to be re-educated and trained as domestic servants at the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth. It takes place in 1930s when the policy of children removal is at its peak. Their story is significant because the girls escape and defy all odds to travel 1,500 miles through unfamiliar territory to return to their land and families. They know, from the bottom of their hearts, that it is better for them than being educated according to white values which are alien to them. Their story is a “story of Aboriginal survival and resistance and it inverts two centuries of the representation of Aboriginal people as a doomed or dying race” (Collins and Davis 143).
However, most of the ‘stolen children’ did not have the courage and determination to run away and reunite with their families. Moreover, these children usually believed that their parents were not able to care for them properly, or even worse, did not want them at all. The government hoped that children would forget their families completely. Moreover, “children were generally told the worst possible explanations of why they came to be removed. Telling the children the truth would make them more likely to want to find their natural parents” (Read 77). Sometimes, children were removed so young that they could not even remember their family. So there was no reason for them to run away as they did not know where to go or whether they have a family to reunite with. For instance, while sitting under the trees Molly asks Martha, half-caste girl from Moore River, about the little babies and their mothers. Martha answers that “they’ve got no mothers, nobody here get any mother” (Noyce, Rabbit-Proof Fence).
The essential goal of this policy was to separate Aboriginal children from the rest of their race in order to bring them up in the white way of life. As Read claims, “the whites could not tolerate a different way of life” (53). The solution to this problem lied in making people adopt the same values:
But legally, economically, and in values. Aborigines were not like whites, and most did not want to be. Those who wanted to be were not allowed to be. When it became obvious that Aborigines didn’t want them, or want to be like them, the whites resorted to force (Read 53).
Children were either forcibly taken from their families, as shown at the beginning of the Rabbit-Proof Fence, or their mothers were tricked into giving them up. Read asserts that “there were so many reasons that could induce or force a natural mother to sign away her children” (77). Consequently, no home visits were allowed and parents were generally forbidden to visit their children (Read, “Stolen” 12). In spite of everything white authorities claimed about Aboriginal mothers, they cared about their children and did not want to give them up willingly. The colour of skin is not a factor to determine one’s parental skill. Aboriginal mothers love their children as much as white mothers. For instance, in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the taking-the-children-away scene highlights the hopelessness, pain and despair of Maude and Molly’s grandmother. She expresses her grief by wailing and, moreover, by hitting her head with a sharp stone in a traditional grieving ritual (Collins and Davis 148). Despite the fact that whites are not familiar with this Aboriginal custom, this heart-breaking scene makes them sympathize with the Aboriginals because what worse could happen to any mother than that her children are forcibly removed from her. Aboriginal mothers and their children were suffering from the consequences of being born Aboriginal – born with a wrong skin.
The lives and future of all Aboriginal children and their families were under the control of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. In 1930s, the position of the Western Australia Chief Protector was held by A.O.Neville. He was an influential figure in national debates and conferences about Aboriginal affairs in 1930s (Collins and Davis 138). He looked after the interests of Aboriginals and he basically made decision about every aspect of their lives. For instance, at the beginning of the Rabbit-Proof Fence, many Aboriginals are waiting in front of his office to ask for a permission. There is an Aboriginal woman who desires to see her daughter at Moore River and a woman, who wants a new pair of shoes.
Rather than being presented as a monster who separated many Aboriginal families, Neville is depicted as a man who truly believes in the necessity and beneficial effects of the children removal. According to Villella, “Neville is portrayed even-handedly, as a man who genuinely believed in the moral and civilising benefits of his mission and the unquestioned superiority of white over native culture” (4). He is convinced that “Aboriginals need to be given the benefit of everything our [white] culture has to offer … in spite of himself, the native must be helped” (Noyce, Rabbit-Proof Fence). In one of the last scenes of the film we can see that he is convinced that he is actually helping the Aboriginals when he says: “We face an uphill battle with these people, especially the bush natives who have to be protected against themselves. If they would only understand what we are trying to do for them” (Noyce, Rabbit-Proof Fence). He believes that Aboriginals are not intelligent enough to appreciate that he is actually doing them a favour. At that time, the conventional wisdom was that the level of Aboriginal intelligence ranged from ‘poor’ to ‘moronic’ (Read, “Stolen” 15).
