"Rabbit Proof Fence". The Trauma of the Stolen Generations

Contemporary Australian Film

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

25 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Stolen Generations
2.1 Terra Nullius and Aboriginal Society
2.2 Racial Policies
2.3 Child Removal and the Bringing Them Home Report

3 Trauma
3.1 Freud and Trauma
3.2 Trauma Studies
3.3 Collective Trauma
3.4 Witnessing Trauma
3.5 Trauma and Memory
3.6 Representing Trauma

4 Conclusion



The daily overload of trauma in contemporary media is brought to the audience almost simultaneously to the actual event. Today reporters and camera teams siege the scenes of train and plane crashes, suicide bombings or school bombings shortly after their occurrence. The public is often left in shock assailed with impressions by the multiple channels of information as newspapers, radio, television or the internet. General interest of media hardly involves uncovering the long-term effects of such traumatic experiences. Hence media quickly loses interest if new traumatic events occur. Suitable examples for this exploitation of trauma are numerous, the latest one being of the earthquake on Haiti. After reporting several weeks about those who were exposed to this sudden disaster the topic got slowly dropped. The pictures of the suffering Haitians struggling to survive dominated television news, newspapers, radios and the internet. After stories of missed family members and personal tragedies had been exploited, everything seemed to be said. But how do people go on after incidents with such tremendous impacts? – These daily appearances of individual and collective traumatic experiences lead scholars as Kaplan to regard trauma as a basic experience for people of the twentieth century (Kaplan 2005: 24), which can without doubt be adapted to the beginning of the twenty-first century as well. Other scholars as Luckhurst even speak of a traumaculture to describe the contemporary culture’s obsession with the topic of trauma (Wald 2007: 2).

While media often leaves its audience stranded with the horrible images of traumatic events it is up to literature, movies and art to create a fully-fledged picture of the phenomena of trauma. As life offers daily new arrivals of individual and collective traumas, older traumas, which have been neglected, need to find their way to the public stage. The trauma of the Stolen Generations, which has been suppressed and neglected in Australia for a long time, has been given the centre stage in Australia in 1997 with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report. Over 150 years children had been removed and brought to state institutions or foster families to be assimilated into the white Australian society, today known as the Stolen Generations. Since the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report many art forms as narratives, films, songs and paintings have dealt with the trauma of the stolen children. This paper deals with one example, the film Rabbit-Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce, an Australian director. Rabbit Proof Fence displays one way of dealing with the trauma of the Stolen Generations. The film succeeds in representing trauma in such way that it offers a dialogue between the Stolen Generations and the audience. Therefore it holds the great potential of bearing witness and making the narratives and testimonies of the Stolen Generations a shared collective memory of all Australians.

The paper deals with different aspects of trauma theory which afterwards are applied upon the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. As a starting point, the first chapter presents topics related to the Stolen Generations. After portraying differences in the cultures of the settlers and the indigenous people of Australia the paper moves on to the racial policies concerned with the assimilation of Aborigines. As one aspect of special interest in reference to the film the racial policy of child removal is addressed. The start of the reconciliation process which began with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report then concludes the chapter on the Stolen Generations. The second chapter revolves around the concept of trauma. First Sigmund Freud’s theories of trauma are presented and complemented by those of contemporary scholars as for example Cathy Caruth. Then collective trauma and its trans-generational impact are treated. Afterwards the possibilities in dealing with trauma are addressed and raise the question of the connection between memory and truth-value of testimonies. This then leads to collective memory and the representation of such through film.


The Stolen Generations have been a central topic for today’s Australian society. Just lately, at the turn of the new millennium with the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report they have taken centre stage. The narratives and testimonies of removed children of the Stolen Generations have played a crucial role in the confrontation of the Australian society with this suppressed past (Kennedy 2008: 58). For a better understanding of the topic of the Stolen Generations this chapter deals with the historical background.

2.1 Terra Nullius and Aboriginal Society

With the start of the colonialism European countries sent out their fleets into the world to seek new lands and continents to be claimed as colonies. As they discovered new territories they claimed them to be terra nullius, land belonging to no one (Collins & Davis 2004: 3ff). This conscious misconception led to the dispossession of the indigenous populace all over the world, be it for the First Nations in Canada or the Native Americans in the United States of America. In Australia the claim of terra nullius made the indigenous inhabitants being deprived of their land by the new arrived settlers. In this context ‘belonging to no one’ means that the land in the view of the arriving colonizers was not organized as a sovereign state and could therefore be claimed. This western perception of land being possessed by someone based on the stately organized European nations with a written legal allotment of land. Contrary to the understanding of land being possessed is the perception of the indigenous societies of Australia.

