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Out From (Down) Under

In 1931, three half-caste Aboriginal girls -- Molly Craig, her sister Daisy and their cousin Gracie -- were abducted from Jigalong, the small western Australian depot where they lived with their mothers, and carried off to a settlement for training as future domestic workers in white homes. Theirs wasn’t an isolated case. Having decimated indigenous tribal structures and traditions with an arrogance that will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who knows his Native American history, the European settlers of Australia made it their business to try to ”breed out“ the Aboriginal population by removing half-castes -- the children of white transients who impregnated local women, then moved on -- from their homes and ”integrating“ them into white society. Begun at the turn of the century, the practice is now widely acknowledged as the collective shame of a society with a reputation for easygoing liberalism; its survivors, who include two out of the three girls, are known as the ”stolen generation.“

Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of the three girls‘ escape, and their 1,500-mile trek home on foot through arid bush and desert country. Though it’s an unrepentant polemic -- no easy feat, given that you‘d be hard-pressed today to find someone who thinks racial abduction is a good thing -- the movie (adapted by Christine Olsen from a book by Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, and directed by Phillip Noyce) keeps its head close to the ground of the girls‘ odyssey, which makes its indictment of colonial hubris and racism sting all the more. By its nature as a small film with only one recognizable star, Rabbit Proof Fence will benefit from less attention than Noyce’s other new release, The Quiet American, which, for all the Oscar buzz that attended its opening last week, is the lesser film. Much has been made of the Australian-born Noyce‘s return to his roots after being ruined by Hollywood. In or out of Tinseltown, though, his gifts are more visceral than intellectual, which makes him not only a better interpreter of Tom Clancy than he is of Graham Greene, but an adept at packaging passionate agitprop as a gripping adventure yarn.

The movie’s searing opening scene, in which the girls are snatched by a policeman from under the nose of Molly‘s mother and grandmother, evokes with terrifying clarity the powerlessness of children, and the split-second speed with which the course of a child’s life can be arbitrarily re-charted by those more powerful than she is. Subtler horrors lie ahead: In a routine ritual at the settlement -- a Spartan dormitory staffed by a fleet of Nurse Ratcheds in crisp white uniforms -- the girls, played without a trace of cute by three young Aboriginals who got their training on the set, are paraded for inspection by their official ”protector,“ A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), to see if their skins are white enough to qualify them for schooling. The scene is shot from the girls‘ perspective -- cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s hand-held camera zooms in on Neville‘s moon face as he bends toward his charges to assure them that he doesn’t want to hurt them. The tragedy, as in all cases of colonial bullying, is that he fully believes in himself as their savior. ”In spite of himself,“ he tells a colleague, ”the native must be helped.“ Branagh, with his beady eyes and thin line of a mouth, has rarely made a convincing hero. He makes a great fascist, though, as his compelling Heydrich in Conspiracy, the recent HBO movie about the Wannsee Conference, also bore witness. In Rabbit Proof Fence he‘s wonderfully prim and wound up, his lips clamped tight, his brow conscientiously furrowed, his eyes bright with the rabid bombast of the fanatic. Branagh’s Neville is the consummate colonial -- a wretched marriage of good intentions, a narrow, moralizing intellect and an unacknowledged need to hold sway over others. (There really was an A.O. Neville, and he must be an extraordinarily powerful icon of Australia‘s dishonor, for he showed up in a similar role and with the same name in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi’s magnificent 1978 film based on Thomas Keneally‘s book about an Aboriginal man who murdered seven whites.)

The rest is a stirring road movie, as Molly, buoyed by her homing instincts, rallies her reluctant companions for an escape that will take them back to their mothers, who keep vigil at the depot for their return. Doyle, a genius best known for his work on the movies of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, shoots the parched terrain in a cruelly hard white light by day, a chill deep blue by night, its lonely spaces dramatized by Peter Gabriel’s score -- this is not Paul Hogan‘s Australia. Helped along the way by occasional and grudging kindness from whites and from others of their own race, and pursued by the policeman and an impassive Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) whose motives toward them remain significantly unclear, the girls are guided on their journey home by the great fence that bisects Australia, and which Noyce uses as an ironic symbol of their predicament. Built to protect pastureland from the multitude of rabbits the invading Europeans brought with them (along with alcohol, the common cold, smallpox and other diseases that laid low the native peoples), the fence is meant to solve a problem that, like the half-caste girls, the whites themselves created. Noyce wants us to feel the joy of the homecoming, but he’s honest enough to show, in a coda that tells what happened to the girls after their break for home, how Rabbit Proof Fence finally must be more a tale of courage than of victory. The officially sanctioned theft of Aboriginal children continued well into the 1970s. Given what the movie tells us of the girls‘ histories, we can’t help but see in the cratered faces of the real Molly and Daisy, now in their 80s and living quietly in Jigalong, not just the triumph of survival, but oceans of pain.

Personal Velocity, a trilogy of tenuously linked films based on a short-story collection by young writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur), tells of three women navigating their way out from under problematic men and taking charge of their lives. Ordinarily this would be enough to make me cut and run for the exits, but Miller, like her contemporary Nicole Holofcener in the recent Lovely and Amazing, is unexcited by feminist orthodoxy. She‘s too interested in who her women are and what they might become to worry about what they should be. The strongest of the stories is Paula, in which a very good Fairuza Balk plays a kohl-eyed, troubled teen thrown further into crisis by a narrow miss in a car accident. Greta, about a cookbook editor (”rotten with ambition“) whose big career break throws her comfortable marriage out of whack, will get the most press attention because it stars indie queen Parker Posey, mercifully not wringing her hands. The weakest tale, Delia, also boasts by far the most incisive performance of the three: Kyra Sedgwick, as a sassy proletarian mother of three who frees herself from an abusive marriage, shows the same forthright, incorruptible common touch as the early Michelle Pfeiffer in, say, Frankie and Johnnie.

Miller writes in short, bald sentences, brushing in her characters with a few sketchy movements. The strategy lends itself naturally both to the short story and cinema, and Miller is a skillful interpreter of her own work. She’s also well-matched with the gifted cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who could make impressionist poetry out of The Teletubbies if so instructed. Then again, digital video -- in this instance, for better rather than worse -- tends to make everything look like a Monet knockoff. Each of the films has a different look: a misty light for Delia, a sharper Manhattan edge for Greta and rain-soaked shades of gray for Paula. Liberal use is made of freeze-frame and flashbacks as a kind of emotional chronology, yet it‘s precisely in this regard that the characters feel tentative and half-formed. I’m still trying to figure out why this perfectly serviceable movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year: I felt much the same about Miller‘s 1995 first film, Angela, another Sundance hit that showed promise, yet seemed undercooked. Both movies really seemed to wow the young female audience, and I wonder whether this is precisely because the women they represent, for all Miller’s intention to show them bringing themselves up to speed, appear so spacy and unfinished, so imprisoned on their surfaces. They offer us nothing to read between the lines.

RABBIT PROOF FENCE | Directed by PHILLIP NOYCE | Written by CHRISTINE OLSEN, from the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara | Produced by NOYCE and OLSEN | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle‘s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, and Westside Pavilion

PERSONAL VELOCITY | Written and directed by REBECCA MILLER | Produced by GARY WINICK, LEMORE SYVAN and ALEXIS ALEXANIAN | Released by United Artists | At Regent Showcase, Laemmle‘s Sunset 5


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