Okay so sadly I got the flu and did not make it along to any more films at MIFF.
I did however spend my week in bed watching the entire season of Top of The Lake.
At 7 episodes Top of the Lake is a punchy and atmospheric mini-series (or ‘tv event’ as the publicity material calls it) It is a study of small town life where the small town isn’t twee or peaceful but instead has a disconnected, drug-addled and desperate population. Campion and her co-creators/directors (Gerard Lee and Garth Davis) have set their bitter crime story against a picture postcard alpine lake which somehow manages to be both idyllic and foreboding,in fact, practically the first lines spoken in the show are ‘the water will kill you’. The camera dwells for long moments on towering hills and misty still waters that hint at mysterious depths, and any ideas of peaceful countryside are constantly shattered by the roar of motorcycles, rifle shots, dogs barking, and raised voices.
Jane Campion has a lot of great movies where nature becomes one of the characters – perhaps the most obvious being Sweetie, which actually features a woman with a phobia of trees, but you can certainly find it in the rest of her films as well, such as those lonely beaches and muddy bush in The Piano, Bright Star with those massive heavenly fields of flowers in Bright Star. It often feels like the world around the characters ends up reflecting exactly what’s going in the narrative, and in the case of Top of The Lake, that brooding, deep, still water reflects the deep unhappiness, disfunction and corruption hidden beneath the surface of this small service town.
I once had a lecturer tell me that Jane Campion wasn’t really a feminist film-maker because she operated within the classical Hollywood style. And, while I agree that Campion isn’t as hard hitting or avant garde as say, Catherine Breillat or Maya Deren, what she does often accomplish is something that could maybe be called ‘a subtle side-long glance at’ feminist film making. That is, media that looks fairly mainstream and feels fairly mainstream, but when you go a little deeper often challenges the way we depict women and the narrative choices we give them. Or, if you want slightly more ‘critical-theory-ish’ terminology, Campion uses popular ‘Hollywood’ techniques and tropes but skews them so that they draw attention to the feminist issues sitting behind them. In particular, questions of female autonomy and victim-hood are always central to the stories Campion chooses to tell.
Top of the Lake is a premium example of this sideways approach to feminist issues, casting the two main female characters (Tui and Robyn) as victims initially, but ultimately giving them the initiative and opportunity to independently take control of their own fate.
Basically the story is this: Tui Mitcham is pregnant at 12 years old, she tries to kill herself, then disappears. The rest of the season is a series of questions around who the father could be, and where Tui has gone – has someone disappeared her deliberately, is she alive or dead, can a pregnant 12 year old survive hiding out in the bush, and can she avoid the biggest predators of all in this sleepy NZ town; the various adult males who decide to go looking for her or appear to have a vested interest in keeping her silent. Elizabeth Moss plays visiting detective Robin Griffin, home to care for her dying mother, who gets embroiled in Tui’s case when she is brought in as an expert for troubled children. As the show goes on it becomes clear that Robin has her own demons to deal with and Moss plays the character with a powerful combination of strength and fragility.
There’s also a lovely side story where a group of women have set up a container commune following a guru (Holly Hunter) called GJ. While I found the humour here a little uneven at times, and I think it occasionally came across as mocking, this story did also provide a platform for Campion to dissect issues of female identity and she does it with aplomb; the women in this space do not fit neatly into Hollywood ideals of body shape, beauty, sexual allure, or even intelligence, they are all a little weird, and a little awkward. Even the land they live on is a disputed territory, with two different parties claiming ownership of it – one of them being the local drug dealer who has, in turn, a romantic altercation with one of the women. The ‘womens’ space at the commune stands in direct contrast to the almost exclusively male spaces of the police station and Matt Mitcham’s house; in the women’s space sexual politics and identity are discussed and dissected, in the male spaces politics and identity are undercurrents, downplayed, ignored, or outright repressed in an effort to keep the status quo.
