What can we learn about Indigenous history through film? Teaching Indigenous history through Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia and The Sapphires.

“Aboriginal achievement is like the dark side of the moon, for it is there but so little is known.”    Ernie Dingo.

Australian cinema has produced films that represent key aspects of Indigenous history at a time when that history was being questioned and debated. Teaching Indigenous history through film provides an excellent medium for expressions of reconciliation, reflection, education, commentary of a (past) society and the experiences of both individuals and groups. Films depicting historical narratives provide a unique insight into avenues of Indigenous history previously overshadowed and neglected.

Contemporary Australian films, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce2002), Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) engage with specific historical processes that reflect 21st century public debate such as child removal, Indigenous treatment, land ownership, frontier violence, racism, cultural and gender bias. Each of these historical narratives are confronting and forward, as they reiterate and educate the avoidable existence of these historical processes in Australia’s past and present. These films depict the historical experience of Indigenous people and reflect upon their status within the particular context.

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) is the first film to explore the historical process of the Stolen Generation. The film translates the local historical event of the Stolen Generation into a powerful and empathic experience that challenges preconceived notions of history and its affiliated ideologies. The 1997 Bringing them Home Report was inspiration for this film. Release of this report sparked powerful debates on the forced removal of children and the history surrounding it.

Director Philip Noyce describes Rabbit Proof Fence as a vehicle for Australian history. The film explores not only history that is known, but also reveals history that have been denied or forgotten. Noyce methodically shifted through verified Indigenous testimonials and oral histories to create a historically accurate film. Many of the histories gathered offset the official (white) version of history that had previously dominated national history. The message that there are always numerous and unavoidable versions of the same history is reiterated throughout the film.

Rabbit Proof Fence symbolises the damaged relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The setting of the film (1930s) was a prominent decade in Australian history. This era was shaped by transformation and hardship as illustrated by the Great Depression. Life post the Great War saw the continued evolution of the distinctly white national identity, separate from the traditional British identity and ignorant of traditional landowners.

Australia (2008) follows a simple romantic narrative. Set on the eve of the Second World War in the Northern Territory, the film follows the Australian adventures of an Englishwoman, her husband, local Drover and the Indigenous population of the area. The setting and context enabled the director Baz Luhrmann to “bind the historical romance to what really is the greatest scar in the history of this country: the Stolen Generation.”

Australia falls into the cinematic and historical category of a post Mabo film. Post Mabo films register Indigenous ownership of the land through the reassessment of settler and Indigenous relations via the recognition of the 1992 High Court decision to overrule the founding myth of terra nullius. These films are best understand not only within the realms of what is directly represented, but also within the concept of what is not said and shown.

The symbolic shift from the Howard government refusal to apologise, to Kevin Rudd’s official apology in 2008, is cleverly woven into the narrative of the film and is a reflection of what is not said and shown. The emphasis on the unyielding and entwined histories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians throughout the narrative signifies the progression and subsequent unification of the nation. Similarly, the title of the film determinedly attempts to act as a voice for the entire unified and reconciled nation and its people.

The Sapphires (2012) is about four Indigenous women, who are discovered by a talent scout and form a musical performance group called The Sapphires. The women travel to Vietnam in 1968 to sing for the troops during the war.

The film illustrates the suppression of Indigenous people and women of the 1960s as it follows the journey of growing empowerment of four fiercely determined women, despite unavoidable barriers such as dispossession. This film acknowledges the strong relationship with the land and importance of family kinship within the Indigenous culture.

The Sapphires discusses the aftermath of the Stolen Generation, rather than the actual removal of children. The difficulty of reconciling with Indigenous family post removal and cultural assimilation is an emotion that contemporary audiences are inspired to consider, in addition to the historical events of child removal.

The powerful message of the continued existence of the Stolen Generation is reiterated through the character Kay. Ten years prior, Kay’s light colour skin made her a worthy candidate for removal and subsequent assimilation into white culture. Throughout the film she struggles with her multiethnic identity, comparing the very different upbringings of her and her cousins.

