The 1999 Papers

Paper by Gaylene Preston
Public Servers Senior Management Conference, Wellington, September 1999

I'm really honoured to be here. This is definitely 'me out of my box'. I don't usually get invited to conferences and I've found every speaker so inspiring. It's been a wonderful day for me.

I am an expatriate returned. I ran away when I was 21. I couldn't wait to get out of this country and I lived in Britain for seven years and then came back. To the consternation of my parents I started to look as if I was going to be a film maker. I remember my father, who was contemplating retirement, came to me just after I'd made my first film and he offered me his milk run in Napier. He was really serious and he said: 'Look love, you'd have steady money coming in every week,' and he was right. To his real puzzlement and a certain despair I couldn't take up what was really quite a good offer, because you see, I had heard the call and was about to spend the next 20 years or so of my life poking my nose and sometimes - money permitting and technology being available - my cameras into other people's business.

This is a very privileged position to have, particularly over the time that I have been able to do it. It's not about book learning. It's been me watching compulsively and wrapping a box around reality and recording it.

What most occurs to me is the difference between the myth and the reality of who we think we are. As a precocious three-year-old and four-year-old who had an interest in reciting A. A. Milne at every dog fight I would often find myself at the local concert slotted in between the man who played the saw and Mr Swift who could whistle like various birds. I grew up going around the local traps at all the local concerts. When I got a bit older I heard that I was living in a 'cultural desert'. I wondered what that was. I knew more about my culture than I did about geography so I decided that a desert must be a rather wonderful place, because I didn't think that I was growing up in a culturally deprived environment. Quite the contrary.

We've talked today about ingeniousness and the Kiwi creative abilities with no.8 wire and other such things. However, I think there is a downside to this in that while everybody was making those fantastic spare parts they were also thinking that it would be better if they could have bought one. 'It's nearly as good as a bought one!' That was high praise indeed. So we've had this funny sort of dichotomy of not really valuing what we do and who we are.

I was brought up understanding that we are a taciturn bunch. The strong silent type. Yet the world I grew up in was a chatty one. We are great ravers. New Zealanders are fantastic speakers and this conference today is a good example of that. So with great gusto I ignored my father's generous offer and leaped into the future. I've been wrapping a camera around things, and great New Zealand ravers have been part of my real interest.

I also come from a therapy background. After I went to art school I spent seven years in Britain working in psychiatric hospitals, in prisons and in various institutions as an art and drama therapist. That experience has informed my approach to the world as I've been interested in hearing voices that have a problem asserting themselves. As an art and drama therapist my role in psychiatric institutions was often to centre on the one-third of the hospital population who couldn't be a part of group therapy because they didn't, wouldn't, couldn't talk. So I've been interested in the non-verbal therapies.

I obviously wanted to look at the edges of this little country in order to try to understand it for myself. It wasn't long before I realised that in the public domain some of these voices that were on the edge were also the forbidden voices.

The first film I made was about Bruce Burgess, a physically disabled young man who wanted to climb Mount Ruapehu and Graham Dingle, a rather spectacular New Zealander who decided that Bruce should go All The Way Up There. The first clip that I want to show you is of Bruce. When we got the money to make this film the one thing we were told by the broadcaster was not to let Bruce speak. Do a nice commentary, have pretty pictures, do not interview Bruce. But I knew that Bruce's voice had to be the centre of the film. So, of course, we did let him speak and we'll have a look at that now.

All The Way Up There 1978
Bruce Burgess sits in his wheelchair, his arms flailing out of control, his tongue fighting to articulate the barely discernible words that are subtitled on the screen. A photo of Ruapehu dominates the wall behind him.

Bruce: 'This picture made me wonder - I want to climb that mountain. I would die for that dream. I'm going to do it! I'm going to do it!'

That piece of film and that phrase has come to be a thumb print for the kind of culture that I came back to in 1977. It's not that long ago, but we didn't quite have our own voice. In 1978 when Sleeping Dogs was shown there was a big problem that everybody was really worried about in the film industry, or in what we called in those days the fledgling film industry. Would the New Zealand audience accept the New Zealand accent on screen and not be embarrassed by it? Up till then they had been. Sleeping Dogs was a real watershed in that it was one of the first times that the New Zealand accent was accepted on screen broadly by its own audience, by us, New Zealanders.

What Jamie Belich said this morning has really made sense to me in terms of decolonization. His theory explains why as New Zealanders we are a fantastically chatty, terribly passionate, totally driven people, who have taken so long to find a confident voice with which to express ourselves. Again we have this problem with our myth and our reality. I didn't grow up in a world where I thought of New Zealanders as thinkers. It was as if the thinkers came from somewhere else. This audience apart, I have to say that the most thoughtful audience I've ever spoken to was the Wanganui Federated Farmers. It was really daunting to be an after dinner speaker for their annual dinner because they were into the big issues. I don't know what it is. Maybe they drive around on their tractors with half their brains counting their sheep or whatever and the other half thinking about the big stuff.

I believe we are thinkers. I think we are driven by ideas. I think that is our strength and it is also our weakness because, of course, we get pretty gung-ho about ideas. We tend towards the totalitarian; we're extremists, we're ideological extremists and I think the history of this country in this century proves that. I have to call myself a real Kiwi in this respect.

