Acclaimed Wellington-born New Zealand filmmaker Dame Jane Campion once stated that she “would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population and gave birth to the whole world. Without them, the rest are not getting to know the whole story.”1 True to this, the Oscar award-winning director is with a repertoire of more than 50 films an auteur in her own right and has gained recognition nationally and abroad. Campion’s films move and engage, they tend to revolve around women and contain female leads, and feature plots that develop in synchronisation with haunting, sometimes dreamlike musical scores (with regard to The Piano (1993) Campion has called Michael Nyman’s music the “heart of the film”2). Her films are often very poetic in feel – Campion’s background in painting undoubtedly providing her with a deep aesthetic sense for visual and narrative style. Campion’s great storytelling techniques have been further noted with reference to her “original and striking visual compositions, a non-linear editing style and moments of narrative ambiguity.”3 More often than not the scenery that provides a backdrop for the plot in many of Campion’s films becomes a character in its own right, until it forms an extension to the personality of the protagonists. Her stories regularly develop in an external environment and characters move within a landscape that guides them and attracts the attention of filmmaker and characters alike.
Remaining faithful to her native territory, a number of Campion’s films are set in New Zealand and realistically portray the almost otherworldly beauty of the scenery: from the dense New Zealand bush to majestic cliffs and the immense ocean, and the more idyllic, pastoral landscape of the farmland. Likewise, the vaster Australian landscape comes to the fore in a number of Campion’s films. This is true with regard to her 2006 short film The Water Diary which situates the action in a drought-stricken Australian outback (Nimmitabel in New South Wales), the external setting given preference over internal spaces. True to her aforementioned tendencies, it is through a female character, Ziggy (Campion’s daughter Alice Englert), that the viewer is here given an insight into the dire situation played out on screen.
The Water Diary gained further public recognition in 2008 when the now Sydney-based filmmaker (in an interview she once stressed that her “job is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard”4) agreed to participate in a larger project coordinated by Marc Oberon and consisting of short films directed by eight international filmmakers – including international movie-star Gael García Bernal, who in “The Letter” highlights aspects of universal education – and that are concerned with global issues posing a threat to our planet today. This collaborative cinematic effort developed into a feature simply called 8 and supported by the UN Development Program5 includes references to the AIDS epidemic in Burkina Faso, by director Gaspar Noé in his short AIDS. As 8 began to materialise as a project it became clear it was a direct response to the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals: to “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger, Achieve Universal Primary Education, Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women, Reduce Child Mortality, Improve Maternal Health; Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases, Ensure Environmental Sustainability”, and “Develop a Global Partnership for Development.”6 An agreement was made by 191 governments to seek to halve world poverty and reduce child mortality by 2015.
Narrated mostly in voice-over, Campion’s brief yet powerful commentary on environmental sustainability The Water Diary (written and directed by Campion and screened at the Sydney Film Festival, 2006, the Cannes Film Festival, 2006, the Festivale Internazionale del Film di Roma, 2008, and the Festival International de Films de Femmes de Créteil, 2009) has been considered “by far the most moving and cinematic and least didactic short”. 7 It is concerned with the wider issue of global water shortage and delivers its message in less than 18 minutes. The film took a mere six days to shoot and demonstrates the director’s visual and narrative skills in a series of effective scenes.
As had partly been the case in The Piano, in The Water Diary Campion chooses to tell her story through a child’s eyes. The opening scene features images of an ochre-coloured rural landscape accommodating two horses situated in the left and right corner of the frame, one in greater close-up. As the horse looks to the right, away from the viewer, Campion fluidly matches the initial image with a corresponding image of a girl (the aforementioned Ziggy) galloping past the camera. In a subsequent shot – reminiscent of Hitchcock’s circular drain close-up in Psycho (1960) – Campion symbolically reminds us of the central issue in her story when she, too, presents us with a drain in close-up; the water swirling counter-clockwise. The girl from the opening scene opens the semi-documentary narrative with words in voice-over that make us aware of the lack of water in her family and community.
True to the global environmental project she is a part of, Campion lets her adult characters in one scene link local drought to global climate change having been around “for a hundred years”. Another character metaphorically speaks about bending rivers like pipes towards the farm. Natural phenomena like clouds moving across the sky and an erect flower in a vase highlight the comparative permanence of nature in relation to the briefer existence of human beings. A man loses his life and the two horses have suddenly vanished out of sight. In a dreamlike sequence clouds now move along the ground and the horses mystically make their presence known through accompanying neighs. Music is attributed narrative importance when references are made to a girl playing the viola, summoning thus the gathering of clouds: “… because of the beauty of her playing, clouds gathered from miles around, from as far as the coast … and wept at the beauty of her playing.” By contrast, although in a later scene the human life lost is sad “beyond tears”, tears will later become important as an additional way for the characters (particularly resourceful children) to creatively combat drought in their community.
The Water Diary is rich in references to water and the lack of it and becomes a poignant yet poetic metaphor for water shortages on a global scale. Opting for an ambiguous ending, Campion seems to suggest that this issue politically debated in global summits is similarly open-ended.
The Water Diary (2006, France, Australia: 18 minutes)
Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Jane Campion Prod: Christopher Gill Prod. Co: LDM Productions Music: Mark Bradshaw Phot: Greig Fraser Prod. Designer: Jane Patterson Ed: Heidi Kenessey
Cast: Alice Englert, Tintin Kelly, Isidore Tillers, Harry Greenwood, Geneviève Lemon, Miranda Jakich, Justine Clark, Russell Dykstra
- Arifa Akbar, “Women Too Sensitive to Succeed as Film Directors, Says Campion”, The Independent, 15 May 2009 www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/women-too-sensitive-to-succeed-as-film-directors-says-campion-1685713.html ↩
- Jane Campion winning Best Original Screenplay for ‘The Piano’” (video). Accessed 25 June, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACtgJaUlwl0 ↩
- “Jane Campion: Director”, NZ On Screen: New Zealand’s screen culture showcase, https://www.nzonscreen.com/person/jane-campion/biography ↩
- Andrew Pulver, “Jane Campion: ‘Life isn’t a career’”, The Guardian, 12 May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/12/jane-campion-interview-cannes-the-piano ↩
- “Campion lured back to the lens”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/news/film/campion-lured-back-to-the-lens/2005/10/19/1129401313729.html?page=2 ↩
- “MDGs: What they are”, MillenniumProject: Commissioned by the UN Secretary General and supported by the UN Development Group, 2016, http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/ ↩
- Natasha Senjanovic, “8: Rome International Film Festival, Out of Competition”, The Hollywood Reporter, 26 October 2008, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/8-125190 ↩