Casting a measured gaze on a shameful chapter of Australian history, ''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' makes no bones about who is right and wrong in its devastating portrayal of that country's disgraceful treatment of its Aborginal population for much of the last century. Although the movie, adapted from a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, pushes emotional buttons and simplifies its true story to give it the clean narrative sweep of an extended folk ballad, it never goes dramatically overboard.
On the side of right are the Australian Aborigines whose families were torn apart by a government policy of forcibly removing children of mixed race from their Outback communities and transporting them to settlement camps hundreds of miles away. Once in the camps, they were forbidden to speak their native language and were indoctrinated into the religion and customs of the dominant white culture. Eventually they were integrated into the general population as domestic servants and farm laborers.
On the side of wrong is the Australian government, which, for more than half a century (from 1905 to 1971) carried out this appalling program of legalized kidnapping. ''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' is set in 1931, when the executor of that policy was A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a man so intransigently certain of its ultimate benefit to everyone involved that he makes Rudyard Kipling seem benign.
The chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in 1931 when malignant racial theories were in ascendancy throughout the world, Neville is the legal guardian of all Aboriginal people in that state. Convinced that the Aborigines are dying out, he is committed to hastening their disappearance by enforcing a law that forbids children of mixed marriages to marry full-blooded Aborigines. In one scene, Neville smugly pulls out a chart that supposedly proves how, in three generations after an interracial marriage, all Aboriginal characteristics have disappeared in the offspring.
Christine Olsen's subtle but biting screenplay and Mr. Branagh's understated performance refrain from portraying Neville as an overtly fiendish monster. As he executes decisions that are all taken in a spirit of benign paternalism, he comes across as the apotheosis of the kind of blind racism that takes for granted the superiority of white Western culture.
This sturdy, touching movie, directed by Phillip Noyce, who also oversaw ''The Quiet American,'' personalizes this historical outrage by telling the story of three young girls who escape from a settlement and set out to make the 1,200-mile trek back home on foot. The events are based on the experiences of Ms. Garimara's mother, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie; her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). All three are mixed-race children fathered by itinerant white fence workers.
The story begins in the tiny depot of Jigalog in northwestern Australia on the edge of the Gibson Desert. Coursing through this Aboriginal community is a rabbit-proof fence. Built to keep the country's rabbits on one side and its pasture land on the other, it spans the entire length of Australia from north to south.
Hearing that the three girls are running wild in Jigalog, Neville authorizes their removal to the Moore River Native Settlement 1,200 miles away. But when his deputy, Constable Riggs (Jason Clarke), drives to Jigalog to pick them up, he must overcome the resistance of the girls' mothers from whose arms they are forcibly wrested. The Moore Settlement resembles a spartan rural orphanage with dormitory housing and strict regimentation. When children try to escape, they are retrieved by Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an experienced black tracker, and punished with solitary confinement.
For Molly, who bridles at the daily humiliation, the final straw comes when the girls are told they have no mothers. One day while the other children are in church, she coaxes Daisy and Gracie to flee with her into the woods. The bulk of the movie follows them on a three-month trek through forest, field and desert, during much of which they use the rabbit-proof fence to guide them home. As the news of their remarkable elusiveness reaches Jigalog, Molly and Daisy's mother, Maude (Ningali Lawford), and their grandmother, Frinda (Myarn Lawford), hold a vigil in which they chant and send signals by tapping on the fence.
If ''Rabbit-Proof Fence,'' which opens today in Manhattan and Los Angeles, has the upbeat tone and deliberate pace of a ballad, Molly is its radiant folk heroine. Profoundly intuitive, indomitably courageous, endowed with superhuman resilience, she is the stuff of legend. And as played by Ms. Sampi, she emits a steady glow even in moments of desperation.
The story could easily have been treated as a brutally suspenseful manhunt in which the girls survive any number of narrow escapes from their pursuers. But in Mr. Noyce's hands their journey is touched with enchantment, and the movie becomes a paean to the beauty of the Australian countryside and the decency of most of the common people who aid the fugitives.
Under Molly's resourceful guidance, the girls are able to find enough food and water to keep them going. If their continued well-being seems unreal, that's part of the movie's myth-making strategy. As the story jumps back and forth between their journey and the frustrated attempts to capture them, at moments it almost feels like a jaunty game of hide and seek.
