Issue 31-32, April 2004
Rabbit-Proof Fence , Relational Ecologies and the Commodification of Indigenous Experience
by Emily Potter and Kay Schaffer
© all rights reserved.
When Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (Miramax 2002) premiered in a remote East Pilbara schoolyard in Western Australia, on January 28, 2002, the Melbourne Sunday Age proclaimed that this was 'the night Hollywood came to Jigalong' (Quin 2002). '[F]or a moment... I was back there on Hollywood Boulevard,' Noyce recalled of the evening in which the mechanisms of a global industry and the specificities of a local community were brought together to deliberate effect (Noyce qtd. in Quin 2002). Even before its release, Rabbit-Proof Fence had created a stir, receiving widespread media attention in Australia and boasting a marketing budget to befit its status as an international production with a leading Hollywood director. Yet Noyce's decision to stage its world premiere in Jigalong signalled the film's attention and tribute to local, lived Indigenous experience - a narrative particular to a time and a place that would, in this global medium, translate singularities into affective universals: 'What if the government kidnapped your daughter?', the American advertising line for the film provocatively demanded.
Based on a the biographical novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Indigenous author Doris Pilkington-Garimara (1996), Rabbit-Proof Fence follows the journey of Doris's mother, Molly Craig, Molly's sister, Daisy Craig Kadibil, and their cousin, Gracie Fields, who in 1931 were forcibly removed from their mothers and community. As wards of the state under the Aboriginal Protection Act, the girls were taken to the Moore River Native Settlement, near Perth. The girls escaped from Moore River and undertook a trek of some 1600 kilometres on foot in order to return to their home in Jigalong, following the rabbit-proof fence - a rather rickety dividing line that ran from the north to south coast of Western Australia. The film focuses on the impressive feat of the girls' return and the travesty of an assimilationist government policy that displaced and damaged Indigenous communities and culture. To launch the film, promoters staged a massive marketing campaign that asked its audience to celebrate, deplore, feel and reflect upon, in equal measure, the experiences of the girls.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a profoundly unsettling film. Since its release stories have circulated about overwhelmed, tearful audiences, and cinemas that anticipated this response. Tony Hughes-D'Aeth, who is generally suspicious of the empathic premise of the film, recalls a friend describing 'how she saw fellow passengers weeping on the Qantas flight on which [the film] was screening' (2002).1 Tony Birch also relates that when he saw Rabbit-Proof Fence in the presence of a predominantly Indigenous audience in Camberwell, a bottle of water and packet of tissues were discreetly placed on every seat (118), provoking nervous jitters even before the screening began. Birch's reflections on his experience of viewing the film in the presence of his Indigenous friends and community is, of course, of a different order from the outpourings of sadness expressed by non-Indigenous viewers, whether in Australia, 'in flight' or overseas. In this paper we want to consider some of those non-Indigenous responses and the mixed reactions that the film as a commodity form provokes in bringing non-Indigenous audiences in diverse locations into experiential proximity and empathic identification with a Stolen Generation experience. As Hughes-D'Aeth comments, "whitefella's cry is cheap" (qtd. in Whitlock 2004). In his provocative reading of the film, Hughes-D'Aeth raises a number of important issues about the workings of the Hollywood film industry as it trades on trauma, homogenises and commodifies experience, universalises a particular story and possibly forestalls an ethics of recognition. But perhaps his anti-capitalistic critique underestimates both the ability of Indigenous communities to resist commodification and the indeterminate and diverse effects of empathy on audience response.
In our search for reviews of the film overseas as well as in Australia we were struck by the relative ease with which critics, whether watching in San Diego, Saskatchewan or Sydney, after registering the affective pull of the filmic narrative, invariably homogenized the particularities in universal, humanist terms and framed the meaning of the story within their own mythologies and discourses of nation. In the United States, for example, Rabbit-Proof Fence was praised as a powerful film of exile, a war film, and 'terrific prison-break film': a narrative, one reviewer suggested, akin to The Wizard of Oz and E.T. in its emphasis on the 'urge to return home' (Hornaday). In both the United States and Canada reviews frequently drew comparisons with the colonial past of their own countries and similar experiences of the dispossession, removal and confinement of first nation peoples on reserves, missions and government residential schools.
