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The Tired Australian 

You would be too . . .

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

PHILLIP NOYCE SOUNDS TIRED — AS WELL HE MIGHT, approaching the tail end of a promotional jaunt that has taken him from the U.S. to Toronto, to Haifa, to Athens, to Spain, to Tokyo, to London, and back again to the U.S., where his two most recent films, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, are both set for November release. Tired, yes, but primed for the inevitable next interview. The jet-lagged Australian director — whose career spans that country's "new wave" of the 1970s (culminating in 1989's locked-box slasher-at-sea saga Dead Calm), a string of Hollywood blockbusters (including the Tom Clancy thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) and, now, a sudden return to personal filmmaking — effortlessly shifts focus from new film to new film, and back again. It probably helps that they share a common theme: the social and political havoc wreaked by dangerously placed do-gooders.

The first of these "misguided civilizers" is "protector of the Aborigines" A.O. Neville. Set in 1931, Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three Native Australian girls, snatched from their families as part of a government policy that attempted to resolve the race issue through enforced miscegenation. Portrayed with great empathy by Kenneth Branagh, Neville — aware of the damage wrought by alcohol and European disease on the indigenous population along Australia's eastern seaboard — has come to believe that the Aborigines are a doomed race. Meanwhile, in the rural west of the country, white workers building a fence to keep a rabbit infestation out of pastureland have fathered children with native women. Neville's plan is to remove these half-caste children from their settlements and raise them as domestic servants, in the hope they will end up interbreeding with whites. While researching Neville's character — "reading the totality of his writings, and all the records" — Noyce came to the conclusion that Neville "was not, in fact, an ogre, even if he did practice genocide." He chuckles. "That seems like an utter contradiction, doesn't it?"

But Rabbit-Proof Fence is not, ultimately, Neville's story. The three young girls, who escape from a government compound and set out on a 1,500-mile trek to find their mothers, form the emotional spine of the film. In their guileless, charismatic performances, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan — all non-professionals from the outback, none of whom had ever seen a movie, let alone acted in one — are far from the spiritually burdened Aborigines of Peter Weir's The Last Wave or Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. They're vibrant, realistic characters with whom audiences, Noyce hopes, will forge a deep connection. (Following highly politicized reactions in England and in Australia, where the film sparked a national debate, Noyce looks forward to the reaction in America: "Response at preview screenings in America has been on an emotional level, while English reviewers kept talking about the shame of it, reflecting their own guilt at exporting those attitudes.")

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To make his characters as authentic as possible, Noyce encouraged the girls to improvise their parts, though he gives much of the credit for creating their performances to Rachael Maza, an indigenous actress who became the girls' coach, using the techniques of Aboriginal tribal history in place of a script. "Rachael would talk to the girls each day about the story," says Noyce, "so that they all began carrying around the story as a kind of oral tradition."

Noyce reserves his highest praise, however, for his cinematographer and fellow Australian, Christopher Doyle, with whom he went to work a second time on The Quiet American. Doyle, who cut his teeth in the improvised mayhem of Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong cinema, relied heavily on hand-held cameras, creating an informal space into which "he would go in for a close-up, come out for a two-shot, just like a vérité cameraman, so that the kids didn't have to feel locked up. He was never going to imprison those girls in his own ideas." Noyce believes that Doyle, a resident of Asia since the late '70s, responded to the girls' story on a personal level. "Chris identified with the children," he says. "He sees himself like those kids, an alien in his own land. When we were shooting The Quiet American in Sydney, Chris was so homesick for Asia, he would leave on a Friday night after wrap, fly to, say, Beijing and then come back Sunday night, arrive at dawn and go straight to the set, just to have been back in the teeming humanity of Asia for 24 hours." Noyce pauses for a moment, making connections. "In many ways, he is Thomas Fowler."

THE REFERENCE, OF COURSE, IS TO THE PROTAGONIST of Graham Greene's 1954 novel The Quiet American, in which Greene chronicles the post-World War II collapse of French Indochina and the arrival, in the 1950s, of American covert operatives to set up what would become the Diem puppet government — and, within a decade, that most futile of American wars. These political tensions are played out in the persons of Fowler (Michael Caine), a somewhat seedy English correspondent in Saigon, and Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the quiet American of the title, an "innocent missionary" of the American way, stationed in Vietnam as part of a CIA-sponsored economic-aid team. Fowler, escaping from a bad marriage back home, has made a peace for himself in Asia, and, while a committed fence straddler, is personally sympathetic to the French as their colonial interests come crashing down around them. Pyle, for his part, acts with a reformer's zeal, helping organize terrorist bombings that will be blamed on the communist Viet Minh, believing the resulting deaths to be in the interest of a greater good — the creation of a "third force" to replace both Ho Chi Minh and the corrupt, old-world French. Noyce's film, cleaving closely to Greene's novel, was first test-screened in the U.S. by Miramax immediately after the terrorist actions of September 11, and promptly shelved. One year later, Michael Caine's intervention with the distributor led to the film's debut at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and an enthusiastic reception.

An earlier film version of The Quiet American, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for release in 1958, shows how such historically charged material can fare in the wrong hands. (Mankiewicz radically altered Greene's ending, making Pyle an innocent businessman and the cynical Fowler the dupe of a communist plot to falsely incriminate the American.) I ask Noyce whether he believes that he, as an Australian, has brought a unique perspective to the novel's tug of war between old and new worlds. "I come from a culture," he admits, "that was a colony of Britain, and is a cultural colony of America." Throughout the '50s and '60s, Noyce remembers, Australia swooned under "Yellow Peril paranoia. We were the final domino." That paranoia, which motivated Australia to send its own young men to die in Vietnam, connects — for Noyce — with A.O. Neville's dread of eugenic pollution, the fear (or projection) that "someone would come and take our country from us, based on the unspoken knowledge that we never belonged there anyway, because we'd just stolen it from someone in the first place, and that we didn't fit in because the land wasn't really suitable for fair-skinned Europeans." He laughs. "Talk about being an alien in your own land."

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