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About Gaylene

I believe that the basic responsibility of New Zealand filmmakers is to make films principally for the New Zealand audience. If we don’t, no-one else will.
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Gaylene Preston is a national treasure, with an exceptional career over more than three decades. An innovative writer, director, and producer, Gaylene has insisted that it is possible to live in New Zealand and contribute New Zealand stories to global cinema, and her award-winning work has screened extensively at international festivals including Venice, Sundance, Toronto.

In 2001 Gaylene was the first filmmaker to receive an Arts Foundation Laureate Award and in 2002 she was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the film industry. In 2010 she received the inaugural lifetime achievement award for outstanding contribution to documentary from Documentary Edge. She also received a Screenwriters Mentorship Award and a WIFT NZ Award for outstanding contribution to the New Zealand Screen Industry.

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In 2016 she was awarded the SPADA Industry Champion Award and a NZ Women of Influence Award for Arts & Culture and in 2017 she was given the Premium Moa Award for services to cinema and the Lia Lifetime Achievement Award from the Stranger with My Face International Film Festival for her contribution to women’s genre film making in 2017. In 2018 she was visiting scholar/resident filmmaker‘ at Jesus College Intellectual Forum, Cambridge.

Gaylene has served on most industry boards including the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand On Air, and has chaired Creative New Zealand's Film Innovation Fund and the New Zealand Film and Television Awards Society. At the same time, as evidenced in her executive producer credits of many award winning films, including Annie Goldson's Punitive Damage, Brita McVeigh's Coffee, Tea or Me? Michelle Savill's Ellen is Leaving and Paora Joseph's Tatarakihi - The Children of Parihaka, her generosity of spirit and her powerful mentorship and advocacy skills have been central to the development of New Zealand's contemporary filmmaking community.

 
 
 
 

Awards

2001 New Zealand Arts Foundation - New Zealand’s first Filmmaker Laureate | 2002 Officer of the NZ Order of Merit | WIFT NZ Lifetime Achievement Award | 2016 New Zealand Women of Influence Award for Arts and Culture | SPADA Industry Champion Award | 2017 Services to Cinema award -  NZ Film Awards | 2017 Lia Award from Stranger With My Face Film Festival.

 
 

Filmography

 
 

2018 HOT WORDS & BOLD RETORTS

Producer/Director

Women who voted in 1893 speak of the campaign that achieved universal suffrage in Aotearoa/New Zealand. These voices from the past are embodied by Lucy Lawless, Miranda Harcourt, Jean Sergent, and Chelsie Preston-Crayford. 

Semi-permanent exhibition Are We There Yet?
Auckland Museum

 

2017 MY YEAR WITH HELEN

2017 MY YEAR WITH HELEN

Producer/Director

A behind the scenes human view of the impenetrable ceiling that excludes women from global power.

With unique access to high-ranking candidate Helen Clark, award-winning filmmaker Gaylene Preston casts a wry eye on proceedings as the United Nations turns itself inside-out choosing a new Secretary-General.

Her cameras explore the cracks between the diplomats, the embedded press and feminist activists as they push for change while caught up in a power process as secretive and patriarchal as the selection of the Pope.

An observational documentary, MY YEAR WITH HELEN travels alongside Clark as she works on global development issues as head of the UNDP while also campaigning for SG and staying in daily contact with her 94-year-old father back in New Zealand.

Co-producer: Catherine Madigan
Executive Producer: Alexander Behse
Associate Producer: Tim Riley
Editor: Paul Sutorius
Composer: Jan Preston
Cinematography: Sam Russell, Colin Sonner, Gaylene Preston, Maria Inez Manchego
Australia & New Zealand distribution: Transmission Duration: 93 minutes
World Premiere: Sydney International Film Festival June 2017
New Zealand Premiere: NZ International Film Festival July 2017
International Premiere: Athena Film Festival, New York February 2018
In addition: OFFICIAL SELECTION in these festivals: Flying Broom (Ankara, Turkey), Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide
Gaylene Preston Productions
In Association With: NZ Film Commission, NZ On Air, and private investors

 

2014 HOPE AND WIRE

Director/Writer/Producer

The aftershocks run deep.

