Q&A: Gaylene Preston on My Year with Helen, resilience, and why outrage can be invigorating

Posted Thursday 17 Aug 2017

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Determined, outspoken, resilient, used to getting things done� in many ways, Gaylene Preston and Helen Clark are cut from the same cloth.

WIFT member Gaylene directed, co-produced and co-photographed My Year with Helen, which travels alongside former prime minister Helen Clark as she works on global development issues as head of the UNDP while also campaigning for the role of UN Secretary-General - and staying in daily contact with her 94-year-old father back in New Zealand.

My Year with Helen opens in NZ cinemas from August 31. This follows sold-out screenings at the NZ International Film Festival, and selections for Sydney Film Festival, MIFF, and Brisbane Film Festival. Watch the trailer and find cinemas where the film is playing.

Gaylene is one of New Zealand's most experienced filmmakers, with a list of credits spanning four decades and feature films, documentaries and TV drama series. She has a particular passion for telling New Zealand stories, and mentoring other women filmmakers (as well as New Zealand's wider filmmaking community).

In 2001 she was honoured by the New Zealand Arts Foundation, becoming New Zealand's first Filmmaker Laureate. In 2002 she was appointed an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for her services to filmmaking. Gaylene has received a WIFT NZ Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2016 New Zealand Women of Influence Award for Arts and Culture, and many others. As well as making films, she has raised a daughter and is now helping to raise her young granddaughter.

WIFT sat down with Gaylene to talk about what she learned from making the film, feminism and how outrage can be invigorating.

Tell us about the experience of filming within the UN, both the logistics and your personal feeling of being in such an iconic place.
You know, it feels vaguely familiar when you're there. I didn't know anything about the UN, I cheerfully admit to being a UN virgin. And I'm not a journalist, so I thought I won't do a whole lot of research, I will just go there and take it as it comes. And guess what. You can't take it as it comes. Not possible.

You've got a thing called MALU (media accreditation liaison unit), and you can't go anywhere in the UN with anyone without having full accreditation. To get accreditation, if anyone will work with us for a day, they would have to go in and get accredited the day before. So it's actually quite expensive because you have to pay them for their time - you know, a sound woman coming in from Brooklyn to get herself accredited so she can be all set to go in the morning. And the gear still needs to get in there. You've just got to add hours to your schedule. So it's kind of like trying to move fast in molasses.

The one thing we did do right was we kept coming back. I always had my hat on and I had a leather jacket with a bit of bling, and sometimes I wore leopard-print trousers and silver shoes, so that made me pretty distinctive. And that meant we'd go away for six weeks, but when we came back they remembered me and that's helpful.


At one point in the film, Helen said that women have to believe in themselves and it's up to any woman of influence to encourage others to believe in themselves. Have you always had that confidence or have you learned it over time?
I think you can decide whether you're going to be confident or not. I think resilience is more important, actually. Being able to take the knocks is really the important thing.

Some days you wake up and you feel confident, and sometimes you wake up and you don't feel confident, but what you decide to do about that is up to you. You know you can always pretend: confidence you can pretend, resilience you can't pretend. You actually have to work through the disappointment and find a way to overcome it and get on.

Also, I am a 1970s feminist - so when I read Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch when I was 23, I found an analysis beyond just me personally and how I was feeling from day to day, that helped me understand why the world was as it was. That allows you to work out how to navigate it. And that helps resilience, because I don't take things personally - or I try not to. It's hugely helpful.


Gaylene_preferred headshot

What was the process of building up trust with Helen like?
Well, Helen's a politician, so I think there are people she really, really trusts in a tightly held small group of friends and family. She trusted me as a filmmaker, although she wouldn't wear a radio mic unless we were in a room alone with her, which kind of defeated the purpose. I kept asking, "Please wear a radio mic and then I can get the camera out of your face, because we'll be able to hear" - it kind of decides the style of the movie, really. This was an ongoing conversation. She said, "I hate the bloody things." And she'd say, "Well, there's no-one else I'd trust more." But you see, you've got to listen carefully because that hasn't got 'yes' in that sentence.


Yes, it's a very diplomatic answer. And it was about protecting the people she was having conversations with.
Absolutely right. All through our filming, there was always the option that she might have the top job by the time we were making our film. So she had to look after everybody, and look after the institution in a way. We recently did a Q&A in Sydney, and she's off the hook now. Anybody who wants to check it out can go on the Facebook page and see the whole lot.


There looked to be a lot of filming on the fly in this film - did it feel particularly seat-of-the-pants to you?
Yes. When Helen walks, she strides along, and you've got to run and get ahead of her with your camera rolling and then get the shot of her walking past, then run and get ahead of her. And I'm not getting any younger - but I did wear flat shoes with rubber soles. It was generally me and my little camera who managed to get in the cars and keep up with her. We did ask her one day to see if she could just walk a little bit slower, and she did her absolute best and it did not look like Helen.


It was quite startling how pragmatic and philosophical she was when things didn't go her way.
Well, Helen has been a politician since she was about 23. And in that time she's had to survive elections. Think about that: putting yourself up for election, you'd better be resilient.