In Australia, several reviewers also read the film not in terms of local specificities but in universal terms: the story, one critic wrote, 'could be about any children - black or white - who are lost, hunted or alone' (Keller). Often reviews framed it as a compelling Stolen Generation narrative, but one that, in Peter Thompson's words, celebrated the girls' pursuit of individual freedom and the belief that 'personal courage and love of each other will see us through'. Gesturing towards reconciliation in an inclusionary invocation of 'us', Thompson continues '[w]e can make it home to where we belong'. The journey of Molly, Daisy and Gracie, says Thompson, 'now belongs to all of us.'
Given Rabbit-Proof Fence 's commodification of the story and its agenda of mass-market appeal, these universalistic framings are hardly surprising. And yet for Australian audiences, in particular, the reviews prompt questions of what belongs to us, and who we are.2 These questions are particularly salient given the film's framing that unashamedly implicates the Australian nation as a whole in the legacies of Stolen Generation histories. In its representation of private suffering, Rabbit-Proof Fence seeks to place all Australians in a position of relation to and thus responsibility for the effects of assimilation on Indigenous lives, culminating in its concluding declaration, in documentary-style text: 'We call them the Stolen Generations' [emphasis ours]. Many Australians praised Rabbit-Proof Fence in light of this political framing, with some cultural commentators, like Robert Manne, celebrating the film as 'likely to have more influence on public understanding of the [Stolen Generations] issue than any other cultural artefact.' Views in this vein ranged from the hope that '[t]his film will go some way to eventually making our...PM finally acknowledge what we did to these people' (Urban), to its recognition as an illumination of 'a shameful and still-raw chapter of Australian history' (Ain't it Cool 2002), to the more extreme contention that 'it only takes...Noyce 90 minutes to achieve with Rabbit-Proof Fence what Australia's indigenous population has been attempting for years [to] alert the world to' (Abrahams).
These kinds of response reveal some of the limitations of the global commodity market in which the film was positioned by its promoters. Hughes-D'Aeth and Birch argue, with their own investments in different sides of the story, that the empathic appeal of Rabbit-Proof Fence stamps the film as a Hollywood commodity, safely packaging difference as a collectivised universal experience for the ultimate goal of commercial success. In different ways, they each contend that the film's reliance upon empathy as its key tactic of audience engagement undermines the responsibility to recognise the incommensurability of indigenous experience that the story simultaneously claims; and they target the global commodity market as the shaping force of this limitation. Further, they query the politics of the filmmakers and the elevation of one Stolen Generation story to iconic status, not as one particular story but as the (victim) story of all Stolen Generation survivors. Most forcefully, and interwoven with these other points of issue, both commentators are perturbed by the ways that Rabbit-Proof Fence has been shaped, petted and preened by the ethically-compromising machine of a capitalist film industry - an industry that ignores and degrades specificities and places material events and the cultural artefacts on the same 'plane of equivalence' (Guattari 2000, 29). Hughes-D'Aeth, in particular, accuses the film of perpetrating an assimilationist discourse. He argues that the invitation to feel Molly's pain of separation, and thus enter the filmic trajectory of her escape and celebrate the triumph of her return home, asks that the audience - the majority of whom 'it would be reasonable to imagine...have had [no] direct experience of being forcibly removed from their parents' - to make an unproblematic imaginative leap of subjective immersion.
