Monday, August 29, 2011

Gaylene Preston Retrospective @Te Papa, Labour Weekend

Gaylene Preston making Home by Christmas
Gaylene Preston’s so embedded in our New Zealand communities that we sometimes forget that as well as being one of our most prolific and distinguished producer/directors, and a legendary supporter of other filmmakers, she also has global significance as a feminist filmmaker. This Labour Weekend we get a spring-time opportunity to celebrate Gaylene’s life and work, at her retrospective at Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.

The retrospective will feature a selection of films, including Home by Christmas and War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, which foreground the director’s auteurist preoccupations, including the interrogation of documentary form, the interplay of the personal story and the political film, and the use of film to create oral history. Here’s the programme:

Saturday 22 October

Gaylene Preston has been making feature films and documentaries with a distinctive New Zealand flavour and a strong social message for more than 30 years. Launching our upcoming weekend retrospective, Preston's film, Earthquake!, is a documentary account of the devastating Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931.

11am / 44mins /
Gold coin donation at the door.

This documentary is a view into the crucible that forged Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, which opened in 1998. Fascinating moments are captured as a new kind of National Museum is conceived.

1:00pm / 72mins/ free

Keri Hulme talks about her writing and coping with success. Her nextdoor neighbour claims full credit for the bone people, while Leon Narbey's cinematography makes Okarito look like Paradise.

3:00pm / 27mins / free

Renowned New Zealand painter Rita Angus (1908-1970) lived and worked at a time when to be a full time artist was unusual, especially for women. This is a film for all women artists, and for their families, and when I watched it the other day, I loved watching and hearing other artists of various kinds speak about Rita Angus—especially Grahame Sydney and Jacqueline Fahey. Loren Horsley (Taylor) evokes Rita wonderfully, Alun Bollinger’s cinematography’s its usual lovely self, and I love the story about Betty Curnow’s blouse in this renowned image.

Rita Angus Portrait of Betty Curnow 1942 

4:00pm /70mins / free

Film screenings will be followed by a question and answer session with Gaylene.

Sunday 23 October

Considered a companion piece to Home by Christmas, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us is a documentary and an oral history that presents its audience with consecutive portraits of seven New Zealand women, including the director’s mother, Tui Preston.

11am/ 94 mins / free

A true story of romance, secrets and terrible adventure in which Ed Preston, on his way home from rugby practice in 1940, joins the New Zealand Army to go to World War II. His new wife, Tui, is pregnant and distraught, but he tells her not to worry, he’ll be home by Christmas. A remarkable memoir of resilience, determination and love. Chelsie Preston Crayford, Gaylene’s daughter, plays Tui Preston.

1:30pm 95mins / free

A round table discussion with Gaylene, Dr Mary Wiles, Lecturer (Cinema Studies, University of Canterbury), Dr Bruce Harding (Ngai Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury), and author Dr. Deborah Shepard, with other associates and friends. The discussion is designed to encourage exchange between scholars and film professionals from throughout the New Zealand film community and will offer audiences an exceptional, behind-the-scenes glimpse into Gaylene’s life and work.


4:30 Book signing of Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women (Auckland University Press, 2009) with Dr. Deborah Shepard

Monday 24 October

Join Gaylene for a discussion about the film restoration and refurbishment of her mini-series, Bread and Roses, followed by the premiere of the restored work.


Originally released to mark the 100 years of women's suffrage in New Zealand, Bread and Roses is based on the autobiography of Sonja Davies. This moving epic story of one woman's experience spans twenty years from 1940 and captures the hopes and aspirations of a young nation.

2pm / 200mins / free

Now and then over the last eight years I’ve helped out with Gaylene’s extraordinary and extensive archive, walking through the Town Belt to her place, to prepare some of her treasures for deposit at the New Zealand Film Archive. And looking at the retrospective in the context of this experience, it’s so so Gaylene. The fundraiser: she’s done many of these over the years. The stories about women, though I wish her features Mr Wrong and Perfect Strangers were included—all Gaylene's work is informed by feminism, but these two have a distinctive dialogue with feminist counter-cinema (and probably deserve their very own retrospective because of this). The discussion's very 'Gaylene' too; it includes her and representatives of her communities, alongside academics. It’ll be a very special weekend. Don’t miss out!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Drama Queen Sings, Briefly

Lisa Gornick’s seduced me again-- When I saw this drawing, I thought There’s Me! Thin and Alone and Exposed and Worried about my Voice and my Song! There’s the outcome of This-Harshest-Winter-Ever at Our Place!