At first my reaction to the themes of rape and sexual violence in this show was one of frustration and distrust. Mostly because I feel like there seems to be a trend in mainstream media towards this ‘rape as character development’ trope, as if, to make a woman seem legitimately strong and complicated she must have a back story of sexual violence. And there also often seems to be a certain inevitability to the narratives around rape, as if, once a story is set on that particular path, such as a girl being the solitary female in the company of violent men then the only end result can be her rape. I do understand that it is more narratively compelling if the story shows victims of rape as opposed to people fighting off rapists, or other people coming to their rescue. But there is a part of me that wishes that a) women in shows about violence (especially cop shows) could be shown as strong characters without having encountered sexual violence in their past and b)more of the many rape narratives there are out there in TV-land were told as encounters where the victims fight back and win, without any sense of inevitability about it.
However, as the story in Top of The Lake develops you can see here how Campion is using her ‘sidelong glance’ technique at women’s issues to draw you into the story and make you think about it. Firstly, she shows you alternative male character’s points of view where they were uncomfortable with the acts of rape or condemned the acts of rape in the show. Campion gives us a diverse range of viewpoints and also explores the incredibly complicated cultural norms that surround situations of rape and gang rape in particular such as bullying, fear, machismo and entitlement.
She also (spoiler alert here) portrays victims of rape that are male. This might seem like a pretty simple concept but unfortunately the idea the men don’t get raped is so pervasive that even the UN Health Organisation only defines rape as that ‘of a man raping a woman’ rather than ‘women raping men’, which is a problematic scenario for everyone involved, from the male rape victims whose ordeal is ignored, to the transgender and transexual rape victims or are not even included in the equation, and the reinforcement of the concept of women as victims and men as perpetrators which surely contributes to the already high levels of females who are raped or sexually assaulted around the world today.
The show is also, despite it’s fairly dark subject matter, not as violent as it could have been, yes there are storylines that involve rape, however there’s no protracted torture or imprisonment scenes and not much blood and gore. This is not attention grabbing torture porn like the average episode of SVU or standard mystery-of-the-week cop shows, which means there is no reducing bodies of victims (usually women’s bodies by the way) into depersonalised fragments. Victims in this show remain whole and we get to see the consequences of the acts done to them played out in the public space.
Top of the Lake is a really good series, it is a rollicking good mystery story that keeps you guessing, it has sweet romance and tragedy, it’s well written, has excellent performances, complex and multi-dimensional characters and captures that smothering small town desperation and all the complicated factors that surround it, like economics, landscape and culture. However, I have one really major criticism of this show, which is that it felt like a serious missed opportunity not to have any well developed Maori characters in the cast. There are a few supporting guest characters of Maori descent, and Robin’s mother’s partner Turangi is Maori, however he is almost silent for most of the show and is implied to be violent although we never see it. This portrayal of Maori as silent and violent is simply unacceptable in modern NZ narratives, and I do not for one second accept the argument that this is a show made for international audiences who wouldn’t understand issues of local indigenous identity. Firstly, I think that attitude is kind of a cop out considering this show expects its audience to be pretty smart on most other levels of storytelling – there’s no ‘last week on Top of the Lake’ segment, and we don’t get talked down to at any point in the narrative. Secondly, the Maori population in small town NZ is pretty visible, and I find it really strange that Maori people and culture are not featured in a show that is so much about the NZ landscape, particularly when one of the central story lines is over a land dispute. Thirdly, I think this omission speaks more to attitude of the writers (Campion and Lee) and their own uncomfortableness talking about indigenous issues – Campion’s Maori characters and stories in The Piano were also fairly simplistic, although they at least got to say a few more lines than Turangi does. Bottom line, Maori culture and its place in NZ public life is rich, interesting, visually compelling and powerful, the creators here could have done their research, consulted with experts and incorporated some of this richness into this story, but they didn’t, and I think that’s incredibly sad. It would have taken an already excellent show up to the next level.