In New Zealand, writer Jean Watson is an anonymous elderly woman living in a modest Wellington flat. In southern India she is revered as the famous ‘Jean Aunty’. Gerard Smyth’s documentary explores her fascinating double life.
Unassuming heroism may be the only kind that makes any sense to Christchurch filmmaker Gerard Smyth (When a City Falls, Barefoot 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.