And then I laughed. Settle Down, Drama Queen! There are Freesias on the Kitchen Table! Put down your Tiny Violin! & Step Up!

Lisa's drawing’s inspired me to round up this week’s news about New Zealand’s women directors. They're pretty special.

First, Kathy Dudding. At the New Zealand Film Archive there’s a series of evenings commemorating her death a year ago and celebrating her life and work. Wednesday’s, which I missed, was called Bathe in The Light of the Pale Blue Moon. Still to come, this evening and tomorrow, screenings of Asylum Pieces, Kathy's final film, which I found very moving.

Still from Kathy Dudding's Asylum Pieces

Then, Gaylene Preston. Mary Wiles at Canterbury University, who published a lovely interview with Gaylene a while back, has organised a retrospective, originally for the Christchurch Art Gallery, closed because of the quakes. The retrospective will be at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand at Labour Weekend, 22-23 October. Some great films, a round table on the Sunday with Gaylene, Mary, Bruce Harding of the Ngai Tahu Research Centre at Canterbury, and Deborah Shepard—who’s written extensively on Gaylene, most recently in Her Life's Work (that's Gaylene at top left in the image below).

On and off over the years I’ve helped out with Gaylene’s archives and I’ve just finished a wee filmography and two paragraphs for the catalogue, connecting Gaylene to her place in the world among feminist filmmakers, thanks partly to Corinn Columpar and Sophie Mayer’s There She Goes Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond and its discussion of feminist auteures as 'nodes' or 'agents' who participate "in a poetics of exchange through cinematic labour of all kinds".

And then there’s director Rosemary Riddell and The Insatiable Moon, which has just won a top prize at Moondance, the Atlantis Award for feature films made outside the United States. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it got US distribution?

And wait, there’s more, courtesy of the New Zealand Writers Guild!

Writer/director Roseanne Liang’s film My Wedding and Other Secrets won the Audience Choice Award at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York last weekend and had this review. It was also shown to a sold out audience at the Feel Good Film Festival in LA. 
And Variety reviewed My Wedding at its international premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival!

Simone Horrocks (writer/director After the Waterfall) is in to China, where she has been invited to direct a feature length drama Unforgettable Love with a Chinese crew, and in the Chinese language. She believes this may be a first for New Zealand, and a unique opportunity for a non-Chinese director.

And, this weekend, writer/director Fiona Samuel's Bliss, on TVOne Sunday at 8.30pm, a telefeature about Katherine Mansfield. Fiona’s most recent television drama was Piece of My Heart, a telefeature that won Sunday Theatre’s highest ratings of the year when it screened in 2009. The Listener describes Bliss as having “an excellent script by writer and director Fiona Samuel, who allows her Mansfield to be witty, passionate and outspoken.”
It’s 1908, and Katie Beauchamp is bored out of her mind in New Zealand. She’s desperate to leave home and become a writer. Against her parents’ wishes she sails for London at the age of 19, with a small allowance and big dreams. The next year of her life will change everything. In one year, Katie Beauchamp becomes Katherine Mansfield, and out of first love, disgrace and heartbreak, she forges the stories that will begin her career as a writer.
Kate Elliott as Katherine Mansfield in Bliss

And, Zoe McIntosh has won another award for her short film, Day Trip. This time, it's for Best Short Subject, at the Montreal First People’s Festival 2011.

And, finally, a wee mystery. Who are Tamsyn Harker and Esther Venning? Am I the only person asking this question? They're New Zealanders–and Tamsyn is a WIFT member–who are regularly doing well in script competitions in the United States, most recently as semi-finals in Final Draft's Big Break, after being finalists in Moondance's feature script section with the same script, The Dark Light, last year. AND in the Top Ten with Olympian, another drama, in the AAA Screenwriting competition 2010-11. Anyone out there alert to Peter Jackson's advice to find, train and support creative individuals, tracking down Tamsyn and Esther to ask what, if anything, they need?

Interviews on Wellywoodwoman
Rosemary Riddell
Roseanne Liang and Angeline Loo (co-writer)
Simone Horrocks

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Oriental Bay-Winter 2011-Night
South Pacific Pictures (SPP) produces television drama series (The Almighty Johnsons, Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls, Nothing Trivial, Being Eve, Mercy Peak, Shortland Street) telefeatures (Stolen, Spies & Lies) and feature films (including Whale Rider, Sione’s Wedding, My Wedding and Other Secrets). And I loved it when I saw that half those selected for SPP's Emerging Writers Lab were women. Warm congratulations to them: Lucy Zee, Rosetta Allan, Hannah Banks, Shoshana McCallum, Miriam Smith. Who knows what projects these writers will be involved in, and as media converge, does it matter as much as it used to? But chances are, because SPP makes movies as well as television, some of the women in the lab will go on to write features. And that excites me.

