Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano at the BFI’s Woman With a Movie Camera summit

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have sparked an industry wide conversation and actions in response to widespread harassment and abuse of power. Not a bad time for the BFI to be hosting a summit titled “Woman with a Movie Camera” then. The Smoke Screen dipped into one of the panel discussions – “Before and After Time’s Up” – running at BFI Southbank throughout the day, which saw panel members Holly Tarquini (Film Bath CEO), Kate Muir (former critic and now screenwriter), Mia Bays (film producer), and Ellen Jones (campaigner and content creator) discuss the questions “why now?”, and ‘what’s next?”.

In terms of the current landscape, the panel were worried that what has been widely seen as a social media-driven campaign remained limited just to that. Change is messy, and until the big film studios fully got on board, all doubted enough progress would be made. There was more confidence in public sector bodies like unions embracing the message, however. As for the question as to why it has been 2017-8 that has seen the perception of a tipping point being reached in terms of representation awareness, all agreed social media played a key role, as well as a global swell of desire to fight against what President Trump represented. Modern media allowed more rapid and widespread communication and mobilisation today, and being heard galvanised others to speak out. Men like Harvey Weinstein were also more vulnerable in this decade, as their power had waned in recent years even as the had created long lists people waiting for their chance to speak out against them – who were now taking it. Powerful men no longer had the means to control the message, they could be bypassed. “To be heard is so galvanising,” and “to know you are not alone” were comments that had all heads nodding.

What happens next will depend on continuing collaboration, agitating in the large studio spaces, education, and mentoring. Mentoring by older and more experienced women is something in particular that Ellen Jones, the youngest of the panel, wanted to see become the norm, given how opaque and hostile the media industry can seem. Change really needs to occur in the stories on screen for the fullest effect. As Holly Tarquini put it: “truths are what we see on screen,” and she “grew up a misogynist” due to seeing only negative stereotypes of women on film.

The centrepiece screening of the day was a 25th anniversary reissue of writer-director Jame Campion’s drama The Piano, the 1993 film that scooped the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won three Academy Awards out of eight total nominations in March 1994: Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. The Smoke Screen had never seen the film before, but found it a beguiling, sensuous and mysterious experience, with Holly Hunter an intense and luminous presence as the mourning-clad, voiceless Scottish widowed pianist Ada, sold by her father into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, as good as ever as a man toxically unable to fulfil his patriarchal fantasies), bringing her young daughter Flora (a great turn from Paquin, who was just 11-year old) with her.

Ada’s twisted sexual relationship with the illiterate New Zealand sailor Baines (a suitably brusque and hulking Harvey Keitel) and her coldness and lack of availability towards the baffled and emasculated Stewart contrasts with her passionate piano playing and her tender, sign language-based relationship with her daughter. Ada is a complex, difficult to pin down figure, who is surprisingly brusque and even violent in her communications, her mute status regardless. Some spectacular cinematography and framing – Ada playing her abandoned piano on a windswept New Zealand beach as the tide roils in the background – give us a sense of this lush, yet faraway and lonely land Ada has ended up in. The titular piano itself becomes an object intriguingly open to interpretation, beyond the obvious that it serves as Ada’s ‘voice’. It is it a fetish object? A representation of some suppressed passion that might stir in her thanks to Baines? By the end Ada worries it has become something darker, like a black hole pulling her in.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano at the BFI’s Woman With a Movie Camera summit
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