Liberating Learning

Judith Manchester and Anne O'Rourke interview Gaylene Preston
Suffrage Centennial Trust, 1993

'Being a post-war baby boomer, like most New Zealanders of that vintage, I grew up in a home with few books, and a very great emphasis on education and learning.

I consider myself to have had a very rounded education, which certainly continued well after I left school. It continues to this day. When I was invited to contribute my thoughts on my own learning I found the form of the interview – digression and stories – reflected very well the way I learn things.'

You have written: 'the best way for me to learn is from doing'. Would you like to talk this?

I grew up in a very participatory community. Because I was a girl I don't think my family expected me to achieve much. I liked to join in, so, from a very early age, that's what I did. I can remember a feeling of knowing things. I think that comes from a very clear intuition which I was fortunate enough to be born with. And I don't think I've changed much either. What I know about my filmmaking, I learned by doing it. My filmmaking grew out of a very practical response to a participatory experience.

I find it very difficult to cubbyhole things. There's a lot of literature that devotes itself to its subjects. To labelling things in ever-greater minute detail. I've never been able to subscribe to that. I've sometimes even learned the language of psychiatry. In the end, you haven't got a syndrome, you've got a person. And while it is quite interesting to pull things apart, hold them up to the light and intellectually explore them, it is even more necessary to put them back. I have always felt more comfortable with a holistic approach.

I suppose I was very fortunate to grow up in New Zealand in the fifties, in a small, active community. I grew up on radio. I'm a radio kid. When I was four I was performing on radio. I was stood on a table and put next to a microphone and told to recite. At school we would write book reviews, and the best of them we would read on the radio on the daily children's sessions. In those days community radio really was community radio. Little old Greymouth with it's 9,000 people, had it's own radio station. It was fortunate for me. I don't know how well I would go now because everything is so much more mass-produced, and everything is a lot less local. I think it is possibly more difficult for kids to participate in the broader community, particularly in the broader arts community.

From the time I was three, I was invited to every dog fight to recite. All through my primary schooling I would go home after school, put on my pretty dress, (at least once a fortnight this would happen), and with my sister go out and entertain the deaf, or the Salvation Army, or the old people at the local Old Peoples home. I always had a double life where I was learning the piano, learning singing and elocution and as I got older becoming part of the local repertory and local operatic societies. The two worlds didn't fuse much, and the learning was very practical.

School in those days was a pretty big institution for a small person. I can remember being lined up and sat in front of very mysterious cards. There were three dots on one of the cards, and there were two dots on the other; there were green and there were some yellow dots. I think in retrospect, the idea was that all the cards and all the dots added up to five. But I sat and stared at these cards for what seemed like ages, and all that I could work out was that green and yellow went together. Children naturally think laterally. I knew at the time that my conclusions were disapproved of as 'wrong'. Maybe the teaching lessons are more enlightened these days, but I went through school with a sort of question mark over my head. It was all a bit mysterious.

Later, I spent quite a lot of time in hospital in my sixth and seventh year because I had a couple of eye operations and then I had peritonitis. At this time I learned a lot from lying and listening to the radio. I think that radio is probably the greater educator of the age, actually. It can certainly stimulate your imagination like no other medium.

Institutions of learning can have their own effects on people that are not necessarily conducive to achieving the desired end result. For example: one day when I was in standard one, my teacher came to me, handed me my exercise book and said: 'take this to the headmaster'. Well I was absolutely mortified. I crossed the empty playground very slowly and went into the Big School. The floor of the Big School started above our heads, so you had to walk up big steps and stairs to stand on the floor of the Big School. Then one was confronted by the Big corridor lined with rows of gumboots. With great trepidation I walked down it very slowly, and knocked very tentatively on the headmaster's door. The headmaster was a very aw-inspiring person who wandered around with his nose in the air, and we were all very scared of him. He took me into his office. He sat behind his desk and read my exercise book while I sat, quivering in front of his desk on a chair far too big for me. Then he said: 'that's very good', and gave it back to me. Well, I felt terribly cheated.

We were schooled pretty strictly, I think in Greymouth Main School where I went for my formal education. Repetition seemed to be the basic teaching method. I guess I never learned to spell. I still can't spell. I had very little interest in detail, and an enormous capacity to be bored. Most of my school reports would say: ' Gaylene talks too much and needs to concentrate more' And that is probably still a criticism that could be levelled at me in adult life. I certainly find that some of the more tedious aspects of filmmaking are a real challenge to me, in terms of attending to the detail and not getting too bored. Because filmmaking is actually a very boring, tedious, detailed process.