Certainly, at several key points of Rabbit-Proof Fence the audience is invited to not just identify with Molly and the experience of being stolen, or of having one's own child taken away, but to actually be her, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels. Consequently, there are many scenes shot as if the camera were Molly's eyes and the audience were inside her experiences. Early in the film, for example, this effect is used most dramatically during the scene in which the three girls are taken from their mothers. Shot at child height with a hand-held camera, the audience is sutured into an identificatory position with the girls as the government car approaches, its wheels symbolically running over the rabbit-proof fence, irrevocably breaking through the boundary between cultures. The scene dramatically conveys this experience as 'truth', but a truth that involves the viewer in an intensely affective mode of telling and feeling. Later, in Molly's first interview with 'Mr Devil', A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines at the time, we see the face and hands of Neville looming into view as he reaches out towards Molly and, pulling her towards him, raises her smock to check the colour of her skin, thereby violating the personal space that is now conflated between Molly and the audience. Noyce's explanation for his use of this immersive technique underscores his intention to force contrasting perspectives in the film to empathic ends. In an interview, in which he comments on the use of the hand-held camera to align the audience with the perspective of the girls, he explains that he wanted to avoid 'formal camera moves...[in that they would] feel [too] much like the hand of...Neville, imposed upon the story' (qtd. in Cordiay 129).
Hughes-D'Aeth, in his critique of this directorial decision, highlights the irony of white Australian audiences identifying with Molly, and not the Chief Protector A. O. Neville, whose position of Protector in colonising history more closely approximates their own complicity as white national subjects. From this perspective, empathic identification with the victim closes off discussions of responsibility, appropriates the girls' experience on white-settler terms and perpetuates a white-settler national politics of assimilation in the globally revivified form of a 'polite', but oppressively capitalist, 'filmic regime' (Hughes-D'Aeth).
While the politics of empathic identification do demand interrogation, and the Hollywood film industry's commodity's tendency to transform singularities into universals does afford a necessary space for critical commentary, the commodity form itself cannot compel an homogenizing response, nor be seen as an imperialising force alone. Indeed, to make this suggestion is to perform another act of discursive reduction to which the commodity form is largely accused. As Penny van Toorn notes, '[t]oo often the term "commodification" is pronounced as the last word, as though "commodification" were a dastardly villain who captures and enslaves Indigenous cultures, or a fatal disease whose dire implications for Indigenous cultures were axiomatic' (1). Arguing for a broader reading of mass markets and their multiple and diverse interactions, she considers other aspects of the production, circulation and reception of Stolen Generation stories as they enter mixed markets and interact with multiple phases of commodification. Although van Toorn focuses her attention on published life narratives, rather than the more affective domain of film, her point is pertinent to our argument, as it disturbs the almost comforting tendencies of anti-capitalist critique in its denunciation of the commodity as both a prisoner to and a weapon of free market systems.
This paper offers an alternative way to read and respond to the commodity form, and Rabbit-Proof Fence in particular, that an anti-capitalist critique of the film - such as that employed by Hughes-D'Aeth - fails to acknowledge. Although it is important to register the dangers of commodification and self-referential identification, the reception of Rabbit-Proof Fence has been far from straightforward. The diverse possibilities of responsiveness illuminate the impossibility of reducing, let alone containing, the film's narrative in a predictable formula of economic exchange. Here, we read Rabbit-Proof Fence beyond the commodity-exchange model and invoke Felix Guattari's concept of a 'singular event' to investigate the ways in which the film exceeds its own boundaries as a Hollywood product, existing indeterminately in a complex ecology of relations and effects. Conceptualised in this way, both the narrative meaning of the film and the subjective processes of those who engage with it - whether empathically or not - are unfixed from a commodity chain of cause and effect.
For Guattari, a 'singular event' is a point or presence in the world that comes into contact with other singularities. Here, contact occasions and generates a release of energy that is unpredictable and may occur 'if need be, in open conflict' (2000, 36) between singular presences - the film and the viewer, for example. These moments of contact constitute ecological relations, networks of existence that are reconfigured and reordered constantly by singular events. Singularity does not equate to largesse: a momentous occasion on a grand scale of effect. Singular events can entail a brushing against, a small and subtle point of ecological elements coming together, however briefly. These events, in their smallness, propel different configurations of knowledge and, in turn, give rise to unplanned and unsettling effects. It is this force that calls attention - as politically mobilising - to what is in the midst of present happenings and to futures yet to be determined. There is risk involved in this recognition, but it is propulsive risk, moving the subject and its environment into transformed relations that evade formula. '[I]t's sometimes necessary to jump at the opportunity,' Guattari writes, 'to approve, to run the risk of being wrong', and, in so doing, '[to] respond to the event as the potential bearer of new constellations of Universes of reference' (1995, 18).