I'm even more excited to know that about half of the Emerging Writers Lab applicants were women: (86 out of 175). This is a record to celebrate. Somehow, SPP’s established a culture where women writers are welcome, and flourish. And somehow, women screen writers know that, and want to participate, in a way that doesn’t happen in the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) programmes, or in the V48 Hours.

For almost seven years to date I’ve researched women’s participation in scriptwriting for feature films and on the various pathways to feature films in New Zealand. Although I haven't explored writing television drama as a pathway to feature films, because from the outset I thought—like Jane Wrightson the CEO of New Zealand On Air (NZOA, the state funder of television)—that “…feature film people are often not at all interested in making television—and the reverse is also true”, I've followed the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) short film and feature film development and production programmes, the now defunct Screen Innovation Production Fund funded jointly by the NZFC and Creative New Zealand and the annual V48 Hours. With intermittent exceptions, in all these initiatives, women writers have participated less than men. In particular, the NZFC doesn’t attract us or invest in us in the same way it attracts and invests in men. In the years I've recorded, I believe that the NZFC's invested equally in women writers only once (though it's come close in one short film round): in its first Escalator Te Whakapiki low-budget feature film programme, where women wrote and directed two of the four greenlit projects—now in post-production. And even that time, there were few women writers and directors among the applicants.

When I emailed SPP to explore why half their lab members were women, I’d completely forgotten what I wrote, a year ago, about John Barnett, SPP’s CEO:
He's also the only [New Zealand producer] to embrace New Zealand's diversity in his feature filmmaking, cannily, over a long period, and to benefit from this. He knows about audiences. And I'm always grateful to him for his support of the script programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters [that other New Zealand writer bastion of gender equity] because I benefited from that.
I’d also noted, in my thesis about women and feature film development in New Zealand, that a number of women who wrote and directed feature films–or who would write and direct them–were employed at SPP to produce, write and direct television. For example, credits for first season (2001) of the award-winning and Emmy-nominated SPP series Being Eve included Vanessa Alexander (who wrote and directed the feature Magik and Rose) as producer, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Vintner’s Luck) and Briar Grace-Smith (The Strength of Water) as writers and Armagan Ballantyne (The Strength of Water) as a director.

And having forgotten all this, in my email I asked (*blush*) whether SPP had taken on board that it was good business sense to produce stories written by women, and with women as central, complex and active characters, for television and for film.

Here’s part of the response to my email, from Jo Johnson, SPP’s development executive. In the nicest possible way she told me off for my dim-witted question, because, as she reminded me:
For more than ten years, at least half of South Pacific Pictures’ television series and feature film output has been created and written by women and have women as central characters… [She lists the titles.] … This is not ‘good business sense’, but because the women involved are the best creative talent available and the stories depict a mix of characters from the real world.

We have never found gender to be an issue with respect to employing creative personnel, be they writers, directors, production designers, editors, composers etc.

We did not choose the successful applicants for our Emerging Writers Lab based on their gender or ethnicity; they were chosen on their writing ability and previous industry experience – it is by chance that we have ended up with an even balance of women and men.
Why does SPP employ women who are the ‘best creative talent available’ as script writers, in contrast to other producers, here and overseas? Why does it create so many interesting women characters? (I’ve written before about the reality that there is no woman character in New Zealand film who is as unforgettable as Cheryl West in SPP’s Outrageous Fortune.) How has it created a culture that takes women seriously as creators, as central characters, and as audiences?

One reason, as I wrote a year ago, has to be John Barnett himself. A Sunday Star Times clipping from 2009 highlights his attention to women’s roles, and adds more evidence to support Jo’s staunch response about the centrality of ‘by and about women’ to SPP’s work. In the article John Barnett’s comments refer to three SPP features. In two of these comments, about Whale Rider and Sione’s Wedding he refers to the role of women in those movies.
Whale Rider is about the role of women, about the role of power—is it inherited or shared. People in Korea, people in South Africa said ‘That’s about us’.
Of Sione’s Wedding:
We’ve done a deal with a very big American producer who wants to shoot the same story in Irish Catholic Boston. Because he says it’s about immigrants, it’s about mothers who are strong, it’s about priests who give the boys a hard time, it’s about boys who misbehave.
Another significant reason for SPP's culture, although Jo Johnston denies it in her initial email, is likely to be that it makes ‘good business sense’ I think; SPP’s attention to gender enhances SPP’s business, where losing money is apparently a rare thing. (The third feature film mentioned in the Sunday Star Times article, We’re Here To Help–about one man’s fight with the Inland Revenue Department–is discussed because it lost money.)