When I went to Hawkes Bay, I joined a class that had had the same teacher for three years. I had acquired a pair of glasses on my way through Christchurch (having never worn glasses before) and arrived in Hawkes Bay, rather white and skinny, and all the kids at the school who were barefoot and brown, said I was brainy. So suddenly I became brainy. In a very short trip from Greymouth to Napier I became brainy! Three or four weeks after I arrived in my new school, the teacher to whom all the class were devoted, died! Between September and December of that year we had seven teachers, and I was the only child in the class that was in any way emotionally secure, because I wasn't grieving. I hardly knew the man. So I became Head Prefect. Brainy and Head Prefect! all in a couple of months, after a move from one island to the other. It bred in me a healthy disregard for formal status.

When I left art school and went to England, I learned to draw cartoons, to take photographs, and to make films. And I learned all those things in response to very specific requests that were made of me by my community. For example: during my involvement with the early women's movement in 1969 – 70 in Cambridge in the UK, the group was putting together a magazine. They said: 'you have to do the cartoons and you have to do the cover' and I had to be head prefect because there was nobody else, and I had to make films because there was nobody else. I was working as an assistant librarian in a large psychiatric hospital, and inherited producing the hospital play. This gradually grew into a film. I already had an overwhelming interest in the creative therapies. There is a big emphasis in psychiatry on working through things, this is done by talking about problems. That means that there are huge psychiatric hospitals that can't participate in therapy because, for various reasons, they're not talking. Some can't talk. Some won't talk. Using the creative therapies is also very good at levelling the group. The people who are very good at talking are usually university-trained professionals. If you really want to get things onto a human level, the best thing to do is to find ways of leaving words out of it.

I've always found teaching art in a school setting very difficult, because to me, art is not a subject, its and object. It's a way of communicating and it's boundless. You can teach geography using art. You can draw what happened to you yesterday. Anybody can, just as well as talking about it. You can find out just as much about geography by using drama as you can by reading books. And I think that unfortunately, arts have been minimized very badly in the twentieth century by being regulated to a subject in our schools.

When I was at school I used a lot of negotiating skills to turn whatever I was doing into and art subject. And I was fortunate in having progressive teachers who allowed me to do that. So, for example, we had a holiday project where we had to study flora and fauna in a square yard of our backyard and describe it in detail for our 7th form biology. There was an established way of doing this that was mathematical and chemical which I couldn't understand at all. So I drew everything. I had a progressive biology teacher who appreciated my effort even though it was 'wrong'. I was scored 'A' along with the top chemistry person. I could usually wriggle out of the boring bits of any subject by promising to draw maps for the geography teacher, graphs for the biology teacher, and charts for the history teacher. I would disappear into the art room, which was my haven at school.

I discovered that there was a round place. It was the art room. And I discovered there was another place outside of school, that wasn't home either, which was round. It was called entertaining. Both these activities were a way of skiving out of things I didn't like doing like housework, maths and the formal end of learning. In fact, just now I'm thinking that it would be very good to settle down for a year and read the classics, because I haven't read Withering Heights, I haven't studied Jane Austin. I have by no means read much.

Shakespearian plays performed. But I'm a bit illiterate in a funny sort of way. My approach to learning is practical and not that unusual. I think a lot of women have the same approach to learning. The mother of invention is necessity. She's also the mother of learning in my case.

You have a daughter who is now six, do you encourage her to learn in this way?

I don't think I could stop her. I think most kids learn this way, they had a pretty good go at stopping me. When you live with a small child it reminds you how you felt when you were that age, so I am remembering things that I'd forgotten. She knows who she is, but I think that most kids do and they get it bashed out of them. My parents always encouraged us in the best way they knew how. They paid for music lessons; they paid for elocution lessons; they paid for an enormous amount of formal learning. They were working class folk and what I'm going to say, I'm reluctant to say for publication, because I know my mother will be hurt by it, but in fact, those were expensive piano lessons: by the time I was eleven I was performing monkey on the piano. I could play superbly for my age but I don't play the piano much now at all, because I never actually learned how to play. I learned to read music from and early age, which means that I can't play the piano without music. It never jelled. I never had the kind of teaching that helped me understand how it jelled. A lot of the time, if I was playing something out of my head somebody would stride up the hall – the piano was in the front room – and say: 'Stop mucking about; your wasting your time. Do some practice' If I was playing something by ear, that was considered a bit of a sin. So, although I learned classical music for eleven years with money my parents could ill afford, I never really mastered the art of playing the piano. I worked hard at the piano, and I used to practice two hours a day. But there is a point you cannot go beyond with that kind of rote learning.