A six episode drama series inspired by true events, first­hand accounts and employing actual news footage, this drama follows the aftermath of the Earthquakes that befell New Zealand’s Christchurch between 2010 and 2011, telling a universal story of family, hope and survival against the odds.

Producer: Chris Hampson
Co­-Writer: Dave Armstrong
Associate Producer: Sue Rogers
Commissioned by: Rachel Jean for TV3
Featuring:
Bernard Hill, Rachel House, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Stephen Lovatt, Luanne Gordon, Jarod Rawiri, Miriama McDowell, Kip Chapman and Anton Tennet
6 x 1 hour episodes for television
First transmission 2014
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2012 TATARAKIHI: The Children Of Parihaka

Executive Producer

Director: Paora Joseph/Janine Martin

War, passive resistance, and the children who will never forget. Children who are the descendants of Parihaka resistors travel with their elders to visit prisons where their ancestors were illegally incarcerated, during the 19th century without trial.

This is cinema as an act of living memory...raw and heartfelt...powerful, provocative and pertinent - Adam Fresco FLICKS.CO.NZ

WINNER: Jury Prize Balinale 2013
OFFICIAL SELECTION: NZ International Film Festival, Cinema des Antipodes Saint Tropez
Feature: 65mins
Rongomai Productions in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2012 ELLEN IS LEAVING

Executive Producer

Director/Producer: Michelle Savill

Producer: Desray Armstrong

On the eve of departing overseas, Ellen makes the fateful decision to gift her boyfriend a new girlfriend.

ELIGIBLE: Academy Awards 2014
WINNER: Best Narrative Short at South By Southwest, Golden Gate Award San Francisco
FINALIST: Best Short Film at the NZ International Film Festival
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Chicago International Film Festival Short Film 15mins Paint by Numbers in association with Gaylene Preston Productions
Duration:15mins
Paint by Numbers in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2012 STRONGMAN: THE TRAGEDY

Executive Producer/Director Drama elements

The events of January 19, 1967, when an explosion ripped through Green’s Section of New Zealand’s largest underground mine, are presented in this TV drama/doc.

WINNER: Best Feature Drama/Documentary ­ NZ Television Awards 2012
Television Documentary: 73mins 35mm
A Bigger Picture in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2011 ILLUMINATE: OUR VETERANS

Producer/Director

A selection of archival footage from the Second World War commemorating the 24th Battalion marking the occasion of the windup of the Battalion.

Projected onto the Auckland War Memorial Museum façade for the 2012 ANZAC Commemorations.
Duration: 15mins
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2011 ILLUMINATE: WOMEN IN WAR

Producer/Director

A selection of archival footage portraying the role women played during the Second World War.

Projected onto the Auckland War Memorial Museum façade for the 2011 ANZAC Commemorations.
Duration:
15mins
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2010 HOME BY CHRISTMAS

Writer/Director/Producer

A true story of love, war and secrets.

A classic New Zealand story, perfectly told – Peter Calder NZ HERALD

BEST ACTOR: Tony Barry, Honourable Mention, Jury vote, Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 2010  
HISTORY MAKERS AWARDS: New York, 2011 Finalist, Best Drama BEST ACTOR: Tony Barry, Qantas Screen Awards, 2010
BEST SOUNDTRACK: Qantas Screen Awards, 2010
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Cannes Cinephile, London Film Festival Sydney Film Festival, Melbourne Film Festival
Feature: 90mins 35mm Dolby Stereo
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2008 LOVELY RITA A painters life

Producer/Director

Rita Angus uncompromisingly stood alone among her generation. Surrounded by secrecy even after her death, at last her story can be told.

A lively and loving look at one of our cultural icons - SUNDAY STAR TIMES

IN COMPETITION: DOCNZ, 2007
Documentary: 70mins
Gaylene Preston Productions for TV One/NZOA

 

2007 THE TIME OF OUR LIVES

Producer/Director

On the road to the London Memorial, thirty two veterans have a marvelous time while reflecting on the battles, absent friends and the terrible cost of war.

