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Changing the Rules of Engagement: How Rabbit-Proof Fence and Whale Rider Forge a New Dimension of Ethnographic Media



    1. Sabra G. Thorner is a Ph.D. student in the department of Anthropology and the program in Culture & Media at New York University. Her primary research is in urban Indigenous media in Australia.
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Full-length, independent feature films Rabbit-Proof Fence and Whale Rider, both released in 2002, chronicle the journeys of young indigenous female protagonists as they struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds to meet their destinies. The narrative and technical components of these films share striking similarities as they construct stories that are profoundly local, yet widely resonant. This article argues for the consideration of films as both social process and cultural product, deeply embedded in dynamic social worlds. These films signal the emergence of a new model of film production in which directors foreground their responsibilities as producers of knowledge and embrace the intersubjectivity of contemporary indigeneities. At the same time, these films and their directors are at the forefront of shifting understandings in circulation, necessarily in dialogue with proliferating examples of new indigenous media, and capitalizing upon new technologies in ways that innovatively include viewers in debates about cross-cultural representation and the role of film(making) in social life. In this newly engaged model of production and circulation, the social relationships forged between filmmakers, actors, viewing publics, and many others, take on unprecedented significance in constructing indigeneities in specific national contexts.

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