In order to absorb Aboriginal children into the mainstream white culture, Neville was the most enthusiastic proponent of strategy for ‘breeding out the colour’. He led a Commonwealth meeting regarding this issue and he claimed: Are we going to have a population of 1 million blacks in the Commonwealth or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines? (qtd. in Collins and Davis 137). The film exaggerates his intentions when he delivers a lecture on this topic to a group of women from a local benevolent society where he asserts:
Here is the answer. Three generations. Half-blood grandmother. Quadroon daughter. Octoroon grandson. Now, as you can see, in the third generation, or third cross, no trace of native origin is apparent. The continuing infiltration of white blood finally stamps out the black colour. The Aboriginal has simply been bred out (Noyce, Rabbit-Proof Fence).
However, it shows the political, legal and administrative context of the girl’s situation. In order to achieve his goal of Aboriginal absorption into the white society, he encourages the marriages between half-caste women and European men. On the other hand, the marriages of ‘half-castes’ and ‘full-bloods’ were prohibited (Collins and Davis 139) or had to be approved by the Chief Protector (Tomlinson 31). At the beginning of the film, when Neville orders the removal of Molly, Daisy and Gracie he stresses that “the youngest [Gracie] is of particular concern, she is promised to a ‘full-blood’ ” (Noyce, Rabbit-Proof Fence). It was undesirable that she would marry a ‘full-blood’ because it would not serve Neville’s purpose.
The marriages or simply the intercourse between Aboriginal women and European men bring up another burning question regarding the issue of the ‘Stolen Generations’: the sexual abuse of Aboriginal women. Children were vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. One in ten girls asserts they were sexually abuse in a work placement organised by the Protection Board or institution (“Sorry Day” n.pag). On their way back home girls stumble across a remote farm where they meet Mavis, another Aboriginal girl who was in the Moore River Settlement and now is working as a domestic servant. She is sexually abused by her boss. However, she still stays working on that farm. We can only guess why she does not prevent herself from being continually abused. Probably she is afraid that she would lost her job and thus her life would be even worse. She has a good working position within a white family but leaving it could mean that she would become homeless, living on a fringe. Unlike the girls, she probably does not have a family to get back to, does not remember where her family live or even who is her family. Every member of the ‘Stolen Generations’ have to face these problems after leaving the church missions or other state institutions.
Nowadays, many of the Aboriginal people who are alcoholics, drug addicts, imprisoned or psychologically damaged were removed from their families. These Aboriginals continue to suffer from the effects of the destruction of their identity, family life and culture. The children separated from their families were denied the experience of being brought up by a loving family and according to Aboriginal traditions. Family and cultural background are necessary to develop an identity and sense of belonging (Dudgeon et al. 32). This basic presupposition for creating an identity was denied to Aboriginals. One girl explained how she disciplined herself as a result of years of surveillance and training she had received in the institution:
I can remember being told that if an Aboriginal person comes towards you when you are walking down the street you must cross the road. And I actually did it. I can’t believe I did it (qtd. in Haderer 14).
They did not know what does it mean to be an Aboriginal and, moreover, “they were learned to be ashamed that they were black” (Read 76). Haderer claims that “as the children reached maturity, they no longer knew their place in society, experiencing alienation from both their Aboriginal and white background” (14). They were neither Aboriginal, nor white and thus they were marginalised by both communities because they did not fully belonged to any of them. “These children were emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and psychologically deprived, and the scars might never heal” (Read 58). Non-Aboriginal Australians blame serious crimes on Aborigines and enact legislation specifically aimed at them. However, their ruthless policy traumatised the children and rendered them unable to take a normal part in adult life (Read 43). The loss can never be adequately compensated neither with apology nor with money. The trauma they went through have produced life-long effects on these ‘stolen children’. Additionally, even today a great number of surviving members of the ‘Stolen Generations’ still suffer from their traumatic experiences.