But the spic-and-span wholesomeness of ''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' ultimately makes its sting all the sharper. Its portrait of people who see themselves as decent, self-righteously trying to eradicate another culture, has the impact of a swift, hard slap in the face.
''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Its scenes of kidnapping could upset young children.
Directed by Phillip Noyce; written by Christine Olsen, based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by John Scott and Veronika Jenet; music by Peter Gabriel; production designer, Roger Ford; produced by Mr. Noyce, Ms. Olsen and John Winter; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 95 minutes. This film is rated PG.
WITH: Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sansbury (Daisy), Laura Monaghan (Gracie), David Gulpilil (Moodoo), Ningali Lawford (Molly's mother), Myarn Lawford (Molly's grandmother), Deborah Mailman (Mavis), Jason Clarke (Constable Riggs) and Kenneth Branagh (Mr. Neville).
The most astonishing words in "Rabbit-Proof Fence" come right at the end, printed on the screen as a historical footnote. The policies depicted in the movie were enforced by the Australian government, we are told, until 1970. Aboriginal children of mixed race were taken by force from their mothers and raised in training schools that would prepare them for lives as factory workers or domestic servants. More than a century after slavery was abolished in the Western world, a Western democracy was still practicing racism of the most cruel description.
The children's fathers were long gone--white construction workers or government employees who enjoyed sex with local aboriginal women and then moved on. But why could the mixed-race children not stay where they were? The offered explanations are equally vile. One is that a half-white child must be rescued from a black society. Another was that too many "white genes" would by their presumed superiority increase the power and ability of the aborigines to cause trouble by insisting on their rights. A third is that, by requiring the lighter-skinned children to marry each other, blackness could eventually be bred out of them. Of course it went without saying that the "schools" they were held in prepared them only for menial labor.
The children affected are known today in Australia as the Stolen Generations. The current Australian government of Prime Minster John Howard actually still refuses to apologize for these policies. Trent Lott by comparison is enlightened.
Phillip Noyce's film is fiction based on fact. The screenplay by Christine Olsen is based on a book by Doris Pilkington, telling the story of the experiences of her mother, Molly, her aunt Daisy and their cousin Gracie. Torn from their families by government officials, they were transported some 1,500 miles to a training school, where they huddled together in fear and grief, separated from everyone and everything they had ever known. When they tried to use their own language, they were told to stop "jabbering." At the time of the adventures in the movie, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is 14, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) is 8 and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) is 10. The school where they are held is not a Dickensian workhouse; by the standards of the time, it is not unkind (that it inflicts the unimaginable pain of separation from family and home does not figure into the thinking of the white educators). The girls cannot abide this strange and lonely place. They run away, are captured, are placed in solitary confinement. They escape again and start walking toward their homes. It will be a journey of 1,500 miles. They have within their heads an instinctive map of the way and are aided by a fence that stretches for hundreds of miles across the outback, to protect farmlands from a pestilence of rabbits.
The principal white character in the movie is A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), who in 1931 was the administrator of the relocation policies and something of an amateur eugenicist, with theories of race and breeding that would have won him a ready audience in Nazi Germany. That Australians could have accepted thinking such as his, and indeed based government policy on it, indicates the sorry fact that many of them thought aborigines were a step or two down the evolutionary ladders from modern Europeans. That the aboriginal societies of Australian and New Zealand were remarkably sophisticated was hard for the whites to admit--especially because, the more one credited these native races, the more obvious it was that the land had been stolen from their possession.
As the three girls flee across the vast landscape, they are pursued by white authorities and an aboriginal tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), who seems not especially eager to find them. Along the way, they are helped by the kindness of strangers, even a white woman named Mavis (Deborah Mailman). This journey, which evokes some of the same mystery of the outback evoked in many other Australian films (notably "Walkabout"), is beautiful, harrowing and sometimes heartbreaking.
The three young stars are all aborigines, untrained actors, and Noyce is skilled at the way he evokes their thoughts and feelings. Narration helps fill gaps and supplies details that cannot be explained onscreen. The end of the journey is not the same for all three girls, and there is more heartbreak ahead, which would be wrong for me to reveal. But I must say this. The final scene of the film contains an appearance and a revelation of astonishing emotional power; not since the last shots of "Schindler's List" have I been so overcome with the realization that real people, in recent historical times, had to undergo such inhumanity.