Daring look at Oz’s dark past

Noyce examines government's role in taking Aboriginal children from parents

Phillip Noyce will attempt to force Australians to face a heart-wrenching, shameful story from their past: the “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children.

His “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is the first Oz pic from a mainstream director to deal with the government policy, abolished in 1972, of taking indigenous children away from their parents ostensibly in the belief they would be better educated, fed and treated by whites.

The first challenge confronting Noyce and Oz distributor Becker Entertainment is figuring out how to overcome Aussie cinemagoers’ apathy toward films about Aborigines.

U.S. challenge

The second task for Noyce, as well as U.S. distrib Miramax, is how to break through to Americans, who lately have been ignoring pics from Down Under.

The Oz media has been full of stories about the Stolen Generation amid a divisive debate in the community and among politicians over whether the government should issue a formal apology.

Noyce’s saga is based on a true story, set in 1931, about three Aboriginal girls taken from their families to be trained as domestic servants; the girls subsequently manage to escape and, pursued by authorities, embark on a 1,500-mile trek through the Outback to be reunited with their parents.

Kenneth Branagh plays the ironically titled Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, the bureaucrat who orders that the children should be assimilated into white society “for their own good.”

Noyce says his film, which debuts in Oz Feb. 21, does depict a system that existed for 70 years, but his main aim is to tell a story that is moving and uplifting as well as based on fact.

“Australians are not in the habit of watching en masse movies with indigenous themes,” Noyce acknowledges. “But I believe if you present them with the right movie in the right way, the uniqueness of that experience can be a plus.”

“It transcends any racial or social issues because it’s such an accessible story,” says Becker’s Richard Becker. “It almost doesn’t matter that (the characters) are Aboriginal. I have no doubt the film will do business.”

Still, to overcome Aussie auds’ resistance to films of this genre, Noyce and promotions/publicity consultant, Emma Cooper, have devised an extensive, detail-orientedcampaign, including:

  • Announcing the project on the Nine Network’s popular breakfast show “Today,” which reaches a lot of adult females.

  • Inviting a “Today” crew to film the cross-Australia casting search for the three leads, including the final selection and the winners’ preparation for the shoot; footage will culminate in a five-part series airing on “Today” in December.

  • Enlisting women’s magazines as promo partners to introduce the indigenous actors to white audiences.

  • Republishing “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence,” the book on which the film is based, and producing a study guide to be circulated in Australian schools with the cooperation of state education departments.

Noyce has already shown footage to exhibs at August’s Australian Intl. Movie Convention, and promised to tour the country with the three leads to promote the pic.

The emotional, character-driven story may seem an odd choice for a director best known for slick Hollywood fare such as “The Bone Collector,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games.” But it marks a return to Noyce’s roots, as his first feature, “Backroads,” was a 1970s road movie featuring Aboriginal characters.

Miramax showed its faith in the film and filmmaker by collaring the rights for North and South America, the U.K. and Italy last May for a reported $4 million. Virtually all other markets have been sold by HanWay Films, Jeremy Thomas’ London-based sales arm.

The budget of $6 million (the major participants deferred their fees) was funded by the Australian Film Finance Corp., HanWay and Oz feevee channel Showtime.

Advance word is promising in the U.S. and at home. Test screenings in N.Y. and L.A. generated highly positive results and especially strong scores for the pic’s lead actress, 13-year-old tyro Everlyn Sampi.

“I was surprised” at the U.S. response, says Noyce, noting 80% of respondents circled the adjective “inspirational.”

According to the helmer, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, known for his hands-on approach in the editing room, made only one request, which Noyce says he hears from every U.S. exec: “Make it shorter.”

Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill says, “We have been working a lot with Phillip Noyce on the cut of the movie, the last of which was hugely improved.

“It’s (taken) a lot of time. Several things that were understood in Australia weren’t understood here. We needed to heighten the suspense. It’s a chase movie and a great emotional drama, which makes it a hybrid.”

Miramax is plotting a platform release late next summer, starting in L.A. and Gotham, then rolling out in 10 other cities, hoping it will break out.

Becker Entertainment, which is co-distributing the pic in Oz with Ocean Pictures, plans to go out fairly wide, on at least 100 prints.

The campaign to win the support of Oz exhibs has been highly effective. Footage shown at the Movie Convention “encouraged most exhibitors to feel this has an epic quality that will transcend barriers,” says one booker. “It will receive a high degree of support, not just from up-market locales. I’ll be booking it in as many theaters as the distributor will agree to.”

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