With this in mind, the affective dimensions of Rabbit-Proof Fence , even if packaged for mass-market appeal, can also be seen as generative of new readings, openings and becomings. To read affect as the delimited outpouring of emotions or feelings alone ignores the possibilities for energy release that can elaborate ways of being in the world that are relational and fallible in contact with 'those things from outside, that surprise, that disturb, that introduce unpredictability' (Hawkins and Muecke xiv). Affect involves more than emotions or feeling. As a force affect gives rise to feeling, but also to acts of (re)cognition in multiple, contradictory and unmappable ways. The experience of affect is, according to Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke, 'to be in the world, to participate in it, to be moved by it' (xiv) without predetermination and, importantly, with a deliberate self-reflexivity, beyond vicarious identification. An ecological view of relations articulates this process and, in so doing, diffuses the certainty and linearity claimed to constrain the commodity chain.
Rabbit-Proof Fence gives witness to what the elderly Molly Craig in the film's introduction calls a 'true story' - 'story of my sister Daisy and my cousin Gracie and me when we were little.' It offers a storytelling mode similar to that mobilised by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's (HREOC) Inquiry and Report, Bringing Them Home. In both Rabbit-Proof Fence and Bringing Them Home (published four years before the film's release), personal testimony is mobilised for political affect, placing the audience, as listener, in ethical relation to the teller - or, as Felman and Laub describe it, as witness 'in the second person' (58) to historical experience. In this dialogic engagement of telling and listening, witnesses are provoked to acknowledge the story and the veracity of the tellers, and to take responsibility for advocating social and political change. The inability to position oneself in certain and familiar relations to the recounted story, induced by unsettlement, empathy and self-reflection, challenges the assertions of liberal individualism and moves the newly decentred subject, as witness in the second person, into proximities of social and historical obligation.
Problematically, however, while the process of self-witnessing theoretically enables subjects to come into new relations with difference, it can also induce other reactions. For example, it can lead to an ontological crisis for white viewers who, when confronted by their own historical complicity with the processes of removal and Indigenous dispossession of culture and heritage, can deny responsibility and engage in acts of wilful forgetting. Even if responsibility is acknowledged, the awareness of difference can lead to the further privileging of the already socially privileged non-Indigenous witness and an assimilation of difference into sameness. In other words, the empathetic process can threaten to confine the teller's alterity to the limits of the respondent's own experience, knowledge and feelings. This is where Hughes-D'Aeth's and Birch's critiques of Rabbit-Proof Fence find fertile ground, as the tactics of subjective immersion deployed by the filmmakers would seem to encourage an ethics of recognition circumscribed and totalised by the listening subject.
However, to wholly consign the significance of Rabbit-Proof Fence to the marketable and self-privileging logic of an Hollywood-style commodity negates another possibility for an ethics of recognition - one that is reliant on what Guatteri calls processural subjectivity, coming before and always moving in tension with an economic imperative that can reduce to irrelevance the unpredictable effects and possibilities for relations of responsibility. Even while, as Guattari writes, the commodity form presents 'the true, the good, the beautiful [as] "normalising" categories. . . [in other words] empty referents', it still affords an ethico-political option. The commodity form, he contends, 'can turn itself into a mode of entrapment, of impoverishment, indeed a catastrophe of neurosis. . . . [b]ut it can also make use of other procedures that are more collective, more social, more political . . . ' (1995, 29). Despite its privileged and universalising structures, the commodity form can neither circumscribe response conclusively nor negate responsible actions. There is a tension, a space of possibility in ambiguity, and a proximity of relations that exceed commodification. Rabbit-Proof Fence releases energies and initiates moments of opening, where other disclosures and points of engagement can occur. Deborah Bird Rose terms these unplanned and unordered engagements points of 'ecological connectivity' (2001, 36), entering flexible networks of relation that never finish forming.