BEST POPULAR DOCUMENTARY: Qantas Television Awards
Documentary: 45mins
Gaylene Preston Productions for TV3/NZOA

 

2006 EARTHQUAKE

Producer/Director

Eyewitness accounts of New Zealand's most lethal earthquake in modern times. A documentary of loss and survival and of lives changed forever, told by people who thought their world was ending.

BEST SOUND: Air NZ Screen Awards, 2006
FINALIST: 4 categories including Best Director Air NZ Screen Awards 2006
BEST POPULAR DOCUMENTARY: Qantas Awards, 2006
Documentary: 44mins
Gaylene Preston Productions in association with TV3/NZOA

 

2005 PUSH PLAY The Activator

Director

For Sport and Recreation New Zealand Promoting physical exercise through activation.

Commercials: 5 x 30 sec
Pearl Productions and Y & R Advertising

 

2004 LANDS OF OUR FATHERS My African legacy

Executive Producer

Opening an old leather suitcase compels a New Zealand filmmaker to revisit her Rhodesian childhood and reconcile herself with the effects of the colonial past.

Producer/Director: Jennifer Bush­-Daumec
Documentary: 70mins digibeta
Bushcraft in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2003 PERFECT STRANGERS

Writer/Director/Producer

The dangerous deception of desire. A chilling romance.

One of the years best films, stylish, funny and disturbing...a genuine original - Evan Williams THE AUSTRALIAN
Gaylene Preston's generally taut and well directed pic is her best work in film to date - David Stratton VARIETY

BEST FILM: Female Eye Festival, Toronto, 2005
BEST ACTRESS: Rachael Blake, Fantasporto Film Festival, Portugal, 2004
BEST ACTRESS: Rachael Blake, Vladivostok Film Festival, 2004
Feature: 100mins widescreen 35mm colour
Gaylene Preston Productions

2002 COFFEE, TEA OR ME?

Producer

Director/Producer: Brita McVeigh

The surprising tale of the underestimated trollydolly.

SELECTED: NZ International Film Festival, Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver
Documentary: 70mins Beta SP
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2001 TITLESS WONDERS

Producer/Director

Emotional journeys after a breast cancer diagnosis.

A compelling mixture of poetry and pragmatism -­ Irene Gardiner

PREMIER AWARD: NZ Media Peace Awards, 2001
SELECTED: NZ International Film Festival 2001
Keynote presentation World Breast Cancer Symposium 2002
Duration: 72mins Beta SP
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

2001 WAHINE REQUIEM

Permanent cinema installation for Wellington Museum of City and Sea.

Using archival fragments found after 30 years, this short documentary tells the tragic tale of the   terrible day when the passenger ferry Wahine sank in Wellington Harbour killing 52 of the 734 passengers and crew on board. A day of extraordinary heroism and heartbreak.

Duration: 12mins
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1999 GETTING TO OUR PLACE

Producer/Director

A flyonthewall behind the scenes look at the remarkably bumpy road to Te Papa.

Co-director: Anna Cottrell
SELECTED: NZ Film Festival 1999
Duration: 72mins
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1999 PUNITIVE DAMAGE

Producer

Director/Producer: Annie Goldson

The true story of a death in Timor and the power of a mother's grief.

Packs more punch than most Hollywood blockbusters - CONTACT
 

SILVER MEDIANET: Munich Film Festival Awards
BEST DOCUMENTARY: 2nd place Sydney Film Festival Awards SELECTED: Critics Week Locarno International Documentary Festival
Feature: 78mins 35mm Colour
Occasional Productions in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1998 SURVIVOR STORIES

Producer/Director

The Napier Earthquake of 1931 remembered.