Similarly, the epilogue of Rabbit-Proof Fence demonstrates that the removal of children is not a matter of the past. Even though the policy officially ended in 1969 when The Aborigines Welfare Board was abolished, it affected several generations of Aboriginals (Read Stolen 7). After Molly’s triumphant reunion with her family, it is revealed that Molly was again transported to Moore River. She undertook this incredible journey again, only to have her youngest daughter forcibly removed from her by the same man who removed her from her mother (Collins and Davis 148). Considering her story to represent other stories of the stolen children it seems that there is not a happy ending for those who suffered under this policy of forcible removal.
Nevertheless, the story of Rabbit-Proof Fence is a victorious story. “It is one of the most remarkable feats of endurance, cleverness and courage in Australian history” (Collins and Davis 144). It represents the two-hundred-year-old struggle of Aboriginals against the white supremacy. Even though whites put that much effort into extermination of Aboriginals, they survived and never gave it up. Rather than presenting Molly and Daisy as powerless and hopeless victims of an evil system, they are portrayed as heroines. They overcome the difficulties that await them not only on their journey through inhospitable countryside, but also in their lives. Thus they represent a symbol of resistance and hidden strength of Aboriginal culture and all this culture represents.
Coming to Terms with the Past
Indigenous Australians have won freedoms long denied to them in the last few decades. They now have to build a new future out of the ruins of dispossession, and with the full rights and duties of Australian citizenship (Johns and Brunton 1). Despite these positive outcomes, the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can be described as ‘unfinished business’21. The specific issues regarding ‘unfinished business’ – sovereignty, self-determination, land rights, treaty, social and economic equality – need to be addressed and resolved (Nettheim 24). These key elements relate to the reconciliation debate in Australia.
Nevertheless, the ten-year formal process of reconciliation failed to transform relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This process was conducted between 1991 and 2000 and aimed to reconcile Australia’s peoples by 2001. During the reconciliation decade, important steps were taken by Indigenous Australians to identify items of ‘unfinished business’. However, many Indigenous leaders, as well as non-Indigenous people, were very sceptical about this process and its successful fulfilment (Gunstone, “Rights” 35). A wide range of Indigenous rights needed to be addressed, including an enactment of a formal reconciliation document, which would recognise and guarantee Aboriginal rights, and the call for a treaty. However, these demands were largely not addressed by the end of reconciliation process and above all there was a limited progress to meet these aspirations. In fact, the Howard Government refused the campaign for a treaty or other formal document of reconciliation22. Howard argued that these demands are “very divisive … a nation, an undivided nation does not make a treaty with itself” (qtd. in Gunstone, “Rights” 45). Consequently, the reconciliation process, in failing to genuinely recognise Indigenous rights, did not achieve its fundamental goal (Gunstone, “Rights” 45). However, it has to be noted that the aim to rectify the past wrongs in only one decade was a very ambitious goal. Reconciliation is a process of profound legal, political and social change and to achieve the desired results it would take not merely decades, but rather centuries.
Despite the failure of the formal reconciliation process, other efforts to advance reconciliation and address Indigenous disadvantages have emerged. In 2007, Kevin Rudd won the federal election and also entered the debate to redress the mistreatment of Aboriginals. Rudd apologised on behalf of previous Parliaments and government for the many wrongs done to Indigenous people, and in particular to the ‘Stolen Generations’ (Hollinsworth n.pag). In his Apology he introduced a new vision for the Australian future:
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia (Rudd, “Apology”).