Take this piano here. It's got stickers on it, up and down the piano, and Chelsie plays it as she passes it. She's begun to be able to say: ' Well I can play this tune on the black notes, but if I want to play the same tune on the white notes, I have to play it here'. She's starting to make connections. She's much better at maths than I am. She has obviously a real talent for playing the piano, and I am now stuck with a bit of a dilemma because I know that learning too young with the wrong kind of learning didn't actually help me musically. I'm now waiting for Chelsie to really want formal teaching before I make sure she gets it. On the other hand, I know that there's nothing worse for anybody at any age, but particularly when your young, not to be pushed. If everything comes easy to you, boredom is a dreadful enemy. It is important to know discipline and how to concentrate. So the bright child does need to be pushed, in my opinion. The more gifted you are the more that gift comes with a price, so, as a gifted person myself and as a mother with a child who is gifted, I am aware of trying not to repeat mistakes.

Within the family, being educated and learning had a very high priority. In our house we had one bookcase and it didn't have many books on it. But I did however read an enormous amount of Enid Blyton. We were taken to the Lending Library every Friday. My sister and I had weekly magazines on order at the local bookshop. I can't imagine that any of these things were things that my parents could afford. But 'lying-around-with-your-nose-in-a-book' wasn't appreciated either. You'd better find a pretty secluded spot where you were out of everybody's way so they might forget you were there, because otherwise you would be made to do something else – like the dishes. When it came to sit school cert I only knew one person who had got school cert by sitting it the first times: and that was my friends sister, who had gone to university and was therefore a 'genius' as far as I was concerned. So I thought the chances of me getting school cert fist pop were absolutely minimal. So, somehow, particularly in the later half of my fifth form year, I really buckled down and I went in for studying in a big way. I had a table in my bedroom, and I wrote out copious notes. I swatted and I learned everything by rote. I studied exam papers with enormous interest. And I actually managed to guess the paper for that year's geography exam so I got some enormous mark. I ended up in the top few in the school. Suddenly by accident I got promoted to the A class. It was terrible. But I saved the situation by negotiating my way to the art room regularly.

I became brainy by accident when I was ten, because I was skinny and white and wore glasses, yet the kids in the A group who were skinny and white and wore glasses, I thought were probably very, very brainy. I discovered that they didn't seem to know very much about the world, however. I think that your curiosity to learn and your capacity to achieve are linked. Mine had been based on intuition. That's probably why film directing is what I do best. It is a very feely sort of thing. I'm educated. I think I'm well educated, but my intellect follows my intuition at least three steps behind – it's the Duke of Edinburgh in the hierarchy of my response to problem solving.

You're constantly deciding where the picture frame should be, what the focus of the scene is, how to stage it, and what does it mean. Often you're saying: ' This feels right, this feels wrong'. Later on, sometimes much later on, the intellectual ideas follow. When I'm working well and this process is working, I work very economically, very quickly, and find it all very satisfying. I think that's what most artists feel when they're working well: it feels like it comes through you. I don't have to think the idea – they don't even feel like mine. Connections are made. Ideas are like visitors that become realized, that's what it feels like.

Are you saying in a way that film makes it's own reality?

No the idea makes it's own reality. The story will impose it's own style, as long as you are doing quite a lot of questioning, listening, and interrogating of the idea.

I've hooked onto a film of yours in mind: Ruby and Rata, which to me, was a wonderful feeling of being caught up in an experience.

That's great because you see, Ruby and Rata had a very intellectual, very particular purpose, and that's the over-riding idea, the over-riding purpose as defined by, essentially, a very intellectual process, but, it was achieved by an intuitive process. I wouldn't like to have to break it all down to explore it, but having been involved in the creative therapies, I certainly trust enormously the forces of the unconscious. I know that I can file problems to be solved in my brain and go to sleep and wake up with clear solutions in my head. As I get older, I trust that process more and more.

Making films is really quite difficult, because you've got an intuitive creative process colliding with a mechanical one. For example: the art department has to supply all the props and the settings. The sound department has to know in any particular shot where to put microphones, how to get the best sound etc. There are a lot of technical requirements. The crew needs to know how you are going to shoot a scene before you arrive at the place where you're going to shot it, days before you're going to shoot it. But you can't let that rule totally. Within that pre-planning you have to make room for changes sometimes, having shot a couple of shots, I find that the scene really feels like it wants to turn a corner into new territory. Now, I've got two choices. Either we do what we planned because this is the storyboard and this is what we planned, or explore that new territory which is unknown. It might be more time consuming and you always have to consider the schedule that rules the day.

This is how directors get the reputations for 'changing their minds'. It's not to do with changing your mind. It's actually to do with going through a creative process that is not merely intellectual or intuitive or emotional or psychological but all of those things. It exists in the now. Pre-planning builds a really secure platform so that you are more capable of really pinpointing where the real focus and the real potency of the idea exists. It is an organic process. Very difficult when put into the mechanical and technical environment, which is filmmaking.