Semi­permanent cinema installation for the Hawkes Bay Culture Trust
Duration: 36mins glass laser disc

 

1997 PARALLEL PATHS

Director

3 Television commercials for the Land Transport Safety Authority.
WINNER: Outstanding creativity for direction Silver Mobius Awards
Sacchi & Saatchi/Flying Fish

 

1996 HONE TUWHARE: NO OTHER LIPS

Director/Co-Producer

Hanging out with Hone Tuwhare at his home at Kaka Point, and travelling with him to the New Zealand Arts Festival and Tapu Te Ranga marae, we see this poet captivate all in his thrall

Gaylene Preston has fashioned a shrewdly appreciative portrait - Bill Gosden NZ FILM FESTIVAL

SELECTED: NZ International Film Festival 1996
Documentary: 46mins
Greenstone Pictures in association with Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1995 ABSENT FRIENDS

Television commercials for the Land Transport Safety Authority.

WINNER: Gold Axis Award 1996
WINNER: Silver Clio 1997
Saatchi & Saatchi/Flying Fish

 

1995 WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us

Producer/Director

Seven New Zealand women share stories of love and loss during the Second World War.

A rich universal experience - Kevin Thomas L.A. TIMES

BEST FILM: NZ Film & TV Awards, 1995
MOST POPULAR FILM: Sydney Film Festival, 1995
BEST DOCUMENTARY: Sydney Film Festival, 1995
Selected for the foreign film premier season Los Angeles 1996 by the friends of the
American Film Archive
Duration: 94mins 35mm Dolby Stereo
Gaylene Preston Productions in association with the NZ Film Commission and NZ On Air

 

1993 BREAD AND ROSES

Director/Co-writer/Associate Producer

A four-part mini-series for television based on the autobiography of Sonja Davies.

In the 'kill to watch' category...faultlessly directed - Neil Jillet MELBOURNE AGE

SELECTED: New Zealand International Film Festival
BEST ACTRESS: NZ Film & TV Awards, 1994
BEST ACTRESS: NZ Film & TV Awards, 1994
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: NZ Film & TV Awards, 1994
BEST DESIGN: NZ Film & TV Awards, 1994
3rd PLACE POPULAR VOTE: Melbourne Film Festival, 1994
Duration: 200mins 16mm colour
Preston Laing Productions

 

1992 MARRIED

Director

Part of Anthology Drama Series.

SELECTED: Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch International Film Festivals
Duration: 50mins 16mm colour
Meridian Film Productions

 

1990 RUBY & RATA

Director/Co-Producer

Three liars with more in common than they realize. A serious comedy about dribble-down economics.

Preston and her team have woven a special kind of Kiwi magic in this one – I'd crawl over broken glass to see it again and again - Peter Calder NZ HERALD

WINNER: Best Editing, Best Film Score, Best Contribution to a Soundtrack, Best Male Performance, NZ Film & TV Awards WINNER: Best Feature, 3rd Place-Popular Choice, Sydney & Melbourne Film Festivals
GOLD MEDAL AWARD: Giffoni Children's Film Festival, Italy POPULAR VOTE: Top 10 Toronto Film Festival
Feature: 102mins 35mm colour
Preston Laing Productions

 

1987 KAI PURAKAU The Story Teller

Producer/Director

A documentary for Thames Television (UK) on Booker Prize winning writer Keri Hulme.

SELECTED: New Zealand International Film Festival
Documentary: 27mins 16mm colour
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1985 MR WRONG (aka DARK OF THE NIGHT - USA)

Director/Producer/Co-writer

Her mum wants her to meet Mr Right but she is haunted by Mr Wrong. A genre bending thriller about a young woman who buys a haunted car. Based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

A dandy little thriller marked by excellent performances - Judith Crist

BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCE: NZ Film & TV Awards
2eme PRIX DU PUBLIC: Festival de Films de Femmes de Creteil, 1986
Duration: 87mins 35mm colour
Preston Laing Productions

 

1983 PATU

Co­ordinator

Merata Mita's feature-­length documentary about the protest against the Springbok tour of New Zealand (1981).

Documentary: 85 mins 16mm
Awatea Films

 

1982 MAKING UTU

Producer/Director

A rollicking documentary celebrating the chutzpah, ingenuity and burgeoning national pride of a bunch of young cowboys out in the wild making the epic New Zealand movie of their dreams. Memorably attentive to Utu’s moment in the advancement of popular biculturalism.

