Díóg O’Connell compares Rabbit Proof Fence to The Magdalene Sisters, arguing that, in order to draw due attention to historical events, filmmakers must learn to subordinate factual accuracy to the creation of the emotional structure required by good storytelling.
People or ciphers?
In his book ‘A Whore’s Profession’, David Mamet states that “people have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.” This statement is useful as a yardstick in measuring the differences between two recent films, coincidentally emerging from opposite sides of the world at the same time, telling similar tales but in remarkably different ways. Rabbit Proof Fence and The Magdalene Sisters are parallel films in many respects. Both take an aspect of national history and explore it through the medium of film. In each case, the historical incident is shameful and embarrassing and to many unforgivable. The circumstances that facilitated these acts of inhumanity often involved the acquiescence of most of the population in Ireland and Australia. The Magdalene Sisters is not just an indictment of the church-run institutions but of the whole society. Parents actively or through facilitation allowed their daughters be incarcerated in institutions for ‘crimes’ such as flirting, having a baby outside of wed-lock or being raped. Rabbit Proof Fence deals with a colonial mindset that allowed ‘half-caste’ aboriginal children be taken from their community in order to be trained as domestic servants for the white population. Based on social-Darwinian theories of evolution, the law that facilitated this was predicated on the notion that the aboriginal race could be ‘bred’ out in three generations.
What interests us here is not so much the similarities in terms of content, but more the differences in terms of form and how that subject matter is dealt with in terms of ‘story’. It is at the level of storytelling that these films diverge. In dealing with real life historical events, the narratives constructed to tell the stories are quite distinct. The Magdalene Sisters tells an episodic tale of life in an institution in 1960’s Ireland. The film opens with one of the most memorable scenes of Irish cinema in recent years when Margaret’s story is introduced. The drama of the event is conveyed through a series of looks and a powerful soundtrack, creating early expectations of an important cinematic experience.
The film is structured around the story of three girls, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette, who were sent to a Magdalene Laundry in 1964, a tragic tale of stolen years. While the title suggests some relationship among the characters, this is never fleshed out, either as allies, friends or symbolic sisters. Instead of giving the actors complex characterization to explore, the narrative presents action sequences for the characters to play out. To borrow a term from narratology, these characters are externally focalized. Because the audience rarely glimpses their story from an internally focalized position, or from the characters’ own point of view, the story experience is kept to the surface. The audience’s encounter, therefore, of this film is to view the characters’ lives from a distance. The only possibility for connection with the characters is as cyphers that represent the social injustice and cruelty of the time. What this requires is not emotional involvement but intellectual engagement. This goes some way in explaining the acceptance that these characters bring to their situation as being anti-heroic. However, this resignation, while it may be true to life for some, is not what the dramatic structure requires for telling a story. Although Bernadette’s character is set up to rebel, the fight is half-hearted and she eventually gives in.
While it may be argued that this is the experience in such institutions and that the film is therefore more ‘truthful’, it can equally be argued that not every aborigine that was taken away from their community escaped and walked a distance of 1200 miles home. But by telling this story, Rabbit Proof Fence does justice to the historical story while getting across all the attached emotional baggage that such historical incidents inevitably arouse. It takes an historical incident and creates a story world that mixes fact and fiction in a filmic way. Consequently, this film generated far more discussion and debate in Australia than its Irish counterpart did in Ireland. Despite the subject matter of The Magdalene Sisters, it failed to arouse a response or debate in the public domain.
(Re)creating the world
The Magdalene Sisters is a film that is episodic in style and littered with statements. The nun counting her money and the nuns eating a ‘full Irish breakfast’ behind a lattice-like partition while the girls make do with bread and water are scenes that display the injustices and double-standards of the church that an Irish audience is no longer surprised at. In terms of the overall narrative, however there is no progression acted out in this film. A series of episodes strung together displays an anger that is very real and valid as revelation after revelation is made in Ireland with regard to the past. But in terms of the film, this structure hinders the story by allowing it to degenerate into farce at one level (in the out-door Mass scene) and implausibility, at another level, when the two remaining characters, Bernadette and Rose, finally decide to escape.
Because the characters do not serve any distinct or key role within the story world of the film, the focus of responsibility and blame is sometimes blurred. It is difficult not to see Margaret as in some way culpable of hastening Crispina’s journey to the ‘lunatic asylum’, thus presenting a narrative glitch that leaves a very uneasy feeling in the viewer. If it was the intention of director Peter Mullan to set up a link to the ‘culpability of insiders’ convention in many films dealing with the Jewish experience in German concentration camps during the Second World War, then this intention would only succeed in further removing us from the emotional realm: inter-textual inferences demand intellectual engagement of a sort that is in stark contrast the contained emotional storyworld of Rabbit Proof Fence.
Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of one girl’s determination to go home; not to be subjected to a fate decided by outside forces. This film uses the medium to convey a tale of epic proportions, survival against the odds, triumph in the face of adversity. It does so in a uniquely understated narrative style. It is not a mainstream, classical narrative in the Hollywood sense. It eschews plot points and act breaks yet it is conventional in the sense of a linear progression and by remaining focussed on cause and effect. It creates a storyworld that is hermetically sealed and therefore true to itself.
Whereas the characters in The Magdalene Sisters are externally focalized, not driven by any inner feeling, and do little about their circumstances until the plot needs to be wound up at the end of the film, the main character in Rabbit Proof Fence is consistent from the beginning. She is driven by her deep, inner emotions (like great classical rather than postmodern characters) and acts out of a personal need that is stronger than any outside force. Molly’s character is built and focussed as the audience gets to know her complexity at each stage of the narrative: her courage and intelligence. She displays a dogged determination in contrast to the fatalism of the Irish characters that are powerless in the face of the ideological state apparatus. Interestingly, in The Magdalene Sisters, it is Crispina who displays the greatest complexity; but she is not one of the central characters.
The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative progresses in a straight line. The events are used to convey details of a story that does not present any surprises, suspense or conflict whereas the narrative in Rabbit Proof Fence brings the audience along while submerging them more deeply at each key stage. Through the use of cinematic devices, the alien environment that is Moore River is evoked through internal focalization. Molly looks up at Mr. Neville, Chief Protector and the audience is given her point of view. While Olive’s recapture is used in Rabbit Proof Fence as motivation to escape, driving the main character in a heroic way; in The Magdalene Sisters Una’s return is what makes Margaret change her mind, as she fatalistically climbs back into bed. While this may be more in keeping with the ideological critique of the myth of heroic action, it contravenes the expectations of the universal story whereby the audience is brought out of ‘reality’ to another world, the world of the story.
The cinematography reveals what Molly ‘sees and hears’ in Rabbit Proof Fence, how she accumulates information and acts on it to achieve her journey’s end. The landscape plays its part narratively, the fence poetically linking Molly to her mother at key moments while the soundtrack is central to conjuring up the aboriginal world. Each sequence is linked aesthetically by scenes of landscape giving this film a visual evenness that is absent in The Magdalene Sisters. Margaret’s opportunity to escape is rejected when she returns voluntarily to the institution. Unlike Molly she is trapped by her trepidation, and what has now become an alien environment, the outside world. Whereas hope drives Molly, fear drives her Irish opposites.
Rabbit Proof Fence tells of a collective experience through the tale of one character yet it is not hindered by sticking rigidly to every historical detail. The Magdalene Sisters expresses many historical details (that are undoubtedly true) but by shunning the narrative device of following the path of a defined storyline it fails to convey a sense of ‘truth’ with regard to its subject matter and ultimately does a disservice to the tale.
Both films present very different experiences for the viewer. Rabbit Proof Fence tells a classic story of survival and triumph in a universal way. It tells of an Odysseus-like character that draws on key human characteristics of determination and will in order to embark on a near impossible journey. While one film clearly engages on an emotional level, the other keeps the viewer at arm’s length, inviting intellectual engagement in parts. The audience response of laughter to many scenes in The Magdalene Sisters might suggest that these stories are still too raw for Irish audiences to engage with at any deep emotional level. These films thus support the position that history is a good place for fact, detail and argument whereas drama, as Mamet states, is a domain for recounting a story. Both disciplines serve separate functions for a nation to recount and explore aspects of its past.
What is interesting about these films is that they both enjoyed commercial success and relatively long box-office runs; in terms of recent Irish cinema, The Magdalene Sisters was significantly more commercially successful than most other Irish films. On the other hand, as a record of an historical event and an expression of the human spirit, it is clear which film will resonate. By telling a story, the purpose of the dramatic form, and creating such a distinctive storyworld, the spirit of Rabbit Proof Fence will linger long after the memory of The Magdalene Sisters has vanished.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92, 2003
Díóg O’Connell is a lecturer in Film & Media Studies at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. She completed her PhD in 2005 entitled ‘Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Irish Cinema 1993-2003’ and has published articles and critical reviews on this period. Her book, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film is published by Intellect, 2010.