Aunty and Star People

Directed by Gerard Smyth (2014)

Aged 50, Jean Watson sold her Wellington house to buy land for a children’s home in southern India. In 2013 filmmaker Gerard Smyth (director of acclaimed quake chronicle When a City Falls) spent two months in India, chronicling Watson and some of the many lives she has changed. Smyth’s documentary also harks back to the 60s, when Watson wrote novel Stand in the Rain, and hunted crocodiles with Barry Crump. The result won solid audiences at the 2014 NZ Film Festival. The Listener gave it four stars; “Unpretentious but unashamedly enjoyable” said The Dominion Post.

Unassuming heroism may be the only kind that makes any sense to Christchurch filmmaker Gerard Smyth (When a City FallsBarefoot Cinema). Eighty-year-old writer Jean Watson could hardly be more self-deprecating in responding to his attention in this film, but by the end of his account of her surprising life you might wonder why there’s not been a film about her already. The book-loving daughter of Northland dairy farmers, she’s best known in New Zealand for Stand in the Rain, a novel published in 1965, and for her decade-long involvement with another literary scion of the land, Barry Crump.

What is less well known is that 30 years ago she sold her Wellington house and used the proceeds to buy the land for a children’s home in Tamil Nadu in southern India. We follow along on one of her frequent visits. She guides us around the rapidly changing world of her ‘Star People’, named for the white stars painted on their faces. The value of her work is there for all to see, not least in the hospitality of successful former beneficiaries, and the shining eyes of the children enjoying shelter and educational opportunities.

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