Kindness in time of darkness: Niki Caro tells a story that fell through the seams of history

By Sarah Daniell

Niki Caro tells a story that fell through the seams of history, writes Michele Manelis.

While technology moves at the speed of sound and the world's political landscape is ever-shifting, the conversation with Niki Caro remains the same as it did when we met in 2005. She was in Los Angeles promoting her first Hollywood movie, North Country, and the term "female director" was a novelty back then. Caro nods her head. "That was more than 10 years ago. That statistic, 4 per cent of directors are female, is the same as it was then." She leans forward. "How can that be?"

Equally astounding is that two such successful women (Caro and Jane Campion) who belong to this elite group couldn't be more geographically distanced from Hollywood.

"I think there's an advantage in coming from New Zealand," she says. "It's good to be an outsider and I hold on to that perspective. Maybe it's our colonial nature. Maybe it's because we're at the bottom of the world, so we have to shout to be heard."

Evidently, Hollywood has been listening. Her upcoming film, The Zookeeper's Wife, stars Oscar winner Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski and Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown), who plays her husband. This moving drama is based on Diane Ackerman's 2007 best-selling non-fiction novel about a couple in Warsaw who saved about 300 Jews during World War II by hiding them in their zoo.

Considering Caro's resum , which includes The Vintner's Luck (2009), McFarland USA (2015), and the beloved Whale Rider (2002), The Zookeeper's Wife does not seem like an obvious choice.

"Like most of the world I had never heard the name Antonina Zabinski, let alone the role she played in history. So, I was incredibly surprised to receive this script that offered a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. It represented a film that could be focused on care, compassion and kindness in a time of darkness. I thought that that was a good story for me to tell, both as a film-maker and as a female."

Caro talks about her connection with this period of history. "I'm not Jewish but I went to elementary school in a synagogue. Actually, I still know the prayers." She pauses. "I felt a deep responsibility to talk about this period of history. I remember when I was very little, a man came to our school and he had a tattoo on his wrist. I can't remember what he said, but I can remember how I felt and how that was tremendously significant. So I took the responsibility of telling the story of the Holocaust extremely seriously and wanted to honour the millions who died by celebrating three hundred who survived," she says.

Niki Caro's upcoming film, The Zookeeper's Wife, is a story of compassion during World War II.
Niki Caro's upcoming film, The Zookeeper's Wife, is a story of compassion during World War II.

Working with animals presents some challenges. Chastain's affinity for creatures proved invaluable to Caro. "Jessica told me she liked animals. I knew she was a famous animal advocate but I wasn't prepared for the fact that she genuinely is an animal whisperer. Every time you see her with a creature in this movie there's no doubling for Jessica Chastain. That's her and the animal, and I could just keep my cameras back and observe."

Caro speaks effusively of her lead actress. "She was such a gift to this movie."

There seems an endless supply of historical material emanating from World War II and, like many before it, this story came about almost by accident. "When Diane Ackerman was researching a special kind of Polish horse, she met with somebody whose uncle had worked at the Warsaw Zoo. He told her about Antonina's story and that she had written a diary which was published. It was a very small publication but Diane found it and wrote the book," she says. "I wonder how many more stories are out there. It occurred to me that, because it was a woman's story, it fell through the seams of history. Somehow a woman's experience may not be considered as relevant, particularly in wartime, because most of our understanding of war comes through the male experience."

Caro works well with women, most notably Keisha Castle-Hughes (whom she directed twice, including Whale Rider, when Castle-Hughes was 13 (earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination). "Actually, I was at Keisha's birthday yesterday," she says. "She's 27 now. Fun fact, she and Jessica share a birthday.

"She's working in Atlanta on a TV series (Manhunt: Unabomber). She's still as beautiful and as brilliant. Did you see her on Game of Thrones?" she asks. "She was a sand snake. A true kick-arse female role. I salute her!"

Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper's Wife. Photo / Supplied
Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper's Wife. Photo / Supplied

Caro's next project will be her most ambitious. Continuing on her girl-power theme, she will bring the Disney blockbuster Mulan to life. As for who will play the latest Disney heroine, she says, "There has been a worldwide search but I haven't seen a single casting tape. I can't wait. I cannot wait. It's so exciting."

Did she have any trepidation in taking on this beloved and treasured Chinese story? "No, I didn't. If you look at my work I have many times worked within a culture that's not my own. I take that very, very seriously and I do it very authentically, and with Mulan the challenge is to satisfy both cultures: the Chinese culture, absolutely, and the culture of Disney."

Mulan marks Disney's second time a female director will helm a project over US$100 million (following Ava DuVernay for A Wrinkle in Time). "Being a working female director in Hollywood when so many are not working, not getting a chance, is horrible," says Caro.

"I'm lucky. I'm very grateful, like every director, male or female, but with so many female film-makers not working, it hurts me tremendously. I'm angry at the radical waste of skill and talent." She shrugs her shoulders. "It has to change," she says. "Now is the time to speak up."

The Zookeeper's Wife in cinemas May 4 PG13

- Weekend magazine

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