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Gaylene Preston
North & South, New Zealand  01 Sep 2017
General News - page 97 - 1347 words - ID 827654926 - Photo: Yes - Type: News Item - Size: 1565.00cm2


Filmmaker Gaylene Preston talks to Elisabeth Easther about Helen Clark, the United Nations' corridors of power - and just being stuck in the corridor.

ver the course of her impressive O career, Gaylene Preston, 70, has made short films, feature films, commercials and television - moving effortlessly between drama and documentaries.

Her works have screened locally and around the world, and, as a result, her metaphorical mantelpiece groans beneath the weight of awards. In 2001, she was the first filmmaker to win an Arts Foundation Laureate Award; in 2002 she was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit; last year the Screen Production and Development Association honoured her as an Industry Champion for her "significant lifetime commitment to film and television".

Many of her films are concerned on some level with justice in society; they also tend to have a strong female focus, from the Sonja Davies biopic Bread & Roses to the

touching War Stories our Mothers Never Told Us.

Preston's latest film, My Year with Helen (in cinemas August 31), is a revealing account of Helen Clark's work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and also a riveting behind-thescenes look at the selection process for the UN's secretary-general. Featuring global themes, this film is also an intimate look at one of the most influential New Zealanders of all time.

NORTH & SOUTH: Looking at your films, it's clear you possess a strong social conscience. How did that evolve?

GAYLENE PRESTON: My parents both left school at 13. My mother grew up [in Greymouth], the eldest of five, in a house with a boat beneath it, so when the swamp rose and the water came up they could get out. Those things are just a generation from me, yet I'm one of thousands of privileged people who grew up fully resourced.

Free healthcare saved my life a couple of times before I was seven. I was educated for free to tertiary level. I'm part of a lucky generation.

N&S: What were your ambitions when you were younger?

GP: In those days, if you were a girl, it was assumed you'd get married and have children. So in some ways, tertiary education was considered wasted on girls. But when I was about 11, I announced I wanted to be a doctor, and my mother's response was to take me to our family GP. She said to him, "She wants to be a doctor" and I remember him looking at Mum, as if to ask, "Is this a problem?" She said, "We can't afford it, and she'll only get married." Dr Russell knew me to be an arty girl, and he asked: "Gay, how's your maths?" I said, "Terrible." And he said, "You need maths to be a doctor." I thought, okay, my other options were nurse or teacher, so I decided to be an art teacher.

N&S: How did your fabulous free education prepare you for that?

GP: When I was 10, we moved from Greymouth to Hawke's Bay, where I was lucky to go to Colenso College. My parents didn't really want me to do that fifth year at high school, so our front room filled with teachers, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together, to negotiate how I could stay on. My teachers were amazing.

N&S: How did that set you on a path to filmmaking?

GP: Thanks to my wonderful art teacher, I went to the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, where I had a running argument about modernism, narrative and storytelling with the powers that be. When I left art school, I didn't actually graduate. Soon after, I went to Cambridge and found a job in the library at Fulbourn Hospital, a 900-bed mental health institution.

As the assistant librarian, the role of directing the Christmas pantomime - featuring patients and staff - fell upon my slender shoulders and it was there, over three years, that I started to develop my interest in drama therapy, which included making an 8mm film. From there, I was hooked.

N&S: When did you start actually calling yourself a filmmaker?

GP: Returning to New Zealand in the 1970s, I was offered a job at Pacific Films, but it wasn't till I got the sack that I really became a filmmaker. I made an independent doco with [cinematographer] Waka Attewell about a young man with cerebral palsy climbing Mt Ruapehu with Graeme Dingle.

After it did well here and overseas, I thought, great, I must be a filmmaker.

N&S: What was the seed for My Year with Helen?

GP: I'd just made Hope and Wire about the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and I was feeling a bit depressed about the state of the world. I didn't think Helen Clark would have renewed her contract with the UNDP if she didn't feel she was making a difference, so I got in touch and asked if I could follow her with cameras.

N&S: What's the UN like? It's such a big character in the film.

GP: I was a UN virgin.

If I'd done any research, I'd have known it wasn't going to be easy. Have you ever been to the UN as a journalist? You can't just arrive and shoot and, once you're in there, you can't go anywhere without a minder. The media have got just two little corridors where they're allowed to be - print in one spot, video in another. As a doco, we wanted to look over at the other media, but there was no way. Even when they got to know us, we still couldn't move out of our area - not even three paces to the left.

N&S: Was making the film ever so difficult you thought you couldn't complete it?

GP: There were a couple of times, and it wasn't because I couldn't get access to Helen. She gave me complete creative control, which was very generous. The UNDP was fine with us filming there, but once we were across the road for the secretary-general debates, it became really hard.

No quarter is given in that system. So we'd shoot for two or three weeks and sometimes it'd be slim pickings but there's a point of no return and once that point is reached you just carry on. We did get enough to tell this story, just by going back and back and getting lucky.

N&S: You didn't know the secretary-general bid was going to happen when you began. And to think there's never been a woman in that top role.

GP: We talk about the old boys' network, and that notion really colours My Year with Helen. You look at the UN, nine male secretaries-general, eight who preceded [Antnio] Guterres. None have been terrific. But as soon as there's a woman candidate, the bar is raised and people expect her to be a combination of St Teresa and William the Conqueror.

N&S: To see the layers of Helen Clark's life - the high-powered leader of the UNDP, the giddy social media enthusiast, not to mention the devoted daughter. GP: Helen is extraordinary, and you kind of take it for granted because she's our Auntie Helen, but she was the top-ranking woman at the UN and the second top-ranking official. I'll be very interested to see what she does next.

N&S: And what about you?

What's next for Gaylene Preston, filmmaker?

GP: My daughter Chelsie says I'm terrible to live with if I don't have a film.

And I have come out of this one feeling really energised. The outrage is still burning, which means there's definitely another film in there.+

Caption Text:
Gaylene Preston behind the camera.
Helen Clark speaks during a questions session with candidates vying for the position of United Nations secretary-general, in New York in April 2016.
Top: Gaylene Preston at the world premiere of her film My Yea With Helen. Above: A woman walks along a United Nations hallway lined with portraits of past secretaries-general.
Helen Clark arrives for the world premiere of My Year With Helen at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

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