Niki Caro is known for telling women's stories. In such movies as Whale Rider, about the 12-year-old Maori girl who dreams of becoming her iwi's first female chief, and North Country, based on the true story of the first class-action sexual harassment suit brought to trial, by a female miner in Minnesota, Caro explores themes of gender and power.

In the New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based film-maker's latest film, The Zookeeper's Wife, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, the real-life Polish woman who, with her husband, Jan, saved about 300 Jews by sheltering them in their Warsaw zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

As a woman, the 50-year-old director says she feels an affinity for those female characters and the obstacles they've overcome. And as a mother of two, 13-year-old Tui and 9-year-old Pearl, Caro even relates to Kevin Costner's character in her 2015 film McFarland USA, a high school track coach who becomes a father figure to underprivileged Latino boys.

But it is as a human being, Caro says, that she feels connected to every story she hears, even those - perhaps especially those - that are most foreign to her.

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In Washington, DC, to promote her new film, Caro sat down to talk about the care - and the curiosity - with which she approaches such unfamiliar worlds.

Your upcoming remake of Disney's Mulan places you in an elite company - with Kathryn Bigelow, Patty Jenkins and Ava Duvernay - as one of only four women to direct a live-action film with a budget of more than US$100 million ($143m). You've called that depressing. Why?

What I mean is the statistic depresses me. That's an important distinction.

Zookeeper is a war movie, but some will still call it a women's film. Do you resent such pigeonholing?

If you look at my body of work, which is not very big, really, it took an evolutionary leap with The Zookeeper's Wife. Antonina Zabinski's strength was also her softness. It takes a certain confidence and courage to commit to a woman's experience of war.

A certain confidence on Antonina's part?

No, confidence as a film-maker. If you look at the Zabinski couple, it's her husband, Jan, who's working in the Resistance, who's out there being active. To make the conscious decision to concentrate, in this film, on the sanctuary that Antonina was providing was really interesting territory to move in.

Femininity has often been equated somehow with weakness, but as we know from our mothers and our daughters and our colleagues and friends, female strength comes in all kinds of shapes and textures and flavours.

The themes of softness, of sanctuary, of nurturing and parenting are prominent in your films. To what do you attribute that storytelling impulse?

I made Whale Rider before I had any children, but I did conceive during that movie. And so my first child came along with me on all of the promotion for that movie, which was so beautifully received by people. Somehow, she landed in the world in a time that was full of abundance for me. There was so much validation of my natural instincts, which, like Antonina's, are to bring people together in a family.

Director Niki Caro, left, and Jessica Chastain arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of
Director Niki Caro, left, and Jessica Chastain arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Zookeeper's Wife" at The ArcLight Hollywood. Photo / AP

Are you saying that a film crew is kind of like a family?

It is. It's exactly a family. Not even kind of like one. I really value the skill and sensitivity of my collaborators, and I am really interested in - perhaps more so than if I was a male director - the hair, makeup and the textures of the fabric and the wallpaper. I find it lovely.

One of the things that made this a different kind of Holocaust movie is that, by setting it in a zoo and a home, it was not just about being able to feel fur and feathers, but the texture of the upholstery.

Antonina wasn't just providing a different kind of cage to shelter people. We didn't shoot Zookeeper as if we were looking back at history. We shot it as if it was happening to us and our friends in that moment in time.

You have a real knack for rendering communities that are unfamiliar to you. You're not a Polish Jew, or Maori or a Minnesota taconite miner. How do you access cultures not your own?

When I made Whale Rider - of course, I'm not Maori and have no business, as a white girl, telling people how to be in this movie - I started by learning the language, as best I could. I spent lots of time in the community. I realised that by being on the ground, eating the food, playing pool in those bars with the locals [for North Country] - that was also very much a Minnesota thing, actually - I could experience the truth and beauty of a culture.

It's not about me. I am absolutely in service of the truth of the story. I've made every movie since Whale Rider in that way.

It sounds like a kind of cultural anthropology.

No. It's just people are amazing. There's a universal truth to people.

How does one go about finding that truth?

By being totally specific, all the time. It makes my job very easy. The only way I know how to get it right is to go to the source.

Then there is the question of cultural appropriation. Tell me about the Whale Rider backlash.

There was a very damning editorial in a Maori publication [Mana magazine] before I shot the film. The gist was that a pakeha shouldn't be telling that story, that the author of Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaera, who is Maori, should never have allowed it. Of course I was devastated. And the chief of the community [in Whangara, where the book and film are set] came to my production office, quite unannounced, shut the door and said: "You have to understand two things: Firstly, we have chosen you. The second thing is, now you have to be a chief." I realised that my story was the same story as little Paikea in the movie. I desperately needed the approval of some people who could never give it to me.

But I knew that the work would speak for me. The person who wrote the original editorial saw the film and wrote another one taking it back. It went full circle.

With the right to tell stories, does there come a responsibility?

Absolutely. I'm very conscious of what I consider to be the first audience of any movie that I make. It's those people whose reactions I'm most attentive to. They're the ones who will tell me whether I've done my job or not.

Who was that first audience for The Zookeeper's Wife?

With all of the films I make in this way, I first take them "home". We premiered this one in Warsaw on March 7, where we showed it to [Antonina and Jan's children], Ryszard and Teresa Zabinski, and many, many people whose ancestors had fought in the uprising. The place for the gala screening was the Palace of Culture, which is this grand Stalinist building. Just before we screened it, I was being introduced by a guy who explained that the location where this building was built was the border of the Warsaw Ghetto. He said, "Where we are standing was quite literally the difference between whether you lived or died." That destroyed me.

That's the thing that you carry when you work on real stories. In New Zealand, in the Maori world, this would be considered a taonga, a treasure, something sacred that you have to protect.

You now have a triple obligation to get Mulan right: to the fans of the original movie, to Disney and to Chinese culture.

[Gritting teeth] That's correct.

What kind of example do you hope to set for your daughters?

I'm intrigued for them, because they've really grown up completely unaware that there is any difference between girls' stories and boys' stories.

My biggest girl is named Tui, which is a quite beautiful native bird in New Zealand. It has such an unusual voice. When New Zealanders hear the sound of a tui, it makes them very happy. I guess I hope for my daughters that they feel free to have a voice, as girls. And that voice can be unusual, it can be loud or soft, but that they have one.