“This was my first film. I knew these people who all had red hair and were part of the family. They were also alike in character, extreme and stubborn. Their drive in the country begins an intrigue of awesome belligerence.” – Jane Campion on An Exercise in Discipline: Peel.1
An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982) was Jane Campion’s third2 short film, and very nearly never existed at all: Campion’s tutors at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) originally advised her that she shouldn’t bother finishing it.3 This misplaced advice was happily ignored by Campion, and Peel, as it has come to be known, ended up taking home the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. Campion was the first woman ever to win the prestigious award, and would later claim the title again for that prize’s larger cousin, the Palme d’Or, for her internationally lauded feature The Piano (1993). Given that Campion is still the only woman ever to have won that award, she holds a critical place within the changing landscape of cinema. She is a pioneer of women filmmakers, and thus far, their unchallenged champion.
Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to a writer/actress mother and theatre director father. Initially she avoided following her parents footsteps into the world of acting and theatre, choosing instead to pursue a career in the visual arts. As a student of art who studied in London and Sydney between 1976-81, she cites surrealist painter Frida Kahlo and Joseph Beuys as two major influences on her work. Eventually, dissatisfied with the limits of painting, Campion turned to film, creating her first short, Tissues, in 1980. She commenced study at AFTRS in 1981, producing many more short films there – including, in time, Peel.
The opening sequence of the film neatly defines its parameters: its fascination with the link between red hair and stubbornness, its rhythm, the way it toys with the idea of family. A title card flashes on screen, revealing a triangle of relationships between father and son, brother and sister, aunt and nephew. All is bathed in a glorious orange that matches not only the family’s fiery hair, but the distinctive colour of the orange peel from which the title is conceived. There is a sense of fun to be had here, born of the absurd link between fruit, hair and disposition. Another title card informs us that this is “A True Story” – indeed, the Pyes are a real family. Yet Campion chooses to eschew typical documentary convention here – the family may be real, but their actions and words are constructed as a fictional performance.
This is a film that takes place mostly within the confines of a car, and on a country road, like a condensed version of a road-trip film. From the very beginning of the film there is an indisputable tension; the boy’s aunt engages in passive-aggressive diatribe with her brother. Throughout the film, she is loosely associated with flies – their incessant buzzing is anthropomorphically analogous to her irritating quips. The catalyst for an eventual outburst is, of course, the tellingly-coloured orange. It is here the film’s prefix, An Exercise in Discipline, comes to the fore. The exercise itself overlaps between father, son and aunt, and we are immediately aware of the hypocrisy of the father, the patriarchal enforcer of discipline. He instructs the boy to refrain from littering, which he himself has done in the past. The boy is forced out of the car in order to pick up every piece of discarded peel (much to the impatient dismay of his aunt), and later mimics his father’s controlling tone upon addressing his aunt. The discipline here is not only enacted upon the boy, but also the man’s sister, whose temper boils and snaps at the slightest provocation. It seems as if all three would benefit from some form of regulated self-control, but the ordeal results in an inconsistent sort of penance. All three are slighted in some way, and attempts at punitive measures only worsen the situation, like rubbing salt into the seething scars of dysfunction.
The segmenting and fragmenting of framing and focal lengths, as envisioned by cinematographer Sally Bongers,4 adds further confusion to an already dense film. The classical narrative paradigm is interrupted sporadically by a sudden shot of a speeding car, or an out-of-place line of dialogue. Campion forgoes the linear and the logical, instead creating a circular narrative that folds back on itself in order to mirror the repetitive spiral of chaos that the family operates within. Beyond this, Peel demonstrates Campion’s ability to understand deeply the Australian psyche, despite her New Zealand background. Though the rolling hills of the Australian countryside certainly situates the film in the physical Australian setting, it is the cultural references – such as when the woman complains that she’ll be missing the latest episode of Countdown – that cement this as a thoroughly Australian film. Throughout her early career, and even today, Campion is mistakenly referred to as an Australian director – a testament of her skill in getting to the heart of what Australian cinema is, particularly because she is also internationally recognised for her distinctly New Zealand-based film, The Piano.
In the final moments of An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, the man and woman become unresponsive, as if frozen in time. An orange rolls to the ground unnoticed. Each facing the opposite direction, they stare unblinkingly down either end of a long road. The boys pokes and prods, eventually jumping violently upon the roof of the car. Nothing wakes them from their trance. As the sun sets and the thrum of traffic becomes louder, all sense of order rapidly disintegrates. Brother and sister are perched as still as death, perhaps suggesting that in life there can be no total control.
An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982 Australia 9 mins)
Prod Co: Australian Film & Television School Prod: Ulla Ryghe Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Jane Campion Phot: Sally Bongers Ed: Jane Campion Mus: Kay Dineen, Sue Kerr
Cast: Tim Pye, Katie Pye, Ben Martin
- Quoted at NZ On Screen, “Peel | Short Film | NZ On Screen,” https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/peel-1982 ↩
- The exact chronology of Jane Campion’s early work is somewhat unclear, as much of it was produced at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), and is either buried in archives or forgotten. The majority of evidence points to An Exercise in Discipline: Peel being Campion’s third short film; preceding it were Tissues (1980) and Mishaps of Seduction and Conquest (1981). It is possible that were other films made prior to this. To add the confusion, Campion refers to Peel as her first film in the quote above ↩
- “Campion Shorts.” Turner Classic Movies. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/142650%7C0/Films-by-Jane-Campion.html. ↩
- Bongers and Campion would go on to work together in Campion’s debut feature film Sweetie (1989). ↩