There has been much debate around cultural appropriation in films and books. Most lately, the novel American Dirt. Michele Manelis talks with New Zealand director Niki Caro about working outside her culture.
In making movies outside your own culture, are there certain things you have decided to include or avoid in order to approach the audience and to present it in an authentic way?
For my whole career I've made movies outside of my culture, beginning with Whale Rider. And I've developed a way of working, where I prioritise being authentic and being specific to that culture and I realise when I do that it becomes universal.
It was very easy, actually. With Mulan the first thing I did was go to China and experience that incredible country for the first time. Then across departments right through pre-production, production, even post-production, a deep, deep, deep research into the culture so that we could get as specific and authentic as possible.
Why was it important to you to make this particular film?
For me it was such a privilege to tell a story that's been relevant for hundreds and hundreds of years, over a millennia really. And to tell it in live action in 2020, to commit to the real journey of a young woman that goes to war to save her father's life, disguises herself as a man and then commits to her own authentic power and fights as a woman. To tell that story now feels very relevant.
Especially that it's directed by a woman.
Yes. To be a female director that tells it is even more relevant because I connected to my own power as a woman to tell it. I don't disguise myself as a man to direct movies, I don't direct movies as a man would, I direct them as a woman does. And there's a line in the film that Gong Li says to Mulan, "It's impossible for a woman to lead a man's army." And I love that line. That line speaks to me because that's my job; I lead a man's army. But in this army, my mighty film-maker army, all my generals were women. So it's a very female lead story and I'm so happy and satisfied with it. Actually, on International Women's Day recently, I was so pleased to show this example of what a movie looks like when it's run by women. It looks like this: it's this big, it's this spectacular, the action is this adrenalised and it has, I hope, depth and emotion. I'm very, very, very proud of it.
You've inspired many female up-and coming directors. Who was the biggest inspiration in your career?
When I was a teenager, when I first wanted to make films, I couldn't see anybody that looked like me that directed movies until Jane Campion.
And I remain Jane Campion's most loyal and devoted fan to this day because she not only looked like me, from the same part of the world, she saw like me.
Is there an advantage coming from New Zealand?
Yeah, I do think there's an advantage in coming from so far away and I think there's an advantage to being a New Zealander. I don't know why but maybe it's our colonial nature, maybe it's because we're at the bottom of the world and we have to shout to be heard. I think that perspective is good.
I find it good to be an outsider here in Hollywood and I'll hold that perspective all the time if I can in my work. Being a working female director in Hollywood when so many are not working and not getting a chance is horrible. I'm lucky. I don't mean to suggest that I'm not really grateful all the time and every film-maker who's working is certainly grateful, I'll tell you that, male or female - and particularly if you get to do work that you feel satisfied by. What I mean by that is if you have good stuff to put out there in the world but the fact that there are so many female film-makers not working hurts me tremendously. I am angry just at the radical waste of skill and talent, all of those voices. And that must change.
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If I were to make a sword like the one Mulan carries - what engraving would I add for you?
Oh, definitely it would be about the devotion to family. I'd probably have my children's names, my dog's and my husband's. I'd put Liu Yifei [star of Mulan] on there too. I'd love to have that sword.
Niki Caro is the director of Mulan, the release of which has been delayed due to Covid-19