Such moments of opening occur at several moments in Rabbit-Proof Fence in ways that supersede its packaging, particularly in the film's deliberate grounding in, and thus recognition of, an immediate, lived , environment. For example, the film's opening sequence locates the viewer in an indeterminate environment through a filmic perspective aligned to the women's downward gaze as they traverse their ancestral country to the rising strains of a repetitive chant rendered by Warlpirri, Amatjere and Wangajunka women, thus unsettling non-Indigenous certainties of sound, space, place and belonging. The participation of Doris Pilkington-Garimara in the film's making, acting as script and cultural consultant, offers another insight into the complexities gestured towards, rather than closed off by, Rabbit-Proof Fence . Pilkington-Garimara was not just the teller of her mother's story, and a mediator in its translation to a western filmic product, she was one of the Stolen Generations herself, having been taken from her mother, Molly, when she was a young child, and later removed after the birth of her own children. The film does not ignore these complicating dimensions of the story. Rather, in its final moments, it inserts Doris' history in an overlapping and intermingling of local, national and global discourses, suggesting the impossibility of Rabbit-Proof Fence ever claiming to package its story as a neat whole, represent it in wholly western forms, or successfully compartmentalise the intergenerational experiences of indigenous child separation as distinct and discrete.
The film acknowledges these complex dynamics, in what Hughes-D'Aeth dismisses as a 'quiet way', in its final frames, just prior to the appearance on screen of the actual Molly and Daisy. Here written text imposed upon the visuals relates that Molly was once again removed from her community and taken to Moore River with her two daughters, including Doris, years after the initial escape depicted in the film. For Hughes-D'Aeth, this disclosure, only admitted at the closure of the film after the audience has seen the emotively charged, triumphal return of Molly and Daisy to Jigalong, sublimates the complexity of the historical narrative to its feel-good ending. Yet this filmic reference to ongoing stories (which, it should be noted, Molly maintained when interviewed at the Jigalong premiere, ought to have been the focus of the film [Quin]), however understated, indicates a rupture in the fixed commodity form. It allows the audience to access many paths that the empathic project of Rabbit-Proof Fence does not contain, that move out from the telling it brings to a public forum, however indirectly accessible to its audience.
This 'small moment' precedes a filmic moment that bookends the opening scene of the film, as the camera zooms across the same vast desert landscape of the opening sequence and telescopes down to the same ground, before shifting to a documentary-style filmic mode. Here, the actual survivors of the trek, the elder Molly Craig and her sister, Daisy Craig Kadibil, walk independently on their land, only briefly meeting the camera's gaze. Their presence onscreen asserts the ongoing-ness of their lives, and the co-presence of different temporal, spatial and cultural meanings. While the final, documentary-style shots of Molly and Daisy may appeal to authenticity and the 'commodified real' of a particular logic, it also, in a different way, restores an ethico-political dimension that the Hollywood rendering of desert sand to the red carpet of a premiere event cannot comfortably parcel.
When stories, such as the one rendered cinematographically by Rabbit-Proof Fence , circulate widely, the commodity form might be inevitable. But the responses, meanings and effects these stories generate, however directed by the filmic narrative, are never conclusive or pre-determined. Author Zadie Smith notes that 'texts are rarely entirely closed'3 : 'There is always a slippage, the telling remnant of what narrative is for and what it can do.' For the film at hand, this slippage is indicated by the stream of international and Australian tourists who now travel to Jigalong to visit the rabbit-proof fence as a site of pilgrimage, and also by the ethics of recognition acknowledged and demonstrated by the engagement with the film of the Mardudjara community, all of which exceed the packaged product of the Hollywood system. The visitors to Jigalong cannot control the significance of the fence, nor know Molly's story in any final way, but they come into indeterminate contact with the fence as an icon of multiple narratives, and its ambiguous, unsettled mix of local, national and global meanings. Moreover, the local community, while largely expressing discontent with the closure effected by the narrative ending of Molly's triumphant return to Jigalong, has been able (within limits) to articulate complexities in the history that move the narrative beyond its commodified enclosures.
