AUSXIP - Lucy Lawless Files - Articles - 2004 Magazines

Variety Magazine

19 April 2004
New Zealand women & film: New Zealand's internationally acclaimed women filmmakers pride themselves on their unique perspective.

As well as a different world view, their films also show a huge diversity--just compare Cannes and Academy Award-winning writer/director Jane Campion's The Piano to writer/director Niki Caro's heartwarming Whale Rider, of Christine Jeffs' portrait of poet Sylvia Plath in Sylvia to Gaylene Preston's "chiller" Perfect Strangers.

Preston laughs when asked whether New Zealanders have an unusual take on life. "I'm always surprised to find my world view is so different. I guess my world view is rather idiosyncratic."

Perfect Strangers, starring fellow New Zealander Sam Neill, demonstrates some of that eccentricity. Dubbed a "romantic thriller", the film tells the story of a woman who thinks she is being kidnapped and takes action.

"I wanted to explore the journey from victim to predator," says Preston, who wrote, directed and produced the film. "I thought it would be really interesting in a mythic way to present an ordinary woman going wrong and to take the audience with her until they've gone a bit wrong too. To make them want things in the story which are morally wrong in retrospect."

Most recently, the film has been selected as the opening film for the Creteil Film Festival in Paris in March and has been sold to more than 20 territories. Distributor First Look Pictures is releasing it in the United States around April/May.

Film culture in New Zealand has changed enormously since the 1970s when it really began to go mainstream, says Preston. As well as talent, it has built up terrific technical expertise. "We have world class facilities here, second to none."

"But the real strength of New Zealand is its storytelling," says Preston. "Our films are made with enthusiasm and passion, with a fantastic focus on making a film as good as it can be."

The success of the Peter Jackson trilogy has definitely put the focus on New Zealand, she says.

"There's been real interest in films flora here because of The Lord of the Rings. But also, Americans have gradually got used to the Australian vernacular and now they're becoming used to the Kiwi vernacular. Maori films travel particularly well. Maori culture is the way New Zealand has branded itself--that's the difference we celebrate."

That difference has been particularly celebrated recently in the success of writer/director Niki Caro's film Whale Rider. This adaptation of a Witi Ihimaera novel has won over audiences worldwide, scooping major international awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals among others, and an Academy Award nomination for best actress for Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was just 11-years-old when the film began. Its box office tallies in the United States are already over US$20 million.

Caro says she had an instinct the film would connect with the audience. But she didn't imagine such success in her "wildest dreams".

"It was a powerful universal story but culturally it was so specific. I think it was the marriage of those two things and an astonishing lead performance that made it so successful."

It was the right time for that story, says Caro. "In this new millennium we're technically overwhelmed, we communicate by email and speak to each other face-to-face less and less. We're so disconnected to religions and in the western world we're totally disconnected to the land we live on. Here this charming and humble story shows an audience what it means to be connected and what it means to have faith."

She is thrilled that the story has entered New Zealand consciousness and contemporary culture. "I can't tell you what it means to me that it's in the (New Zealand) school curriculum. My child who's only seven months old might study it in school!"

New Zealand filmmakers have "a really unique perspective', says Caro. "When it's at its best in New Zealand, it's absolutely new. Just look at The Piano, Once Were Warriors, The Lord of the Rings. They don't ape films from other parts of the world. We re-invent each time. There's an enormous amount of originality living in New Zealand. We can't do it the same way that everybody else in the world does it, so we do it our way."

Other strengths of the local industry include honesty and compassion, Caro says. "If we have the courage and the convictions to tell our own stories in our own ways then there is limitless possibility in that. While success is never a given--anybody who makes films will tell you that--there is the possibility for extraordinary success. Extraordinary success means reaching every part of the world with a story. It's not necessarily a best actress award nomination, and yet that is proof of a film's ability to reach people and speak to their hearts."

And what does such success mean for Caro? "It means I get to keep working," she laughs.

For her next project, Caro will direct the Hollywood drama Class Action which centers on the first successful sexual harassment prosecution in the United States. The Warner Bros. movie tells the story of several women who worked at a Minnesota iron mine in 1975. Consistently harassed by male workers, they filed suit in 1984 and went on to win a landmark decision.

It seems appropriate for the director to be from New Zealand, the first country in the world to give women the vote, and with a strong female contemporary culture, including a female Prime Minister, Governor-General, and Chief Justice.

Reflecting this, the fifth biennial World Summit conference of Women in Film and Television International (WIFTI) will be held in Auckland, New Zealand, from April 21-24/2004. The event, which aims to advance professional development and achievement for women in the screen industry, is expected to attract about 350 delegates from around the world.

The summit patron will be Lucy Lawless, from the famed television series Xena: Warrior Princess, which was also filmed in New Zealand. There will be host nation promotions, including a "Showcasing New Zealand" luncheon and a history of women filmmakers in New Zealand. With the number of female filmmakers ever increasing, it looks like this history has got a while to roll yet.

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