However, it is unnerving that a lot of the ideas that I have felt gung-ho about in my life look daft 20 years later in retrospect. Some of them were really silly. For example, I somehow managed to link being a feminist with having a vagina and that was a real problem. I don't think an idea is about a piece of genitalia.

Judith Fyfe is a friend and colleague of mine who founded the New Zealand Oral History Centre with Hugo Manson. Judith says that life is lived in retrospect and, of course, it is. I want to show you a clip from a film I made, Bread and Roses, which points out that some ideas that we have strongly held in the past, at best, can be daft, and at worst, can be barbaric.



Sonja, a student nurse at Wellington hospital, struggles with large screens for a woman who wants a bedpan during the ward clean up for breakfast time. Maisie, another student nurse, collects eggs from people who have marked them with specific instructions of how they like them cooked.

A voice calls Sonja to another cubicle where a ward sister asks her to roll over a patient - a young woman. As she does so Sonja realises this woman is dead. The sister asks her to wait while she gets a shroud. Sonja is horrified. As she looks out through the curtain she sees a grieving family and a young soldier being ushered away by the ward sister who returns with the shroud. As she shows Sonja how to wrap a body they talk.

'First time?' Sonja nods.
'Won't be the last. Do you know what an abortion is?'

Sonja nods but she obviously doesn't.
'She got pregnant, he got posted, so she went to a back street butcher. Soldier boy just got back. He's over there now.'
Sonja is pale and shocked. The sister stops for a moment before she places a rose on the now tidily wrapped body.

'You'll have to toughen up kid or you won't survive.' Sonja walks on the town belt and is joined by the others - all wearing red capes, all young women just like the one we have seen disposed of. Maisie puts a reassuring arm on Sonja's shoulder.


Sonja says that the deaths of New Zealand women during the Second World War were war deaths just as surely as if they'd been shot. Of course, there is no list of names. They're an invisible force, we don't remember them on Anzac Day. We had a try at researching this and, of course, you can't because those deaths were deaths, technically speaking, from peritonitis. There's just no way you can ever find out. So secrets get buried forever. I've spent quite a bit of my film-making life exploring the Second World War, partly because it happened just before I was born. It is a way for me to try to make sense of who I am and where I come from. Also it is because New Zealand seemed to be a place of real extremes during World War Two. As we're extremists I've had to explore the extremes. The next clip I'm going to show you is from a film I made called War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, which actually had my mother's story in it, which she did eventually tell us. Unfortunately, she had a daughter who was a film maker and that meant that when she told me she told the world. I am not going to show you my mother here. I'm going to show you Rita Graham who was a nice girl in Auckland growing up during the war. She met and fell in love with a handsome young bank teller before the war. During the war Rita realised that she was married to a Christian pacifist. Rather than go to war he preferred to go to jail and Rita was left living with the consequences.

WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995)
Rita Graham talks of the huge effort that was behind the War effort. We see a weekly revue montage showing huge crowds waving and cheering tanks and planes in a large military parade that raised enormous funds for the war effort.

Rita tells us a story. 'There was a man - I'm happy to mention his name - Campbell Patterson. He worked with Alan in the bank. He went to the bank manager and said, 'All the boys who have gone away from the bank have been given a gold watch, and we'd like to give a gold watch to Alan.' Well, the bank manager was furious. An insult to the boys who'd gone away. So Campbell went back with a man who worked in the bank, who'd lost an eye. And he said that he was sure the boys at the front wouldn't mind but the bank manager wouldn't hear of it. So Campbell went amongst the staff and every week collected threepences and sixpences - I know the largest amount anyone gave was a shilling - and the whole time Alan was in detention they put ten shillings into my bank account every week. So much better than a gold watch and of much greater value to me.'


I'd like to celebrate the Campbell Patterson factor because I think that is also a real part of who we are and what our national culture is. As a nation we've been brave and we have actually taken stands. Often these have not been for ourselves but on behalf of other people like the whole stand that we made against apartheid regarding sporting contacts that culminated in the 1981 protests. I think we do take risks, I think we think outside the square. It is harder when you've got mortgages to pay and proper jobs and dependants, and that is the test for us in this room. The more power I have the harder it is for me to make stands, there is more at stake. But we have got much better at arguing and that is a real step forward. We started a really vociferous argument in this country in 1981. There are still lots of arguments to be had. I was very privileged to be able to record some of the cultural arguments that went on during the making of Te Papa Tongarewa, when this institution was trying to make a place to house our national culture.


I am going to show you a clip from a recent documentary I made with Anna Cottrell called GETTING TO OUR PLACE. It's screening next Friday on Channel 1 at 8.30. I will just show you a piece to illustrate the way that we've got braver in our arguments. This is a particularly brave argument given that there is a camera in the room.

Sir Ron Trotter and Cliff Whiting meet with Cheryll Sotheran to discuss the kawa of the marae still in construction at Te Papa.

