At the 70th edition of the Sydney Film Festival, and coincidentally Jane Campion’s 70th year on earth, I can attest to having been in the same room as the celebrated filmmaker and fellow USYD alumni.
On Saturday 10 June, Jane Campion: The Cinema Woman – a documentary directed by Julie Bertuccelli – was shown at the State Theatre, with an introduction by Campion herself.
I too, like this Letterboxd user, saw Campion in the crowded lobby on the way to my seat.
She credited the festival for being a consistent promoter of her work — a place where Sydneysiders welcomed her with a “rapturous, warm, loving response” and helped lead to her first feature film Two Friends (1986). It was here that her “Oh my God, I think I might have a career” moment was realised, alongside the ambition to show her films to audiences.
Campion notably asked those in the crowd who had worked with her to stand up, and proceeded to (impressively) thank people by name for their contributions and support of her films. She attested this humbleness to her close observation of New Zealand values.
The documentary traced Campion from her youth as a child surrounded by her theatre parents, to studying anthropology, art and film, and her multiple stints at the Cannes Film Festival. It focused on using archival interview footage rather than relying on new clips.
Campion famously made comments in poor taste during her 2022 Oscars speech – unaddressed in the documentary – that “Serena and Venus [Williams], you are such marvels, however, you do not play against the guys … like I have to”. Yet ever since film school, it was emphasised that she faced denigration from male colleagues and worked hard to carve her name in an arena dominated by male directors.
She was told she did not know how to frame her shots, namely on her first short film Peel (1986) which went on to win the Short Film Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Then head of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and the ABC discouraged people from working with her because she was “trouble”, and promoted a list of male directors instead. Her director of photography on one of her early films would stand to the side and show the crew how the setup really should be done.
Whilst Campion’s creative existence was not based upon standing out amongst men, she did so while presenting her unique storytelling visions regarding female sexuality, flawed familial dynamics, and the expression of masculinity and femininity. In her own words, she contended that her interest lay in how women kept “secrets” as a power currency, knowing that in this world, power was not destined for anyone besides men.
She experienced the high of winning a Palme D’Or much later as she had to confront the experience of losing her newborn child. She also took a break after In The Cut (2003) to be around her growing daughter – actor-director Alice Englert (Bad Behaviour) – before returning with Bright Star in 2009.
The irony of Jane Campion’s success is that while being known for her women-centric stories, the film she won a directing Oscar for, focused on a male protagonist in her most recent film The Power of the Dog (2021). Recently, Justine Triet (Anatomy of a Fall) won the 2023 Palme D’Or, becoming the third female to win after Julia Ducournau for Titane in 2021, and Campion for The Piano in 1993. She was the sole female Palme D’Or winner at one event which invited all previous winners. Of course, she was asked about it, and as she was answering, some of the male directors looked upon her with dismissiveness.
The documentary was full of situational and verbal irony, largely owing to Campion’s witty remarks and director Bertuccelli’s intercutting of clips. Laughing with a crowd at the State Theatre accentuated this experience. You truly feel inspired after watching this documentary which entices you to revisit her films to further understand her creative journey and piece together how this cinema woman came to be.
Jane Campion – Her Way, a retrospective of her films, is playing throughout the Sydney Film Festival from 7 June to 18 June.