So making a film is an evolving process?

Well it ought to be. It does have a life of it's own, that's probably what I'm getting at. Absolutely a life of it's own. But it's a life that comes from painstaking attention to all sorts of details, which can only be planned in advance. Ruby and Rata: we had the locations almost a year before we had the film. It was cast well before we shot it. It was very well prepared. In a funny sort of way, I was so prepared for Ruby and Rata that I excluded people from participating to some degree. My process didn't leave much room for the actors. The actors came on set and I already knew, very clearly and very specifically, where they had to go, how the acting worked, and how I wanted to photograph them. I knew everything better than anyone else. That can leave people behind. Bread and Roses was a much bigger project with a much shorter preparation time. Sometimes I would arrive on a set that I'd never seen before and shoot immediately. I would have seen drawings but I'd never actually physically been in the space. Certainly never seen the set dressed. With actors I'd probably not even meet before (I'd cast then from video tape), with no rehearsal time, we would endeavour to do good work. There's fifty people standing around, and we have x amount of time to shoot the scene. And it's got to work. In that situation there's no storyboard; I will have a basic idea of where the potent energy for the scene might flow from. We will all need to find it. When it works, you can find it quickly and you can do wonderful work, particularly with an intuitive camera operator. But when you can't find it, the only way to proceed is to have the time. And we were very lucky with Bread and Roses sometimes to have that time. I lament the times when we didn't. Much less of an issue with Ruby and Rata, because it was much more planned.

But making a film you are capturing moments and these moments have to ring true.

Film's roles are very beautifully delineated to dovetail into one another in a very specific and expert way. Everybody is an expert in their particular field and that expertise has to overlap. The director just sits in the middle as the hub of the wheel. Of course the wheel has to go round, and that means that there is a tremendous amount of communicating going on. It always amazes me when you get a crew together that there are certain conventions in the film world about what you do and don't tell the director. You don't tell the director things that might worry them. This is something that I find incredibly annoying and paternalistic. As director, I think that I do need to know what is going on. I don't want to be protected from myself.

If you are thinking about learning and knowledge, a certain part of it is to do with having and ability to find out, and then ability to be able to cope with the information.

There's something else I'd like to say about learning. It isn't particularly pertaining to me as such, but it pertains to things I've thought about regarding education. Until a few years ago I had always felt that change was a good thing. CHANGE. A word with stars around it. And I totally agree with the idea that all knowledge should be available to everyone. At the same time, I found it fascinating to find myself living alongside a group of people in Aotearoa who didn't actually subscribe to these concepts. I would observe a Maori friend going through enormous hoops in order to gain knowledge. Being tested to be sure that they were actually the one who should have the information. This was completely foreign to me as a sixties kid.

But gradually I've come to appreciate that process. I feel that if the western world had been able, in it's evolution, to hang on to a more rigorous approach to knowledge, then perhaps the world wouldn't be in the bad straits that it is. For example: were knowledge to be carefully guarded so that only people who could really prove that they were capable of coping with that knowledge allowed to have access to the information, then the nuclear bomb would not be possible. That's a blatant misguided use of a very potent energy.

There doesn't seem to be much in the curriculum of any universities throughout the world about wisdom.

Wisdom isn't something that our institutions of higher learning are concerned with. What a shame! This could account for why so many universities in the world are devoted to learning about war and the mechanics of the military, but I don't know if there is a single university devoted to the mechanics of peace. I'm not sure. I could be wrong, but I haven't heard of one. This state of affairs is only possible in a set-up where learning is considered to be something that can be divided into 'subjects' where people can become 'experts', where facts are somehow given enormous importance, and the connection of the facts and the human reality of what the facts mean can be totally ignored.

Learning is a process, and it isn't just situated in the intellect, and it isn't just situated in the gut. It is a holistic thing. Paying more attention, as a society to the getting of wisdom, and controlling information would be very difficult to do now, because we are absolutely bombarded with information from the television. We know everything about a lot of things, and seem to be able to do nothing about any of them. We have never been more powerless it seems. It is partly because the world has been taken over by mass media.

It also affects the arts enormously. 'You want to be a singer? You want to make a record? You get yourself a record company. Make a video. Go international'. That's how it is. To remain steadfastly local while working in the arts is almost impossible; you're really swimming against the tide.

In my opinion people only learn what they are ready to learn. They're a bit like me when I was three. There's a really interesting process, which happens when you make a film, when you tell a story; people will come up to you and tell you things about it. In the end, it's to do with where people are at. You can't ever stimulate people to understand something that they are not ready to understand, because they don't.