In an era of instant celebrity, constant gratification, ultra-convenience and five second superstars, it is sometimes easy to overlook the sagacity of those who have true staying power.
New Zealand filmmaker and activist Gaylene Preston is one of these standouts with amazing longevity. An admired director, she’s championed women and her homeland for the better part of 40 years, and her latest film MY YEAR WITH HELEN, which we caught at Bvlgari Hotel’s Breakthrough Women in Film screening, focuses on Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. The documentary follows Helen’s attempt to become the first ever female Secretary General of the UN. Hailing from a small country and facing an uphill battle based on her outrageous cheek of being a woman, the resulting cinematic piece is a nuanced, angry and inspiring look at the structures disabling women in the pursuit of power. Arriving on screen at a time when the debate around gender and toxic masculinity is at an all-time high, the themes result in a damning and necessary portrait of the sexism present in our most powerful hierarchies.
Hailing from New Zealand, in a place she describes as akin to a “Welsh coal town”, filmmaker Gaylene comes from a working-class background. Film was not apparent in her early life, but she always had a creative outlet. From the age of three she was singing in Sunday School concerts, quickly progressing to piano recitals and small-town plays. The movie world still alluded her in early adulthood, where she studied painting and started a career as a therapistat Fulbourn Hospital just outside of Cambridge, UK. This unconventional trajectory nonetheless inspired her to consider therapy as the focal point for her first film, a drama therapy project with institutionalised patients shot on 8mm. Gaylene, still impassioned by the subject notes, “I love the power of taking something familiar and showing it to be extraordinary”. This theme is still present in her work today.
Over the years Gaylene has been quoted as a great promoter of New Zealand and its arts. When questioned whether New Zealand was perhaps overlooked by foreign filmmakers, Gaylene disagreed heartily, dryly answering, “NZ is not overlooked by foreign filmmakers. We have a huge service industry serving seriously well-known directors – Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron et al”. Big names aside, she’s positive about the future, feeling that films are finally starting to serve the local market. She herself is developing “an anti-Shakespearian gender bent romp through Hamlet called OPHELIA THINKS HARDER” and has “long wanted to make a film about ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI” the most accomplished female painter of Italian baroque. “If there’s anyone out there who wants to do that, contact me!”, Gaylene laughs wryly. We suggest you do.
Despite Gaylene’s experience, a film examining the inner workings of a global institution such as the UN was no easy feat. It took “Six months to finance, one year to shoot and a four month edit that overlapped the shoot”, with entrance to the UN posing significant challenges. With so many checks, processes and passes required, the UN was no easy collaborator. Thankfully, the comradery between Galyene as director and Helen as subject eases the narrative. Gaylene is enthusiastic in praising Helen’s generosity in allowing cameras into her day-to-day struggles throughout the whole ordeal, even when it became clear that she would not succeed in her goal of becoming UN Secretary General.
Gaylene, who just travelled with Helen to Colombia, is effusive in her praise. She tells us, “Highly informed global leaders gather around to hear her analysis of current situations. She plots the changes and has a remarkable memory for detail coupled with a visionary grasp of possible solutions to immediate problems. This is an unusual mix in any human individual. Add that to the fact that she has great compassion for the underdog and total focus on her work ethic, and you have highly experienced valuable advice available. She is also from a non-aligned country. She is unique”. I’m not sure even the greatest PR company could create a more ardent summary of Helen’s talents. Or a more accurate one.
The equality barriers faced by women frame the film, and so it seems obvious to ask Gaylene what she thinks still needs to be done for feminism. “Equality for the world’s women? We have a long way to go but we need to fight our own battles and not pull the ladder up once we have achieved our own equality. New Zealand has a gender record that stacks up well in comparison to most other countries – first country in the world to achieve votes for women in 1893, three female Prime Ministers, over 39% female Members of Parliament at the moment – but we have a long way to go and a responsibility caused by our privilege to keep fighting on. I don’t see why women’s work should be so much more difficult to achieve and to see than those of men”. This point hammers home the theme of the film and highlights why it is such a necessary piece of work.
Gaylene has one more bit of advice. “It’s the system, it’s not you. Feel proud. Don’t take knock backs personally and keep going. Find a gang of supporters”. She ties off her inspirational speech with, “Get your partner to take responsibility for the housework!”. A good lesson for many of us.
MY YEAR WITH HELEN shows a more than qualified woman’s resilience in the face of hypocrisy and systemic discrimination by an institution that promotes the opposite around the world. The current incumbent’s contract is up for a renewal in two years’ time. Do not wait. Get mobilised now.