Documentary: 48mins 16mm colour
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1981 HOLD UP

Director/Co-Producer/Screenplay

A deaf dress designer, a blind radio announcer and a film critic with cerebral palsy, witness the robbery of a cinema.

WINNER: Best Overseas Film for under 12year-olds Australian Teachers of Media 1983
WINNER: Best Overseas Film Rehabilitation Film Festival New York 1983
WINNER: First Prize Dramatisation Category Rehabilitation International World Congress Lisbon 1984
Duration: 4mins 16mm colour
Gibson Films/Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1980 LEARNING FAST

Producer/Director

A documentary about seven small town seventeen year olds leaving school and with difficulty finding their place in the world. Shot at Makora College, Masterton.

A classic Documentary. Excellent, Preston shows a deft touch ­- THE DOMINION

Duration: 48mins 16mm colour
Gaylene Preston Productions

 

1978 ALL THE WAY UP THERE

Director/Producer

Bruce Burgess, physically disabled since birth, and Graeme Dingle, a well­-known mountaineer, climb Mt Ruapehu together.

SPECIAL JURY PRIZE: Banff Festival of Mountain Films
1980 SPECIAL JURY PRIZE: Festival International du Film Alpine Les Diaberets, 1980
BLUE RIBBON: American Film Festival, 1979 27mins 16mm colour
Valhalla Films

 
 

Writing by Gaylene

Occasionally I have been convinced to take to the key board. I do hope you enjoy I do hope you enjoy this selection of musings, talks and articles.

 

UPON THE 40th ANNIVERSARY OF THE NZ FILM COMMISSION

FUNNY LITTLE HOVEL

It was in May 1977 when I began working at Pacific Films in Kilbirnie that I became aware there was agitation to set up a Film Commission in New Zealand.

John O’Shea and Bill Sheet no doubt with others, spent some time up at Belamys dining room in Parliament and hours at the unofficial Beehive, the Green parrot all night café in Taranaki St, educating  Allan Highet – the National Party Minister of Culture on the economic  delights of a local film industry.  No doubt his wife, a leading painter, Shona McFarlane, was also on the case after he got home. He was a marked man.  Certain local ruffians agitated (they know who they were) John Reid was commissioned to write a report (imaginatively called ‘The Reid Report.’) and finally with Dagg Day Afternoon and Sleeping Dogs already in cinemas, the Government passed the NZ Film Commission Act. 

Clearly focussed on attracting foreign exchange, the act did not reflect anything about telling New Zealand stories by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders.  (still doesn’t) Far too risky.  You’d never get that through the House. The money pitch worked.

The Interim NZ Film Commission was set up with Scrubbs Blakeny, a merchant banker who had been in the catering department on Sleeping Dogs, the first CEO.  He chose Kerry Robins to assist and his sister Veronica Lawrence to run the office. She organised every phone call they made and typed their letters.  They had a funny little hovel round the back of the Opera House. Internal Affairs provided a car that Vincent Ward immediately ‘borrowed’ for a very long time when he went up Tuhoe  Country with Albol to shoot In Spring One Plants Alone.  I liked going up the mouldering marble staircase in the Courtenay Place foyer and out the back through a rabbit warren of tiny corridors with unexplained corners. It felt like a metaphor for filmmaking. Veronica could type your letters without mistakes on the only electric typewriter I had access to. 

It was fun.  It was quietly subversive.  It was going to tell New Zealand stories or die in the doing.

The beginning of things is always fun.  It wasn’t long before they moved to a sunny office in a more acceptable part of town and they stopped being interim and became the official Film Commission and we finally had something to blame!  The rest as they say – is history.  Thank you for being there NZFC.  I remember what it was like before.

 

THE SPINOFF - 2017 NZ INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW

Gaylene was asked by The Spinoff to write about the film she would most like to see at the 2017 NZ International Film Festival

Gaylene Preston, director of My Year with Helen, recommends Faces Places

Faces Places is the film I most want to see at the festival. Without its director, Agnes Varda, I may never have become the documentary filmmaker I am. I saw my first Varda film on a wet windy day at the Paramount Cinema in Wellington. Daguerrotypes: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do.

