Arts & Entertainment

Female Director Takes Pride Portraying Powerful Women

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Jessica Chastain stars in the upcoming World War II film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” an adaptation of the bestselling nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman. Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, a Polish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish people’s lives by hiding them in her zoo with the help of her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh).

Director Niki Caro has shown that telling true stories is something that’s important to her. From “Whale Rider” to “McFarland, U.S.A.,” Caro has proven she can tell a coherent and compelling story based on true events.

“I take that responsibility really seriously and I work very hard to serve the material as well as I can,” said Caro. “It takes my ego right out of it. I literally serve the story and try to meet the need of the story and bring it to an audience that I know from experience will respond well to a story if the story is true.”

But there was something special about the Zabinski’s story that drew Caro to the project.

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in the World War II drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Courtesy of Anna Marie Fox, Focus Features

“Antonina Zabinski’s story had fallen through the seams of history and I was amazed when I read the script to learn that it was a true story,” said Caro. “[The film was] very exotic, very domestic and very, very female in its focus. I was also really inspired by Antonina’s courage and her care and her compassion, because she sheltered Jews at great risk to herself and her family, but for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.”

Zabrinski not only had to survive one of the most horrific periods in history, but also had to do so as a woman in a male-dominated world. Ultimately her actions, personality and feminine strength attracted Caro to Zabrinski’s story.

“I think a lot of people still confuse female strength in cinema with women that are really kind of badass and outwardly strong — kind of like guys in girls’ bodies,” said Caro. “Which is, in a lot of cases, a fantasy of what a strong woman is… I’m interested, particularly in this project, with exploring characters that are terribly strong, but soft at the same time.”

Caro said she wanted her voice heard in shaping the future portrayals of women onscreen. To her, strong female characters should not simply act like men, but should maintain and show pride in their femininity.

“[Antonina] always remained a soft, kind and compassionate soul,” said Caro. “That is the essence of strength for me. I’m very proud to be supporting Jessica, and Antonina herself, and bringing the image of female strength to the world right now.”

Director Niki Caro works with the film’s lead actress while on set. Courtesy of Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features

The focus on feminine strength is a prominent idea through the film and Caro’s career as a whole. Hollywood has been notoriously stagnant when it comes to adding diversity behind the camera. Caro is one of few female directors to sign onto a large, studio-blockbuster film in their careers. In 2018, she will helm Disney’s upcoming live-adaptation of “Mulan,” but her creative process will not change.

“Although the canvas is a lot bigger, my approach doesn’t change at all,” Caro said. “I really value the writing very much. I tend to work with writers for a long time before the script goes into production … so I imagine I will do it exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale.”

Regardless of her budget, story is king to Caro. It’s clear how much respect she holds for real-life heroes like Antonina Zabrinski, and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” proves her passion once again. The film shows the Holocaust from a perspective rarely seen on the big screen and offers an angle on the event that will be appealing to many audiences. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens March 31 in theaters across Chicago.