The truth of Australia's past is hard enough to face, and untruths and
exaggerations now will only divide us
Phillip Noyce claims his new film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is a true story.
The Hollywood director's publicity blurb repeats the boast: ``A true story.''
Even the first spoken words in the hyped film, which opens next week, are: ``This is a true story.''
Wrong. Crucial parts of this ``true story'' about a ``stolen generations'' child called Molly Craig are false or misleading. And shamefully so.
No wonder that when Craig saw Rabbit-Proof Fence at a special screening in her bush settlement last month, she seem surprised.
``That's not my story,'' she said as the credits rolled.
No, it isn't. Instead, it is Craig's story told in a way that would help ``prove'' the ``stolen generations'' are no myth -- that thousands of Aboriginal children were indeed torn from the arms of loving parents by racist police.
In saying this, I mean no disrespect to Craig.
She has had a film (supported by $5.3 million of taxpayers' money) made of an episode of her life in which she showed extraordinary courage, endurance and willpower -- but it's a film which can't be trusted to tell the whole truth. Who could value its praise?
It was 1931 and Molly Craig was just 14, when she and two of her younger cousins -- Daisy, 8, and Gracie, 11 -- were taken from an Aboriginal camp at Jigalong, in Western Australia's north, and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement, 2000km south.
There these girls were to live with other ``half-castes'' and to go to school, learning skills to help them to adapt to non-Aboriginal society.
But the girls fled after one night, and in an amazing nine-week epic walked home to Jigalong -- all but Gracie, that is, who was found by police at Wiluna.
Craig's feat made the papers but was not written up in full until 1996, when her daughter, Doris Pilkington, who was herself raised at Moore River, wrote the book on which Noyce has based his film.
BUT Noyce and his scriptwriter didn't stick to the facts Pilkington uncovered. Instead, the story was rewritten and now supports a monstrous falsehood -- that we have a genocidal past that is, as Noyce's publicity material declares, ``more cruel than could ever be imagined''.
Let me show you how they did it -- how they told untruths or only half the truth in their ``true story''.
THE FILM opens at Jigalong in 1931, and shows a neat bush camp. Molly Craig is happy and healthy. Her mother is well-groomed. All is well.
THE FACT is many of these bush camps were squalid.
When Doris Pilkington first returned to Jigalong 30 years later, it was still appalling.
``No one prepared me for the conditions that people lived under,'' she told ABC radio in 1999.
``It was shocking. I hadn't seen so many dogs in my life. It was just tin humpies and people just slept anywhere.''
THE FILM shows Molly playing with other children at Jigalong. Everyone is smiling and seems happy.
THE FACT is Molly was the first ``half-caste'' of her tribe, and the full-bloods treated her with scorn.
Pilkington says her mother often had to play alone because full-blood children told her she was neither Aboriginal nor white, and was ``like a mongrel dog''. She had no father to protect her.
THE FILM suggests Molly and her cousins were removed from Jigalong only because the state's Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, was a genocidal racist who wanted to ``breed out the Aborigine''.
It shows Neville outlining his plan to take half-caste children from their families and stop them breeding with full-bloods. We then see him ordering that Molly and her cousins be removed because the youngest girl is ``promised to a full-blood''.
THE FACT is the girls were taken after Neville learned they were in danger.
In 1930, he had received a letter from the superintendent of Jigalong complaining that Molly and Gracie ``were not getting a fair chance as the blacks consider the H/Cs (half castes) inferior to them''. He asked that they be removed.
Others were also worried, given how vulnerable half-caste girls then were to sexual exploitation, particularly by whites.
In December, 1930, a Mrs Chellow from Murra Munda station wrote to Neville about the girls, warning: ``I think you should see about them, as they are running wild with the whites.''
This fits with what Neville told the 1936 Moseley Royal Commission into the treatment of Aborigines: ``The children who have been removed as wards of the Chief Protector have been removed because I desired to be satisfied that the conditions surrounding their upbringing were satisfactory, which they certainly were not . . .''
Even today we rescue Aboriginal children from abuse and neglect -- and in tragically high numbers.
THE FILM shows a policeman chasing the girls in his car and ripping them from Molly's screaming mother.
According to Noyce, this scene ``tells the whole story'' of his film.
THE FACT, writes Pilkington, is that the officer rode up on horseback to tell Molly's stepfather he'd take the girls, and ``the old man nodded''. The officer put Molly and Gracie on a horse, gave them the reins and asked them to follow him.
The next day he picked up Daisy and two sick women at another camp. There was no chase, no struggle.
THE FILM then shows the girls on a train, locked in an iron-barred box for dogs. They travel the last leg to Moore River tossed in the open tray of a truck.
THE FACT is the girls were not locked in any box, and travelled most of the way south by ship, which Pilkington said they felt was as a ``most pleasant experience''. They saw porpoises, chatted to the crew and walked the decks before going to bed in a cabin.
They rode the last bit not in a truck, but in a car driven by a matron who stopped for sandwiches and lemonade.
THE FILM shows the girls arriving at Moore River, where they wear prison-style sacks and are woken in the morning by a guard who screams and belts the walls of their room with a club.
THE FACT is photos of children at Moore River show them dressed in European clothes. Pilkington writes that when her mother ran away, she was dressed in ``two dresses, two pairs of calico bloomers and a coat''.
She also says the girls were woken individually and welcomed by one of the female staff.
THE FILM shows children at Moore River singing Way Down Upon the Swanee River for visitors. This shows they're so robbed of their black culture that they sing fake Negro songs instead.
THE FACT is Molly saw no such concert. And Susan Maushart's book Sort of a Place Like Home: Remembering the Moore River Native Settlement says this: ``Journalists investigating conditions at Moore River were invariably impressed by the colourful experience of a staged corroboree.''
THE FILM shows babies left to cry in a room of cots. They, too, seem ``stolen''.
THE FACT is most Moore River children -- 1003 of the 1067 who went there between 1933 and 1936, according to the Moseley commission -- were not ``stolen'' but sent there by their parents to get a schooling or to be safe.
Many had parents living in the camp next door.
SUCH distortions of the truth, and for what? There are enough cruelties in our past we must confront -- the theft of black lands, the half-caste children abandoned by white fathers, and the years of neglect of a people whose culture and communities are now shattered.
There is so much to make good -- which is why the lies of the ``stolen generations'' activists are unforgivable.
The Aboriginal leaders who falsely claim they were ``stolen'', the writers who exaggerate the number of children removed, the silly compensation cases that collapse and the slick claims of genocide all risk making every claim of black suffering seem a cynical try-on.
The truth of our past is hard enough to face. Untruths and exaggerations now will only divide us.
Your film shames not us, Phillip Noyce, but you.