It begins with Agnes casually breaking the fourth wall and telling us that she wanted to make a film, but she was pregnant and mothering small children and couldn’t go far, so she decided to make a film about her block of Paris where she lives – Rue Daguerre. Her block happens to be – well, Paris, and therefore highly photogenic. She talks to the chemist and the bakers and the relationships she finds are tender and ordinary and extraordinary – and greatly appealing to me because that kind of intimacy was – and still is – unusual in our large screen film culture.

It was 1977. I was working at Pacific Films as their art director and surrounded by the documentary tradition that made Tangata Whenua (Barry Barclay/Michael King) and The Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Planet in the Universe (Tony Williams/Michael Heath). As inspirational as those films were, it was Agnes who really showed me the way.

According to history as it is now told, she is the mother of the personal documentary. But to me, she’s the woman who – as an artist, a mother, a person who is part of her community – makes films like no one else.

Agnes and I are both older now. We have nearly met on more than one occasion. Once I was visiting London and a friend of mine had just come back from Agnes’ 80th birthday. The word had gone out: everyone was welcome as long as they brought her a broomstick. A couple of days earlier, I could have grabbed a broomstick and gone to Rue Daguerre and done my best to act cool. That party is briefly in another film of hers, an autobiographical film called Beaches of Agnes. How many autobiographical documentaries have you ever come across? She’s still trailblazing just as boldly as she gets older. Inspirational.

They gave her a lifetime Palm D’Or a year or so back. I’m glad she lived long enough to receive it.

I’m also grateful that the same film festival that brought Agnes to me way back then, is bringing her to a whole new audience now, and that my own film, My Year with Helen, is snuggled into the programme just a couple of pages from Faces Places.

 

SPEECH TO STUDENTS AT WELLINGTON EAST GIRLS COLLEGE

   ‘The Thank You’ drawing is by Tara Black     Tara Black, a teacher at Wellington East Girls College drew it while listening to Gaylene giving an inspirational speech to students at Wellington East Girls College.

‘The Thank You’ drawing is by Tara Black

Tara Black, a teacher at Wellington East Girls College drew it while listening to Gaylene giving an inspirational speech to students at Wellington East Girls College.

 

LEST WE FORGET

Speech by Gaylene Preston for Remembrance Day
St Matthews in the City, Auckland, 2010


Your Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand and Lady Susan Satyanand, the Minister of Defence, Wayne Mapp, Mayor Len Brown, Australian Consul General, Michael Crawford, Veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen; it is a real honour for me to be invited to this beautiful building to speak on this Remembrance Day set aside to remember the 11th of November 1918 – the end of the 'War to end all Wars.

War Stories. I don't know when I started collecting them. I was born in 1947 and I grew up in the shadow of another war - during the 'Peace.' Back then, to me as a small child, there were three times – before the war, after the war, and a secret time, during the war – it was a silence so loud to my little ears that it seemed more a place. 'Oh that was during the war,' then the silence........'

I liked to draw - colour in - and I liked to do it on the floor. That was when I first heard stories around my mother's skirts. Sitting under the kitchen table while the women talked above me, never about the battles or the bombs, always about the relationships dislocated and forced apart, or worse, forced together again because of that time called 'during the war.'
The men's stories were very different. Not only in context, but in the telling. They were recounted loudly with a beer in one hand and a rollie in the other – amid eruptions of laughter. Army yarns for public consumption. Terrible tales with a punch line. Sometimes the voices would become serious and a small silence would fill the room, but not for long. The show must go on.