An insurmountable gap between Aboriginal and European cultural beliefs can be seen in this misunderstanding of the concept of land. For the settlers land presented cultivable ground which was possessed by someone. Aboriginal culture understands land as the root of peoples’ cultural identity (Zierott 2005: 8). Consequently Aborigines consider themselves to belong to land and form an undividable unit with it, as well as with nature. Especially as they see land as an equal and integral part of society. They believe that spirit ancestors created the land and they have to look after the land for them (Zierott 2005: 29). Furthermore Aboriginal identity is defined by another important element, the kinship society. The cohesion of family is made up by the links of descent and marriage. In Aboriginal societies everyone defines oneself by the connections to someone else because everyone is either brother, sister, mother, father or cousin in some way. This emphasizes the importance of communities in Aboriginal societies (Zierott 2005: 29). The film Rabbit-Proof Fence addresses these cultural differences with the first scene of the movie. As Molly is looking up to the sky watching an eagle-like bird her mother tells her that this is the “Spirit Bird” her totem. It will always be looking after her. The “Spirit Bird” appears another time towards the end of the film when Molly and Daisy have collapsed in the desert. While their mother is sitting in front of a fire chanting the bird seems to call for Molly who wakes up and utters ‘home’ when seeing the bird. This scene shows the union and cohesion existing between Aborigines, land and nature.

After the arrival and conquest of Australia by the settlers the Aborigines were more and more pushed off their land and finally lived on reservations. Later on, they were even deprived of their indigeneity, as the descendants of the European settlers claimed this nativeness for themselves (Macintyre 1999: 144). This seems to be ignorant as it is a historical fact that Aborigines have lived for more than 45,000 years on the Australian continent. Only after the Mabo decision in 1992 Aborigines were supported to reclaim their land. Therefore the belief of terra nullius was overruled and the Aborigines were officially acknowledged as the native inhabitants and owners of Australia. Still reclaiming land was not as easy as it sounds for Aborigines who often had been dislocated.

2.2 Racial Policies

At the beginning of the twentieth century census data seemed to support the belief that the Aborigines were doomed to be dying out (Macintyre 1999: 144). At the same time children of mixed parentage, which were thought to present the worst characteristics of both races, were increasing in number. It was believed that these children threatened the existence of the non-indigenous race of Australia (Beresford and Omaji 1998: 34). Fearing to be absorbed by this mixed race government called for solutions to the problem. Between 1890 and 1912 the State government reacted by officially making Aborigines wards of the state. Disguised as protection boards, agencies were from there on allowed to determine residence, employment, marriage and custody of children of Aboriginal descent (Macintyre 1999: 145). After the territorial theft Aborigines now faced the dispossession of their freedom and their children. These removed children became known as the Stolen Generations. Closely connected to the racial policies and the removal of children at that time is the name of A.O. Neville.

A.O. Neville advocated a three-step approach that involved the removal of ‘half- castes’ from their mothers, the control of their marriages and the encouraged marriage with the white community (Beresford and Omaji 1998: 46). All these measures were supposed to breed out the Aboriginal blood and seem to convey the idea of racial engineering. Aborigines were defined by their degree of whiteness. The employment of vocabulary as half-caste, quadroon and octoroon strengthens the impression of racial engineering. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence picks up the historical figure of A.O Neville, who functions as the antagonist of Molly and the opponent of all the Aborigines. Directly after the opening scene the action shifts to Perth where A.O. Neville as the Chief Protector of Aborigines is introduced. His powers over the lives of Aborigines is presented to the viewer as his secretary presents the current requests of Aborigines to him while the camera shows the queuing Aborigines in front of his office. In the scene next to the child removal A.O. Neville is shown as he presents his three-step approach to a group of women in Perth. While presenting pictures of the process of ‘breeding out’ to absorb the half-castes into the ‘higher white status’ the weeping and crying of the Aboriginal women is slowly blended out. Both scenes present A.O. Neville as a heartless man incapable of any kind of empathy and convinced of doing the right thing.

The policy of child removal can be separated in two different periods. Up to 1940 the dislocation of children was seen as a necessary need in order to biologically assimilate respectively absorb the children of mixed parentage. After 1940 the policy changed to a social assimilation of Aborigines. The Aboriginal children were brought to suburban family life in order to be fully assimilated over time (Zierott 2005: 25). A quotation which mirrors the policy of the second period of child removal comes from the Commonwealth minister for Territories, who confirmed the official objective of assimilation in 1951 by saying:

“Assimilation means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of Aboriginal blood in Australia will live like White Australians do.”

(Macintyre 1999: 226)


Excerpt out of 25 pages


"Rabbit Proof Fence". The Trauma of the Stolen Generations
Contemporary Australian Film
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Performing Australia
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
417 KB
Bewertung: "Die Arbeit beginnt mit einer guten und soliden Thesenbildung und Einleitung in den theoretischen Bezugsrahmen der Analyse. In Rückbezug auf einzelne Sequenzen des Films präsentiert Verf. viele gute und nachvollziehbare Beobachtungen. Leider scheinen es vor allem sprachliche Kompetenzmängel zu sein, welche die Nachvollziehbarkeit und Klarheit mancher Darlegungen erschweren. Durch unidiomatische und umständliche Satzkonstruktionen wird die Aussagekraft und -richtung nicht immer deutlich.
Australia, Film, Movie, Literaturwissenschaften, Cultural Studies, Trauma, Postcolonialism, Postkolonialismus, Stolen Generation, Trauma Studies, Bringing Them Home Report
Quote paper
Timm Ole Bernshausen (Author), 2010, "Rabbit Proof Fence". The Trauma of the Stolen Generations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/175969


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