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Female Presence in Foreign Film – New Zealand

When we talk about influential females in TV and film we usually think of those in mainstream cinema, but there are some amazing women in foreign cinema that perhaps don’t get enough recognition. So, as a two part article series, I want to give you an example of a few films and TV shows which highlight influential women in foreign film.  Firstly, New Zealand and part two will be focused on Danish and Swedish cinema and TV. If you’re looking for a new, slightly different film or TV show with a powerful female influence then look no further, these lists are for you.

Top of the Lake

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Photo Credit Youtube.com

Watching this 6 part mini series recently inspired me to write this article.  And it reminded me just how much I love New Zealand cinema. Although this seems a simple ‘who done it’ series, it evolves past this and pushes boundaries. A young girl, Tui, has gone missing and its Detective Robin Griffins job to find her.  Whilst this seems a simple premise, underneath each character is slowly imploding, but it’s Robin, played by the exceptional Elizabeth Ross, whose leading them all into the abyss. She fronts the investigation for Tui, uncovering the towns deep, dark secrets as she goes. But in exposing the secrets of the town she inadvertently exposes her own as well and what a seriously dark story she has. Whilst I was impressed with Ross’ endearing and complicated performance, one to rival her role as Peggy in Mad Men, I was even more impressed when I found out the whole series was the brainchild of New Zealand director Jane Campion.

The Piano

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Photo Credit Close-upfilm.com

Using the beautiful New Zealand landscape as the backdrop to many of her films, Campion embodies New Zealand life and culture within each moment. Long sweeping shots of fog covered mountains and lakes, rolling hills, endless fields, houses with unusual character and shape, and characters who have subtle differences to the rest of the world. The film that gave Campion the international credit she deserved was The Piano, and throughout her career she has continued to explore the womans position in a world dominated by men, through cinema and through TV. Holly Hunter (who also plays a small role in Top of the Lake) plays the lead in The Piano, a mute woman forced into an arranged marriage who expresses herself through her irrevocable bond with her daughter and through playing her piano.  She eventually breaks free from the marriage and falls for another man. Robin Griffin has her voice similarly muted in Top of the Lake by the alpha male chief detective and the other old fashioned policemen who refuse to take her concerns for Tui seriously. The idea of women nurturing children and men struggling to understand this concept is echoed throughout Campions work and an interesting topic to behold in cinema. Her use of complicated lead females over coming the oppression of dominate males offers so much to defining powerful females within cinema and TV.


Once Were Warriors

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Photo Credit IMDB.com

Without a doubt this is not easy viewing, but definitely powerful and a great example of New Zealand cinema. It’s very much a comment on the state of New Zealand at the time of its production. The difficulty in the rise of unemployment, men losing their place in society and in the home, the ongoing conflict between old Maori past and the Maori gangs of today and the lessening connection people have to the strong warrior roots in New Zealand history. But it’s also another example of a strong willed woman and her innate nature to protect her children, an instinct again squandered by a damaging alpha male figure. And the woman in question is Beth Heke, played by Rena Owen. Living an abusive life with ladies man Jake ‘the muss’ Heke played by Temuera Morrison, Beth endures nightly beatings from her husband yet plays along with her friends like Jake’s the cool, popular guy she’s lucky to have obtained. All the while knowing she’s stronger and better than this. From the first time you see Rena Owen on screen as Beth you know she is not just a victim. Her face, the way she speaks, yet always sad and sympathetic, seems strong and alive, not defeated, her warrior spirit is still prevalent. And her relationship with her children, though flawed, is founded deep within her soul. Her children suffer also at the hands of Jake and his friends, and it’s the devastating realization of this that drives Beth to rekindle her warrior roots and fight for her childrens future, as well as her own. Her final speech in the film is perfectly delivered;

 “From now on I make the decisions for my family […]. Our people once were warriors […] people with manner, pride, people with spirit, if my spirit can survive living with you for 18 years, then it can survive anything.”

New Zealand has provided the world with some powerful female influences in film and TV, stories driven by women on screen or off.  But I feel the most influential is Jane Campion, another female director definitely making waves.

Look out for my second article on Danish and Swedish leading ladies.

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