Lest We Forget. Everyone was trying to, I realise now. Desperately seeking that amnesia that blocks out painful thoughts of waste and futility, and honours mythology. Because we won. It must have been worth it. So my generation grew up in the bright white light of the peace time. The fifties. Security, conformity and everyone living the same happily-ever-after with the shadow largely unacknowledged, certainly as far as us kids were concerned.
I suppose it's hard to own a war as a first hand event, when it didn't happen here. When you live in a little piece of pink on the edge of the British Empire where hardly a shot was fired. No apocalypse here. No Blitz. No blood and carnage in the streets. Just romantic photos on the mantle piece of young soldiers who never came back, who never had funerals, and who stayed forever young encased in the black and white reality of an Egyptian photographer's studio portrait.

And those who did come back often could only confront their terror in their nightmares. No demobbing, no therapy, no 'lets talk it over.' Sissy stuff. Just roll your sleeves up and work it off.
But down among the women the war was acknowledged as an on-going event. It was the reason why a neighbour never married, or couldn't have babies, or another's husband drank. Why a father rejected his son, why a husband couldn't be loving.

So in a way, growing up in this blessed time of picnics, and equality for all, and social security from the cradle to the grave – all things my parents' generation put in place for the peacetime - we were a protected generation. We were given education, opportunity and confidence to oppose war. And we did. In some numbers. It's young people who get asked to fight them and enough of us across the Western World refused to fight in Vietnam and as young men and women managed to find a shared honourable mythology in NOT fighting. We put flowers down the barrels of the guns.

I didn't want to know about the terrible shadow that we walked alongside, until I had a child of my own. Then I wanted to know. Hard to find out. The men didn't want to talk about it and what they did want to talk about they didn't want recorded. The women just maintained they weren't there. 'I wasn't at the war, ask your Aunty's sister in law, she was a nurse in Cairo.'

Oral histories are viewed with caution by some historians and are considered by many to be too personal and idiosyncratic to be taken seriously. This is because human memory is coloured by emotion to the point of being mysteriously irrational. But it is the pure vivid originality of oral histories that I love. Personal stories are often about moments. That's how human memory works. We don't remember days, we remember moments. This makes oral histories always surprising and sometimes even puzzling, particularly when exploring one event lived by several people. One person says this, another says that, to the extent that the listener might wonder if the two tale tellers were even in the same place at the same time. But if there are enough stories told by enough people, a three-dimensional picture emerges and it all starts to add up to more than the sum of its' parts. Complex, colourful and full. What I call a story net.

Lest we forget. Memory. Moments. Films are made of moments, so I started at home. I asked my father, 'What did you do in the War Dad?' 'Nothing much. Just turned up.'
'So what are those medals for?'

'Turning up. They give em out with the rations.'

When he got a cancer diagnosis he finally agreed to be recorded on sound tape. And twenty years later I have made a film based on those ten little tapes.

But everything my father told me back then, made me realise that it was the women's stories that for me provided the frame that brought home the larger picture. They held the social fabric, sewed it together when it was rent asunder and 'soldiered on.' And yet they weren't really well represented in the official version – that big simplified story of World War Two that gets dusted off for public occasions. My intuition lead to my working with Judith Fyfe and the NZ Oral History Centre at the Turnbull Library from 1992 to make a collection of women's memories of World War Two – there's about 80 or so three hour tapes held there in the National Library all meticulously annotated for future researchers to splash about in.

These accounts contributed to another film of mine, WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us. So I've been most fortunate to have been able to spend a certain amount of my adult life investigating that secret place called 'during the war' for myself and it has led to my thinking about how the personal and the public record is dislocated. While we have celebrated warriors, we have created a fault line. A big geological gash exists through our communal memory. We have rendered ourselves amnesiac.

For example, I want to share a story told to me in the film I made by Rita Graham. It is of a man, Campbell Paterson who worked with her husband Alan at a Queen Street bank. When the younger Alan was called up to serve in 1942 he refused to fight on the grounds of his Christian Pacifist principles and was therefore to be imprisoned for the duration of the war. It was the custom at the Queen Street branch to give men who had been called up to serve a send-off and a gold watch. Campbell Patterson requested that Alan be given the same respect as those who were leaving to fight. The bank manager was furious. Outraged. No send-off or gold watch for Alan Graham. He left the bank and went to serve his sentence under a cloud. But Campbell didn't forget Alan or Alan's family. Every week he collected ten shillings mostly in threepences and sixpences from staff at the Queen St branch and put it in a bank account for Rita and Alan's young family until Alan returned when the war ended. It is this story of fortitude, tolerance, and persistence that to me is an inspirational memorial of human compassion during war and I am sure there have been many instances of this kind of simple humanity. The Campbell Patterson factor. We can celebrate it Lest We Forget.