The historical context of The Sapphires houses the progress of racial relations in Australia. One year prior the arrival of The Sapphires in Vietnam, the 1967 Referendum ordered for several amendments to be made to the constitution. Prior these changes, Indigenous people were classified as flora and fauna and could not obtain Australian citizenship. Director Tony Briggs continually reflected on the historical context and momentous occurrence of the amendments throughout the film.

These films extend far beyond a centre of entertainment, each enriches the history that inspired the narrative through the education and debate of Indigenous history.

Further references


Australia, dir Baz Luhrmann. 20th Century Fox. 2008.

Rabbit Proof Fence, dir Philip Noyce. Miramax Films. 2002.

The Sapphires, dir Wayne Blair. Hopscotch Films (Australia). 2012.

Youtube links 


Collins, Felicity and Davis, Therese. Australian Cinema After Mabo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Government Publications 

Commonwealth of Australia Bringing Them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, House of Representatives, Canberra, 13 February 2008.

Journal articles 

Davis, Therese. ‘Beyond good/should/bad: Teaching Australian Indigenous film and television’, Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24 (5), 2010.

Simpson, Catherine. ‘Shifting from landscape to country in Australia, after Mabo’, Metro, 165, 2010.

Newspapers and magazines 

Keirstead, Thomas. ‘Using Film to Explore History’, Japan Digest, 2002.

Murray, Kevin. The Sapphires Stay at Home, Arena Magazine, 123, (4) 2013.


10 comments on “What can we learn about Indigenous history through film? Teaching Indigenous history through Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia and The Sapphires.

  1. sean9802 says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your piece. It’s illustrative of the fact that the medium of film is capable of more than entertainment. Often, as you said, they are an important mechanism to generate debate. This has the potential to lead to a further reconsideration of the history of any given topic. Well done!

    • esilk90 says:

      I hope as more of these films are created, their true potential is revealed and not only their entertainment value, but historical worth is shared by audiences alike. Thanks for the post!

  2. kyebruce2013 says:

    Great read. It seems that the film medium allows the interpretation and remembrance of Indigenous history to be made accessible to a variety of audiences, regardless of creed. The themes that you discuss – racism, frontier violence and cultural & gender bias are experiences that many countries across the world have faced through history, so it is to no surprise that all three films were met universal positive response. Congrats!

    • esilk90 says:

      I sincerely hope these films are accessible for many generation to come and the message reiterated so that we do not repeat the failings of history. Thanks for the post!

  3. shannonfonti says:

    This is a fantastic blog. I think film is an extremely accessible way for people to learn about history and your analysis of each of these films demonstrates that it is possible to convey accurate historical information through film. You have provided a great introduction of each film and explanation of what people might be able to learn about Indigenous and Australian history from them. Great work!

  4. ayseerduran says:

    Hi, yes- great blog! I think that these films were made by Australians speaks volumes about how, (despite a minority who wish to bury their heads in the sand over indigenous issues), Australians want to address these issues and while perhaps not ‘fix’ them, at least try to reach some kind of an understanding. Compare for instance the US, where a film like Tarantino’s Django Unchained can create more divisions than inspire any conversation on issues of slavery.

    By the way, I’m so glad you didn’t use the controversial American version of the film poster for The Sapphires, where the white guy is the central image and the indigenous women relegated to the background and ‘blue washed’ to hide their colour…
    Cheers, good work!

    • esilk90 says:

      Very interesting, never considered Django Unchained in that light before… I could have written my entire paper on that revolting and very controversial film poster! Thanks for the post.

  5. I think you have really done well with this blog. It shows a different side to Australian history that is very rarely spoken of in great detail and through a medium that is receptacle to a wide audience allowing for this piece to interest not just a small fragment but a large majority of people within Australia. Great choice of topic and very well written.

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