Soaring like a bird, the camera tilts toward the sun across the desert landscape, turning its creek beds and clumps of spinifex into a shimmering tableau not unlike an Aboriginal dot painting. So begins Rabbit-Proof Fence, the filmed real-life account of three Aboriginal girls removed under the assimilation policy of 1930s Western Australia-and their long walk home. For the rest of the film, Christopher Doyle's camera never stops moving; cowering in darkness at the mission the young girls are taken to, then feeling its way like braille across 2,000 sun-scorched kilometers, to a ring of purple hills: home.
If the homecoming in Rabbit-Proof Fence feels real, it is partly because it has also been one for Doyle. Leaving his hometown of Sydney at 18 to join the merchant marine, the maverick Australian worked on a kibbutz in Israel and spruiked Chinese medicines in Thailand before falling in love with Hong Kong, its energy and women. There a freewheeling new cinema was taking off and, faster than you can say Chungking Express, the self-trained Doyle found himself at its center. The journey took him to Hollywood, where he added color to Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. And now Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, his first Australian foray. "Yes, I'm from this place but I've been away for a while," says Doyle, 49, in his manic Mandarin-tinged accent, "so maybe I come back with a slightly different eye."
In a film that treads an at times predictable path, Doyle's work is at once moody, mysterious and mesmeric. Like black tracker Moodoo (powerfully played by David Gulpilil), he sees things in the desert that others can't: sources of Aboriginal dreaming in the color-saturated opening scenes, to ghostly presences in bleached-out hues as the girls struggle to survive in the desert heat. Here they become dots in a more timeless, mythological canvas. "There's no question that the landscape made the film," says Doyle. "So our job was to find the right spaces and time of day and step back from it and let those things do their work."
The shoestring skills honed by 20 years of Hong Kong filmmaking did the rest. Doyle didn't pick up a camera until his late twenties, when he accompanied a musician friend on a 20-day trek around Taiwan to record folk songs: "He had a camera and I had the time." Without a visa and under the pseudonym Du Ke Feng ("like the wind"), he joined the news department of China Television, making documentaries for the Taiwanese version of 60 Minutes. Then, director friend Edward Yang invited Doyle to work on his feature debut That Day, On the Beach (1983), and the New Wave was underway. "What can I say?" says Doyle. "A happy accident."
Doyle went on to collaborate with the giants of Asian cinema, Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon) and more recently Zhang Yimou (Hero), but it is with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai that Doyle made his mark-and look: hand-held, jump-cut and radically chic. That began with Days of Being Wild (1991) and, six films later, found sublime perfection with In the Mood for Love (2000). Here, what began life as a comedy evolved, over 15 months of improvization and reshooting, into a masterpiece of slowly condensing passion. "A Wong Kar-wai film is kind of like cooking school," says Doyle with a cackle. "You have no idea of what you're going to get, but you know it will be good."
Who better, then, to get down and dirty in the Australian desert? For Rabbit-Proof Fence's most gut-wrenching scene, Doyle used a hand-held camera to record the all-too-real distress of the girls as they are torn from their mother (Ningali Lawford) and thrown into a police car. "He was able to free up the filmmaking process and allow our stars, who were untrained and had never acted before, to feel unburdened and just be themselves," recalls director Noyce.
Along the way, Doyle, who in December took out the New York Film Critics Circle prize for In the Mood for Love, became the latest Australian cinematographer to grace an awards podium (another, the veteran Don McAlpine was recently Oscar-nominated for Moulin Rouge). It's a strength of vision that Doyle puts down partly to Australia's clarity of light-"because the relationship between our living spaces and the environment is so direct, and because our internal life has to be replenished by something," he says. "I mean, most Australians are pretty grounded people, so when the imagination goes, it goes very far." Like the wind.
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