Katie Pye in 'Peel'.


Jane Campion retrospective offers a rare survey of her short filmmaking

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While best known for feature films The Piano and Bright Star, and TV series Top of the Lake, short films are integral to Jane Campion’s iconoclastic directing career. Winning the 1986 short film Palme d’Or for her student film Peel: An Exercise in Discipline launched her international career, and she has occasionally returned to making short films ever since.

“It’s like, a writer might write a novel, or they might write a poem,” says Professor Lisa French, an RMIT academic and Campion expert. “They have their own unique parameters.”

This year’s Melbourne Women in Film Festival is screening a rare retrospective of Campion’s short films, spanning the early 1980s right through to international collaborations from the mid-2000s.

“She has a unique style and voice, and she’s had it since the beginning,” French says. “Straight off, she was an auteur. Which isn’t a space that women have traversed or been allowed or comfortable inside.”

Among the films screening is 1982’s A Girl’s Own Story, which uses a fragmented style to depict teenage girls growing up in 1960s Australian suburbia. Notably, one of the girls in the film loses her virginity to her brother.

“Many films by men describe the sexual awakening of people and it’s all massively romantic and lovely. But when Campion tells it in A Girls’ Own Story it’s not like that. It’s uncomfortable.

“First sexual encounters are often quite fraught. As one of the characters in that film says, ‘but we didn’t even kiss’. There’s this whole thing about feeling the cold … I think it’s a more realistic vision.

“I think that she’s quite interested in women who are in dangerous situations. Brave women.”

“I think that she’s quite interested in women who are in dangerous situations. Brave women.”

The Palme d’Or winning Peel is also screening. A surreal portrait of one family’s power struggles playing out on a road trip, it notably features repeated shots of oranges. Some argue that the motif is an in-joke between Campion and fellow trailblazing director Gillian Armstrong, and French notes that the academic Dr Felicity Collins has identified that oranges appear in many scenes in Armstrong’s films.

“The significance of this is that Gillian was the only Australian woman to direct a feature film in 49 years when she made My Brilliant Career. Three years later, Campion makes Peel, and if she’s looking around her film industry wondering ‘where are the [local] women directors?’ there’s only one. There’s just Gill.”

French likens the joke to a commentary on the importance of role models. “When you look around, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. There’s that thing about when Kylie Minogue played a mechanic in Neighbours, suddenly girls wanted to be motor mechanics. [Representation] is not nothing. It’s really important.”

A Girl’s Own Story (1984)

When Campion’s feature film The Piano won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival she became the first – and so far, only – woman director to land the coveted prize.

“I think it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship,” French says of Campion’s relationship to the festival. There have been many controversies over Cannes’ failure to acknowledge women filmmakers, something that Campion directly addresses in The Ladybug, a short film she directed for a broader anthology film created for the festival’s 60th anniversary in 2007.

“She actually dedicates that film to the festival director. But it’s about how women are stomped on in the film industry. Originally, Campion didn’t go out and talk about ‘it’s more difficult to be a woman filmmaker’, you know.

Straight off, she was an auteur. Which isn’t a space that women have traversed or been allowed or comfortable inside.”

“But now that she’s quite powerful and secure, she’s embraced it in a way she didn’t in her earlier career. Nobody would have made a film like The Ladybug early in their career.”

Ultimately for French, the power of Campion’s filmmaking lies in the fact that in her films “girls are often doing things together, expressing female ways of being, if you like, that you often don’t see on the screen.

“Just about everything she’s ever made tries to get into the interior of how female characters think and feel. She’s added something into the repertoire of the cinema.”

An Exercise in Discipline: Jane Campion retrospective screens tonight at the RMIT Kaleide Theatre, Melbourne.

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