The actual, existing rabbit-proof fence, now transformed into poetic icon, indicates this: rather than straight and defined, it bends and twists with the ground. Some stretches no longer exist, and in the making of Rabbit-Proof Fence , they had to be digitally replaced, brought into imagination through the technologies of the post-industrial market. Like the fence, the uncertainty of the film as narrative and as an affective presence in the world offers no neat patterns of response. The uncertainties - that cannot be contained by either the fence as icon or the film as commodity - make explicit the inaccessibility of a 'real' of historical truth. Bringing the subject in relation to the film (visually, aurally and viscerally), the re-imagining of the past through modern technologies does not invalidate the digital as a mode of engagement but complicates our sense of being in the world. It includes both the material and the immaterial in our living and changing environments.
As a 'singular event,' to invoke Guattari's concept, Rabbit-Proof Fence engages with the processural subjectivities of the self, generating relations of proximity and distance, brushing differences together without certain impact, as the world and the lives within it continue to transform and be transformed. In seeking an ethics of care and responsibility in the present for atrocities committed in but not limited to the past, Deborah Bird Rose notes that a dialogue, or a 'turning towards' (1996, 215) an other without the conclusivity of outcome, instates new possibilities for relation and action. Surely, the impulse that motivates critics like Hughes-D'Aeth and Birch in their generative desire to respond to Rabbit-Proof Fence, suggests an ecological rather than a solely economic role for the film. Even in the 'quiet-ness' of its gestures, the film prompts moments of opening for complex histories to unsettle the present. This very unpredictability of responses and responsiveness to such a venture as Rabbit-Proof Fence testifies to the ongoing ethico-political process of 'going without knowing where' (Levinas 305).
Emily Potter was awarded her doctorate in English literature from the University of Adelaide in 2003. She wrote this paper collaboratively while employed as a Research Associate to Professor Kay Schaffer, University of Adelaide, Gender Studies program. She currently works as Research Assistant on the Indian Ocean Project, UTS, and tutors at the University of Sydney.
Kay Schaffer recently retired as Professor in the Gender Studies program at the University of Adelaide where she is now an Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences (Gender Studies). She has an ARC Discovery grant to research narratives of nationhood and racial reconciliation in Australia and South Africa (2003-5). Her co-authored book (with Sidonie Smith) Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition is scheduled to be published by Palgrave-Macmillan in August, 2004.
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1. Although Hughes-D'Aeth eschews the emotive appeal of the film, he also reflects on his friend's in-flight experience, noting that '[t]here must be a value in this and a value too in the reclamations made by the people of Jigalong on the screening of the movie in their schoolyard' (p 6 of 8). Ghassan Hage's discussion of the different positions, investments, responses and responsibilities of Indigenous, migrant and settler Australians to Stolen Generation narratives is also pertinent in this context. See Against Paranoid Nationalism (2003 79-103).
2. In addition to Hage, a number of critics have taken up the different ways in which Australians are implicated in their multiple pasts. See, for example, Frow, John (1998). "A Politics of Stolen Time." Meanjin 57 (2). Rossiter, Penny (2002). "Imagining Responsibility: Who are 'We" Anyway?" Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 16 (1): 81-94. and Thompson, Janna (2002). Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Injustice . Cambridge, Polity.
3. Smith here is commenting on mass-market fictional narratives commonly disparaged by literary critics, such as 'chick-lit' of 'lifestyle lit'.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also
Kay Schaffer's previous essay in AHR: Manne's Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen Generation Report
the Indigenous Issues archive
the Race and Ethnicities archive
Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.
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