Has it made a difference that SPP has been a central provider of television drama funded by NZOA for a long time? Have NZOA’s responsibilities influenced or reinforced the SPP culture?

Legislation requires NZOA to consider the interests of women, “to reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture by promoting programmes about New Zealand and New Zealand interests and by promoting Maori language and culture” and “to ensure that a range of broadcasts is provided that reflects the interests of women, youth, children, persons with disabilities and minorities (including ethnic minorities) and also the diverse ethical and spiritual beliefs of New Zealanders”. And it’s noticeable that between 2007 and 2011 women wrote a high proportion of the telefeatures that NZOA funded: 50%. Except for Fiona Samuel’s work, they appear to foreground stories about men; and women direct only 30%. But that 50% of women writers is much higher than the 26% of writers in the theatrical features NZOA co-funded with the NZFC within the same timeframe.

And there's apparently no change forthcoming at the NZFC. In its latest newsletter, it recorded development funding for 13 feature projects. A man and a woman co-wrote Photos of Loving Summer (Katie Wolfe and Hone Kouka). And of the other twelve projects, women wrote only two: Vanessa Alexander’s Showband, which she will direct, and Fiona Samuel’s The Perfect Woman, which I wish she’d direct, but it has a male director. That’s 16% of the projects and 15% of the investment and follows a funding round where the NZFC didn’t invest in development of a single woman-written project. As I've written many times, this matters, because New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985; as a state, New Zealand—and its agencies, like the NZFC—must encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men (article 7). And screen-based storytelling is certainly part of public life.

I’d love to know why so many women writers applied for the SPP Lab, and whether their reasons were any different from those of the men who applied. At it’s simplest, here was a career opportunity. For the women, a much more accessible career opportunity than in feature films funded by the NZFC. But were they attracted to writing for television only, or perhaps webseries? Rachel Lang, one of SPP’s two lead writers describes this kind of writing as:
...all to do with characters, and the way they take on a life of their own in a television series, tell you where they want to go, end up writing you rather than the other way around.
Kate McDermott, who also writes for SPP and has written a telefeature, supports Rachel’s view and compares television writing with writing feature films and short films:
Writing characters for TV series is what I know best, and I agree with Rachel about the enjoyment of spending more time with the characters. Obviously that is going to be satisfying as you are developing them for 13 hours, and then (hopefully) another 13, and (again hopefully) another and another, whereas you only get around 90 minutes with a feature film character. Having said that, we usually meet a feature film character at the most important, significant time of his/her life, so it's a very different write. And a short film is another challenge altogether as you've only got a matter of minutes to get the audience to engage with or invest in your character.
Whatever the answers to my questions, because I want New Zealand to be the first place in the world where women write and direct half of all feature films, this seems to be a good place to stop writing in this blog. Or to pause. To celebrate SPP's work, which I think is globally unique. To place it alongside NZOA's achievements, and the work of the women whose telefeatures the NZOA funds. To acknowledge Gaylene Preston, who's moved between television and film, and between documentary and narrative features in a way that no other New Zealander has. To remember that Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens write Peter Jackson's films. To celebrate the mixed gender teams that have made this a great year for New Zealand independent film-makers. To hope that Women in Film & Television will take up advocacy for women in the industry, as 72% of its membership wants it to do. To hope that the NZFC and V48 Hours will learn from SPP and NZOA. That we'll all reflect on the artistic contributions of all-girl schools like St Cuthbert's, and consider whether all-women teams might also enhance New Zealand's film-making reputation. To hope that next year more than 12 1/2% of the films that the New Zealand International Film Festival selects will be written and directed by women, and more than 9% of the films selected by OutTakes. To reflect on whether feature films, made for that beautiful big screen, matter as much as they did. To finish some projects and take some risks. I may be back.

(And I'll keep updating the sidebar and the Development project FAQs. HerFilm's Kyna Morgan and I plan to work more closely together for a bit and I'm going to micro-post at the HerFilm FB page, as well as the Development FB. Her Film is now on Google+, too (just). If you have a film coming out and would like a feature here at Wellywoodwoman, let me know! Many thanks to Jane Harris for giving me permission to include the photograph below.)

Oriental Bay-Winter 2011-Night
photographer: Jane Harris