There was such a disheartening disparity in the film between the public mood for having a woman in high power, and the determined stolidness of the establishment who cast the final votes. What was your own sense about how the process would pan out?
Well, it's clear in the film that we had no idea what the hell was going on! Basically there's three tribes. It's an ethnographic film. Imagine that this beautiful building is the watering hole and the various tribes or species come through. There's the diplomats and the politicians, and there's the civil society groups who are lobbying and trying to get the attention of the diplomats and politicians and having varied success.

In the middle of all this, there's the press corps, embedded and otherwise, who have all got different sources and they're all trying to find out what's going on. And they get really, really certain about certain things that are completely wrong. We just filmed that because we didn't know what was going on. Everybody thought we knew what was going on because Helen would have told us, and that is so not the case.


Helen clapping

It's an astonishing illustration of the concentration of power at the highest level.
I think it's a metaphor for most institutions where power and money collide. As I said before, I'm a 1970s feminist, I'm a socialist feminist, so I was never particularly interested in the argument about glass ceilings and all the rest because I don't work in institutions anyway, so it never kind of appealed to me. I saw it as some very privileged white women trying to get jobs in the government sector. I never saw it as unjustified but I never felt that was a cause I would embrace. I'm far more interested in how motherhood has never been so devalued, and in resourcing at the complete-deprivation level in terms of women and children.

But when I got to this film, I found that actually the glass ceiling is important at the highest level. So I did learn that from making this film. It's very important for there to be enough women for it to be critical mass, because there's usually one or two. I went through being the only woman on the Film Commission from 1978 to 1985; by the time I left, others had arrived. So I know what it's like to be the only woman in the room. And once you're the token anything, you end up speaking for everybody, and it's not fair and it's not accurate. You need critical mass as well. It's interesting that what you see in the film is that all the women go down.


In the film, people talk about the concept of the "bar rising": the double standards at play when women are suddenly expected to be so much better than men to just get acknowledged at the same level.
Suddenly the conversation becomes about the "best candidate". It's not about the best candidate unless there's a woman making a serious bid. We'll be seeing the "best candidate" thing emerging in this election, no doubt. In this "race", the women were all well qualified, equally qualified with the men. In fact some of them are much better qualified than most of the men; there were men in there who didn't have much UN experience.


In your own career, how often have you come across that double standard, and how have you dealt with that?
Can I have a word about career, the word? The problem with the word career is there's this idea that you do this, and then you get that, and it's a kind of a ladder. One thing leads to another, and you ascend in a career.

I could be misinterpreting the word, but I think it's a misleading word. I've had a life in filmmaking and I've managed to survive as a filmmaker through that time, but it doesn't necessarily mean I've had a career, because that implies a linear process. And also, careerism is something that we used to question in our women's groups as something that was male-defined. I don't like talking about having a career because it doesn't feel like I've had a career anyway. I've just done the next thing that feels like something I want to say.

I make anti-"career" moves all the time, actually. You could say that I'm undermining myself. But I generally am making a film about something that has outraged me.


You've said you approached Helen because you were depressed ["And outraged!" Gaylene adds] about the state of the world - yet after making the film you weren't, even considering the outcome of the campaign for Secretary-General. Why was that?
For the same reason why I don't think people come out of the film depressed. I think they come out of the film outraged. I got back in touch with my outrage, because I think it is ultimately invigorating.

Some people come out of the film, have a bit of a cry, go down the road and have a drink with the girls or with their men, and then they decide, "Oh well. Post-feminism was a myth, then. There's still a lot to be done." Well, a decent sense of outrage will get you everywhere.


We always ask our interviewees about woman in film and TV, and the gender split. So what are your thoughts on the future for women in the industry, especially in producing and directing roles?
It's never been a better moment for women in New Zealand to get cracking. And I have to say, have you seen Waru? You know, we've waited a long time for more feature films written and directed by M?ori women.


And Waru was by eight of them.
Exactly. It's kind of like, sly! So they waited, and then they did this fantastic work. That film is full of outrage and it's full of wonderful humility for humankind. It says something about New Zealand to New Zealanders that needs to be said and it brings us a world that we knew was there, and now it's rendered courageously and brilliantly up on the screen. So if there was ever an argument that we need women behind the cameras, just show Waru to whoever's arguing and then have the conversation.

There's a before and after in terms of our filmmaking, and this year I have to say One Thousand Ropes and Waru are standing as parallel pou in the great whare of our filmmaking in New Zealand.


What is your next "something constructive to be done"?
I'm taking all ideas. So if you've got some, just write them in!


Next Up...

Support needed for young film makers' workshops

Posted Thursday 17 Aug 2017

Maoriland Rangitahi

WIFT member Libby Hakaraia, director of the Maoriland Film Festival, is asking for support from WIFTers to send 14 young Kiwis to lead Through Our Lens, a series of youth film making workshops in the Pacific.

These rangitahi (youth) were chosen for their leadership qualities as well as their passion for film storytelling and an ability to share this passion and skills with their peers.  

M?oriland has already raised the bulk of the funds with the support of UNESCO and the New Zealand Film Commission, but they need to raise $6,300 for flights to and accommodation in Tahiti, Rarotonga, Hawaii and Samoa. Show them some love and donate on their Give A Little page.