His Apology was a groundbreaking milestone and the first step on the way forward. Furthermore, Rudd committed his government to “close the gap” of disadvantages between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, with specific targets, within specific timelines (Hollinsworth n.pag). These attempts could be more fruitful than the formal reconciliation process as they propose more time to address the difficulties and eliminate Indigenous disadvantage.
Despite the ongoing efforts to improve the Indigenous affairs, the disparity in life expectancy, education, employment and health still remains. In the report released in February 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims: “Although there has been some improvement in education and health outcomes for Indigenous Australians, in many areas progress has been far too slow” (“Closing the Gap” 1). Moreover, Indigenous people are still the most disadvantaged group of people in Australia and their situation is significantly worse than the situation of non-Indigenous people. Although many Aboriginals live rewarding lives within Australian society, many of them still live on the fringes and in remote areas where they live in poverty (Hollinsworth n.pag).
The conditions in which people have to live in remote areas and the problems they have to face are portrayed in the film Samson and Delilah (2009). Although this film is not based on a true story, it still reflects the reality. As the film’s director Warwick Thornton claims “cinema is only a lie that tells the truth about life” (qtd. in Davis 2). He then stresses the fact that “everything that’s in the film I’ve seen personally” (qtd. in Davis 2). Consequently, he transferred his personal experiences into a film version. Thus Samson and Delilah is Thornton’s personal perspective which provides powerful insight into everyday life of a small Aboriginal community.
First, the film addresses the problem of petrol sniffing which is one of the most serious issues not only in remote Aboriginal communities, but also in metropolitan areas. It is the most common form of substance abuse and for Aboriginals it is the cheapest form of intoxication as it is easily accessible (“Closing the Gap 35”). Samson is only 14 years old and he is already addicted to petrol sniffing. His monotonous day starts with sniffing. Perhaps this addiction can be seen as a way of escape from the boredom of his life or a kind of resignation. However, in the Australian popular imagination, petrol sniffers are usually objects of pity or repulsion. They are also socially marginalised within both their Aboriginal communities and the wider Australian society (Davis 2). Throughout the film, his addiction gradually worsens and it culminates when Delilah is hit by the car. He is oblivious, apparently too high, and does not even notice it. He sniffs for over a day until Delilah comes back with her leg in a brace. She removes the bottle of petrol from him and pours it on the ground (Thornton, Samson and Delilah). Samson would probably end up badly, maybe even dead, if it were not for Delilah. She basically rescues him from his addiction. It is not shown in the film whether he sniffs again or not, however, Delilah is there for him and she can help him to overcome his addiction.
As a result of devastating impact of petrol sniffing, the Government is trying to reduce the number of petrol sniffers and prevent them from substance abuse in areas where it is a major problem. The strategy is to replace regular unleaded fuel with low aromatic fuel, however petrol is still widely used and it has far-reaching effects on psychological and physical health of its users (“Closing the Gap 34”).
Second, other aspect which is worth taking into account is the exploitation of Indigenous art. As Mudrooroo points out, “Australian Indigenous culture has become increasingly well-known throughout the world” (154). However, as can be observed in Samson and Delilah, artists are often “ripped off by unscrupulous dealers and agents” (Mudrooroo 173). Subsequently, their paintings are sold for a large amount of money in galleries, although the artists are paid only a fraction of this cost. Similarly, Delilah and her grandmother Nana earn some money by producing paintings for a local art dealer. Nana gets only two hundred dollars for the painting. Later, after Samson and Delilah flee their community, Delilah finds the painting she produced with Nana in a gallery in Alice Springs. She discovers that the picture is offered for unbelievable 22,000 dollars. In desperate attempt to earn some money, she paints exactly the same picture as with Nana and comes to the gallery to sell it. However, the owner of the gallery is not interested in buying at all. Maybe because he would have to pay her more as she saw the price tags and he is not willing to do it. Fortunately, the Aboriginal Arts Management Association (AAMA), has been formed to safeguard and protect the right of Indigenous artists and to prevent their exploitation (Mudrooroo 173).