Trotter: I gather it's not going to be entirely traditional, and I'm anxious to think that the developing ideas that will be into the next millennium are... respecting the past, and taking the best from the past, but being a little more liberal. If we have a concept of a place to stand for all New Zealanders that has really to be respected in the marae...and it's to work out in a way that makes it both comfortable and warm for any iwi who come here, but comfortable and warm and part of the place for any paheka who is part of the Mana Taonga that we talk about. That's the concept that we are trying to develop.

Whiting: There are two main fields that have to be explored, and one that is most important is its customary role in the first place, because marae comes of and comes from the tangatawhenua who are Maori. To change it...

Trotter: It's not just for Maori. (He begins thumping the table.)
... You must get that. If it is... a Maori institution and nothing more, this marae has failed, and they must get that idea...because we are bicultural. Bicultural talks about two people, and if it's going to be totally Maori, and all driven by Maori protocols, and without regard for the life -'museum' is a pakeha concept. I will not, I'd rather be without a marae, if women can't speak on the marae, so we're all going to be Ngati Porou, because they let women speak. But we can't have a kawa that says women won't speak. I will not chair an institution headed by a woman if she can't...stand there in her own right. Now I know there are sensitivities by... some iwi, but we've got to be bold enough to say we're going to make our own kawa. And I don't mind if 75% of iwi are a bit irritated, that we are being more liberal because we're going the Ngati Porou way, but at least within Maoridom there are both sides to that debate...and so we will go - we want to to be able to put a bicultural spin on the ball, is what I'm saying, and I say, this has to satisfy both cultures.

Whiting: And yes, I would say that I support that, but it has to satisfy both and not be compromised.


Whiting on camera interview.

I just had to suppress a lot of inner feeling, mainly because it's what I do know, of a life-long experience is that to gain some of the ground forward is to actually at times to have to take that sort of crap. And there are lots of things which I found very arrogant and contained a lot of ignorance. Somebody who doesn't know Maori culture, doesn't know Maori full stop, to come in and start to want to change a very important part of the culture, and, you saw it. It's one of the major threats for instance, of the maintenance of Maori culture. It's very fragile. If the museum is about remembering, discovering and all of those kinds of high ideals in terms of education etc, it should be able to cope with such an ordinary, what I see as such an ordinary straightforward cultural uniqueness and difference.

That was Cliff Whiting and Sir Ron Trotter. Culture clashes. This place we're sitting in is built on an argument. It is an argument that we're leading the world in. I hope we're always having it. It is an important part of who we are. We shouldn't be looking for resolution. It is important that this argument must go on and on. I have noticed a change though. I've noticed that we are starting to develop some real cultural confidence in expressing ourselves. It is remarkable that both those men saw that piece of footage in our documentary and both thought it really important that it was screened to the nation. They were confident. We don't see ourselves on screen enough to be confident yet. I agree with Ruth Harley that there is a real link between the knowledge-based economy and the electronic expressive medium. In fact, there was a graph that Howard showed us illustrating the comparison between Korean and Kenyan development into the knowledge-based economy. Howard didn't mention one difference between Korea and Kenya. At the same time Korea put in place their involvement in the knowledge-based economy they also put in place what amounted to a very big local content legislation on their local film distribution industry, which meant that exhibitors in Korea had to screen Korean films. Kenya did not do this.

It is great if the institutional life of this country could be more focused on what we euphemistically call the cultural sector. It is unruly. It is an unweeded garden, It is full of rude, crude iconoclasts who get up every morning and like me are driven creatures who haven't got steady money coming in every week, but define this nation and its culture daily.

I'd be really worried if you bureaucrats decided to sit in rooms and define our culture because you'll never be able to define it. And there are all these people out there who were downsized and OurPlaced before those words were invented. They are doing it every day of their lives. They define it and redefine it and express it in so many wonderful ways that you couldn't even dream of. Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Toss Woolaston, James K Baxter, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, John O'Shea, Don Selwyn, the list is long - they made extraordinary personal sacrifices to define this culture. They spent their lives in the struggle. The artists.

So I urge you to water them, water the garden, value it, pay it some heed. It is the artists of New Zealand who will brand this country very clearly and very strongly in all its wonderful, terrible ways. I'm going to leave the last word with Hone Tuwhare, the New Zealand poet laureate. This is what he said when we asked him a simple question. We asked him about a poster on his wall. I think it illustrates the kind of brain that you can't pickle. It is us.


Hone looks quizzically at a large poster on his wall that has the head of Karl Marx superimposed over the figure of a construction worker.

'Oh that - yes - that's Karl eh? Karl Marx. Armed with a cigarette and not a pen. He's got his hard hat there. And he's looking quizzical. Yeah quizzical. He's a bit silly though. I told him to give up smoking but he wouldn't listen so he died. (Laughter from behind camera.)' Course he had his family problems too. Oh yes. He was said to be fucking his housekeeper but when you're a busy executive - as you are - you're a busy executive, you need a bit of sweets on the side. A sweetener. It's good for the morale, for the morals,....I suppose you could say I'm amoral but I don't know what that word means, I'd have to look it up in the dictionary. Of course I do go to Church, yeah, I go down the Presbyterian church...'

Fade to black. Thank you.