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'The story of my mother, Molly Craig, is a very special story," Doris Pilkington Garimara says. But, she is quick to add, "it is just one of thousands of stories of what our people went through in the period of the Stolen Generation."

In 1931, 13-year-old Molly lived in Jigalong, a small aboriginal community tucked into the far northwest corner of Western Australia. One day, a government agent showed up and forced Molly, her younger sister Daisy and cousin Gracie to leave their mothers and grandmother for a grim mission school more than 2,400 kilometres away.

At the Moore River Native Settlement, the children lived in large dormitories. Speaking any native language was forbidden. Children of lighter skin colour were eligible for formal schooling. The government's goal: to assimilate the children into mainstream society.

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As soon as Molly arrived there, she knew she had to leave. "She knew she could not stay in a place like Moore River, where there was no culture," explains Garimara, who told her mother's story in the 1997 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, named after the fence that ran the length of Western Australia to keep a plague of rabbits from spreading. "Molly knew she had to return home and she had to bring Daisy and Gracie with her. . . . Molly says that if they had stayed there too long, they might become like that place."

Driven by strong ties to her culture and to Jigalong, Molly escaped the Moore River settlement with the girls in tow, beginning a journey across the harsh Australian desert, keeping one step ahead of an aboriginal tracker, without food, in search of home. And home, they knew, was somewhere along the rabbit-proof fence.

How did the children stay ahead of an experienced tracker for nine weeks? "Molly was taught by an expert the cultural and traditional ways," Garimara says in an interview. "Her step-grandfather raised her and taught her how to survive in the bush. What kinds of food to eat. . . . Those lessons of survival helped them home."

It was a story Phillip Noyce couldn't resist.

"When I started reading the screenplay I realized it was a very, very special story, and it moved me in a way no other story had before," says the Australian director, whose movie credits include The Bone Collector, Dead Calm and The Patriot. It was "a seemingly impossible journey, a story so fantastic, it might have been invented," he says.

So Noyce set out to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, which was a hit at the Montreal World Film Festival last month and is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. He cast three aboriginal girls -- Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sansbury (Daisy) and Laura Monaghan (Gracie) -- as the main characters.

"Although the three girls had no previous acting experience, they brought a unique presence to the movie," Noyce says. "What made the casting of these characters so unique was that all each girl had to do was be themselves. Each . . . had the essential qualities we were looking for. All the girls are, in real life, in touch with their [aboriginal]cultures. While we were filming, they could move freely between the story and real life, without having to act. All they had to do was be themselves."

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Noyce describes Sampi as having an on-screen presence he has only encountered twice in his filmmaking career, "once in Angelina Jolie [ The Bone Collector]and again in Nicole Kidman [ Dead Calm] And now for the third time I have seen it in Everlyn."

Kenneth Branagh joined the cast as the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, who pursues Molly along the rabbit-proof fence by means of police authorities and bush trackers in an attempt to recapture the girls and return them to the Moore River settlement.

Branagh's "portrayal of the man exceeded all of our expectations," Noyce says. "He was able to bring a complex humanity to a character that could easily have become a caricature of evil."

For Noyce, Molly's story is more that a snapshot of some of Australia's darkest history. "It also presents a universal story of children being separated from their parents. I think every person watching the movie can feel the emotional distress of what these children went through, of feeling powerless." Molly Craig, now 86 years old, lives in the village where she was born: Jigalong. So does her sister Daisy. Gracie had left the girls during the trip to try to find her own mother, and it was decades before Molly found out what happened to her.

"We found Gracie 30 years later in Western Australia," Garimara says. "I brought my mother to see Gracie, and they cried and cried. Molly always felt responsible for Gracie. They still talk today."

But Molly doesn't know how to read or write, her daughter says. "One day she got a letter and she had to ask me to read it to her. I said 'Mum, why didn't you just go to school? You could have learned to read and write.' She said, 'Because I wanted to come home to mother. It was a strange country, not my country.'

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". . Jigalong was her country, where her culture was, where her roots were, mother was. It's more than just the place she was from, it was where she was supposed to be. You don't have the same strength in a different landscape as your own." Rabbit-Proof Fence screens at the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow evening and again on Tuesday.

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