Third, there are obvious moments in the film which highlight the marginalisation of Aboriginals and their inequality with non-Indigenous people. For instance, when Delilah sits and watches two girls using a mobile phone. Even though she is not in her poor community anymore, having a mobile phone is something unattainable for her. She is so close but she is yet so far from approaching the white way of life at least for a while. Both, Samson and Delilah, enter the non-Indigenous world but still remain on its fringe. Away from the community, they suddenly realize how worthless and unimportant they are for the whites. No one cares about them and, moreover, they experience only hostility and violence. For example, when Delilah tries to sell her painting at the shopping mall and the waitress threatens to call the police because Delilah scares the customers or when she is abducted and probably also raped. Besides these examples, other major differences are portrayed in the film. The issues of poor health care, housing and education stand in marking contrast to white hospitals, shopping centres and schools. On the other hand, in Samson and Delilah’s community the health centre is a battered semi-trailer; the education can be provided only within their family according to tribal traditions; they live in dilapidated houses with almost no equipment and the community shares a car. Their situation cannot be easily reversed or improved as they lack any opportunity to make a change. As Tony Abbott stresses: “It’s hard to be literate and numerate without attending school, it’s hard to find work without a basic education; and it’s hard to live well without a job” (“Closing the Gap” 1). Their situation is a vicious circle and it is not easy to break this circle and move forward to accomplish a better life.
Finally, the film is significant because it was made a year after the Apology and it mediates its outcomes. Thornton’s Samson and Delilah embodies not only some of the most serious social issues, but mainly his own response to the Rudd’s Apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’ (Fisher, n.pag). In one of the first scenes of this film we hear a phone ringing. Both, Samson and Delilah, acknowledge the phone as it rings, but both ignore it. The phone stands as a symbol of the Apology – an empty gesture which does not actually help anybody. The phone is designed to aid the Aboriginal community, but in fact it does not provide any real solution and the community remains uncaring and unresponsive. Thornton himself said, “The ‘sorry’ word was designed for our grandmothers … But for the Samson and Delilah’s world it doesn’t mean sh*t. When you’re starving on the streets and you’re homeless, that word just doesn’t cut it” (qtd. in Fisher, n.pag). Every day Samson and Delilah have to struggle to survive and any apology cannot make it easier for them. Apology is about settling the past, however the present problems need to be solved as well. In the end of the film, Delilah finally responds the persistent ringing of the phone. It symbolizes a sense of hope that she is finally willing to become involved and provide or obtain help. According to Fisher, progress in solving these issues “can come only from experience in, and empathy with, the Indigenous population. Until then, the phone will keep ringing. Unanswered” (n.pag). As long as there is a passivity of either Aboriginals or whites, the existing and complex situation cannot be resolved. To achieve a real change the co-operation Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is required.
Over the last few years, important steps were undertaken to find a way to work together for a better future of Australia. All these steps were already discussed in the previous chapters. However, another key step is about to be taken and that is the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. It should acknowledge their shared history and the value they place on Australia’s Indigenous heritage. The referendum should be held on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, on 27 May 2017. Prime Minister Tony Abbott underlines that “It would be a richly symbolic time to complete our Constitution” (“Closing the Gap” 1). Similarly to Rudd’s Apology, constitutional recognition is only a symbolic gesture. One of the leading Aboriginal scholars, Marcia Langton, highlights that “It really is quite naive to expect a constitutional change to overcome poverty. That is ridiculous. But what it can do is establish a standard” (“Behind the Gap”). Thus it can left the colonial legacy behind and create a new legacy for future generations.
Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous Australians have come a long way and another long way awaits them in the future. The planned constitutional recognition could stand as a basis for further development of their relations. It offers a vision of future that includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Despite the conflicting attitudes, opinions and feelings between these two cultures, they need to find a compromise that can be a basis for ongoing dialogue. The vision of their future is predicated upon mutual respect, understanding and co-operation.