Though the success of Whale Rider — a powerful yet simple story of a young Maori woman coming of age in the face of male discrimination — would seem unmatchable, director Niki Caro has succeeded again in crafting a simple yet compelling story of another woman fighting against discrimination. This time she chose Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron to bring to life fictional miner Josey Aimes who resists intense discrimination by the male miners while breaking the gender barrier working the Minnesota iron range.
The L Magazine: How did you find out about this story?
Niki Caro: After Whale Rider I went back to New Zealand, I had a baby and I wanted to wait before making a second movie. I got to read many scripts, and, out of all of them, this was the only one that I couldn’t put down.
The L: How much did you diverge from what really happened?
NC: The character of Josey Aimes is entirely fictional but the film talks about real events. What happened in the mines was as shocking as depicted in the film. There was a real court case that we used. The film speaks for women eventually. After speaking out, the women were eventually successful and changed the course of history.
The L: There was one individual that initiated this suit?
NC: Yes there was — Lois Jenson. But the character of Josey is not the same. As I said, she is a fictional character.
The L: Was her sexual life mentioned in the trial?
NC: Yes, all of the women have experienced that in the court, which I think was as abusive as what they dealt with in the mines. But there are really good men in the story, like Josey’s father. They’re flawed men but they are good men and it is a very important distinction to make in the film. Men are not all evil. Some of them behave despicably, but most of them are genuinely good.
The L: There’s a cliché that men who come from Australia have a macho air.
NC: Well, yes, we all like strong masculine men. Women in New Zealand were the first in the world to get the right to vote, and [New Zealand] has the highest number of women in positions in political offices. I come from a very politically progressive place. The men might be strong in New Zealand, but the women are probably stronger.
The L: When did you decide you were going to be a director?
NC: When I went to art school in New Zealand, I made some little videos and it was a place where all the things that I loved came together. I really like writing and music and performance and photography. And it was a place where all of those things collided in a very enjoyable way.
The L: In Whale Rider you dealt with your experience as a woman and New Zealander. In North Country though you dealt with things far from different than that film’s basic circumstance, you still dealt with women issues — are we going to see a lot more of that?
NC: No, not necessarily. I am more interested in human nature and all its complexities than the matters in those last two films.
The L: Did you see similarities in how to tell the narrative in both films?
NC: Yes, of course. There are similarities all over in both films. They both have the same female character who fights for what she believes in, against overwhelming opposition. They’re both about real places, real people and take place in troubled places. These people have a great heart, high potential and the ability to change. They both have astonishing actresses and great performances. Both films are really emotional.
The L: How do you avoid that sentimentality?
NC: I am from New Zealand; I can’t stand sentimentality. I am not a chick-flick girl I’m afraid.