From top: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan; village elders;
and Phillip Noyce
‘ ow‘s the foot‘." The informality of H Phillip Noyce's first words to me after two decades puts me immediately at ease. It's not that he's remembered me from a brief meeting on the set of his early Australian film Heatwave. where I‘d had a tiny extras part in my late teens. It’s just that half an hour before our meeting. I stepped out of my shower and onto a shard of glass. Ten minutes later. still wondering like Macbeth at the amount of blood a body could produce. I requested a later interview slot on the grounds that. this being the middle of the lidinburgh International Film Festival. there‘d already been enough blood on the carpet at the Sheraton.
His tall frame is canying a lot more baggage than it did. the hair and beard are grey. but Noyce still laughs his way through his meetings. It's a mighty laugh. and these days a good deal of him has a good time when he does it. This is a one- sided reunion. since Noyce plainly has no recollection of me whatsoever. but it is also a meeting of two long-term expatriate Australians and this forms the meat of our conversation. The capacity of Australians to adapt to circumstances. making ourselves at home wherever we are. has helped us be forgiven for more than we should. and as we swap stories of life overseas. Noyce and I find much in common. ‘I never had problems fitting in because of that Atrssie “go with it" thing we all do.‘ he says. ‘l)isruption is part of the fun. pain is part of the pleasure — you know it. Steve.‘ And he roars with laughter.
Noyce got the call to Hollywood after his last Australian thriller. Dead (aim. and has since directed a string of blockbusters. among them ('lear and Present Danger and l’atriat (iames. He awaits the release of his production of The Quiet Ameriean. an adaptation of the (iraham (ireene novel. starring Michael (‘aine and Brendan Fraser. But Rabbit I’mafl-enee is clearly a special project. The lilrn details the true story of three young mixed race Aboriginal children. abducted from their tribe by the Western Australian state government in IQ}! and brought to a prison-like training camp which is intended to integrate them into white society. mainly as domestics. The children escape and begin a l5()() mile jotrrney home through bush and desert. along the rabbit proof fence of the title. intended to keep those other liuropean invaders otrt.
In its Australian context. the film is politically explosive. After years of steady. but very slow. progress the last Australian Labour government had planned a full apology to be read by the Atrstralian prime minister in parliament at some point soon after the 1996 federal election. This was to be a symbolic act intended as a starting point for redressing the appaling loss of life. land and livelihood imposed upon Australia's indigenous population since white settlement. l’aul Keating‘s loss of the election brought in the ultra right—wing Liberal party. and the new prime minister. John Howard. quickly scrapped this legislation. As Howard basks in the limelight created by the grief over Bali. he ignores the tragedy played out daily in his own country.
Noyce patently shares the anger of many
“These kids had never seen a movie _ before they were in their own movie"
Australians. ‘l‘ve enjoyed making things like Clear and Present Danger. bttt I’m an outsider in Hollywood. These stories aren't my stories. I can‘t even vote in America. Here was a story about my own country that needed to be told. part of a repressed and stolen history that you and I couldn’t even read about at school. So I got jack of the star system and the hundred million dollar budgets which brought a hundred million headaches and made a story that was close to me and my country‘s history.‘
All the same. Noyce feels the political content of the story will be less visible to British audiences and that the film must stand or fall as entenaimnent. That. it certainly will: it was voted the audience‘s favourite in the entire lidinburgh Film Festival programme. ‘What really attracted me was the commonality of the story. which is irresistible] he says. ‘You really want these kids to get home. Audiences don’t need to be put off by the word "politics". Back home. it‘s a political atom bomb. but here its three kids who you can‘t help but love. In the end. they triumph in a bittersweet way. Here was a story based on real events that was far more compelling than the manufactured story I was working on in Hollywood when I heard of it.’
What's astonishing about the film is the performances of the three children at the centre. Cast out of nowhere. the three non- professional performers — Everlyn Sampi. Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan outshine even Kenneth Branagh. who plays the Western Australian official whose wrong-headed paternalism leads to their abduction.
How did Noyce go about the creation of a very different film than his earlier fare'.’ ‘()n a superficial level. it's the same thing. You have a job to do with a certain amount of money and time and questions about where you place the camera. But in sortie ways. with the children. it was the opposite. Instead of being disciplined. you wanted them to be undisciplined. instead of working. you wanted them to play. instead of asking them to act. we asked them not to act. We typecast them. so each child was like their character. We wanted them to learn lines. but if they couldn't. they just had to get the point across. so the script . . f At this point he gestures throwing the script over his shoulder and laughs his bigjiggly laugh again.
He’s plainly enjoyed the experience: 'These kids had never seen a movie before they were in their own movie. For me. after 12 years making films in Hollywood. it was like a lilrnmaking enema.‘ He chortles some more. 'No one was interested in what we were doing. so no one interfered. We were in some remote place. and no one came out to see us. It was great.’
And how will the lilrn affect Anglo—Australian relations'.’ ‘Well. it'll be a chance for a lot of Brits to say: "I always knew those Australians were racist bastards . . But we do the same -- there's no shortage of Brit baiting back home. In Australia. we‘ll say what we usually do. that the whole problem was exported from the British lslesf But it was. Wasn‘t it'.’
Rabbit Proof Fence goes on selected release from Fri 8 Nov. See review, page 27.
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