I've also been privileged to spend quality time watching hours and hours of archival footage from all over the world shot during World War Two. Again it is moments that are most vivid. One image is of ecstatic faces; people dancing in Cuba Street when the war was declared over. Complete strangers are doing the hokey-tokey into a bar, their joy expressed with complete abandon, secure in the certainty of a better future. This footage exists in beautifully exposed and archived 35mm film shot by the NZ National Film Unit for the Weekly Revue.

There is another vivid image sequence shot at the same time but in a different place. It was recorded in colour but not released to the public in its original form until very recently because at the time it was considered too disturbing for people to see. It is a long slow pan across the completely devastated city of Hiroshima just days after the atomic bomb was dropped. Miles of horrific shadows where buildings once stood, deathly quiet. A city inhabited by ghosts.

In my head I carry that film that I have never made. It is of these two sequences inter-cut on a never ending loop. Lest We Forget.

Yes, lets remember together all the hard to understand and difficult to carry human experience of war because this defiant and communal forgetfulness has created a shared memory gap where dangerous mythologies have thrived. Simplistic ideas of 'honour,' and 'glory,' and 'heroes,' and 'demons,' and 'winning,' and 'losing,' and 'goodies,' and 'baddies,' and 'enemies,' and 'allies,' and 'Victory,' have become irrefutable. Our forgetfulness is overwhelming.

So lets remember all the mainly young men who have for far too many centuries died in far too many bloody wars - Lest We Forget; And lets remember all the women and children whose lives are cast asunder during times of dreadful upheaval and loss, and the families never born because of war - Lest We Forget; And lets remember those who refuse to fight and live every day branded as cowards in communities grief stricken and in pain - Lest We Forget; And lets remember the Veterans of all wars, the Service men and women who have returned to their homes and put bitterness and hurt aside and built a society based on equality, tolerance and compassion.

Lest We Forget.

E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga karangatanga o te motu. Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

 

SONJA DAVIES 1923-2005

By Gaylene Preston
NZ Listener 1999, June 2005


Sonja Davies died last Sunday. Although she had been fragile for some time, her death was sudden. She left us in the same way she lived – in a hurry and down to business. To say that she was 'one of a kind' is an understatement. Sonja Davies was a force of nature.

To us younger women of the 70s women's movement, she was a beacon. I first met her when she was working for the Shop Employees Union and promoting the Working Women's Charter – a document as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. At that time she already had her feet under the table at the Federation of Labour as the first woman member of the Executive. That's the thing you notice about Sonja – the firsts. First president of the New Zealand Child Care Association, first female Vice President of the FOL.

Born out of wedlock, she never knew her father and defiantly, I suppose, came to relish the position of outsider. Her life was triumph and tragedy in equal measure. Both her children and their fathers died before her and she lived for her last 50 years on roughly half one lung. Having survived tuberculosis and faced death on more than one occasion, once she gained her health there was no stopping her. When we were making the mini-series based on her autobiography, Bread & Roses, we used to say, 'She had a chin and she knew how to use it.'

Communities, like individuals, are not always immediately grateful to the ones who help. Working on behalf of others can be a thankless task. Being a politician is a brutalising occupation, but somehow Sonja managed to survive it all.

She was part of a generation who put this country on its feet. They knew from personal experience the price of war. Sonja tirelessly campaigned for peace. She came to national prominence in 1955 as part of a women's protest sit-in on an obscure railway line in a tiny place called Kiwi. If they'd won, there could now be a railway line linking Nelson to the West Coast. That would have been one of the most stunning train rides in the world. ('We were right,' I can hear her saying – chin out.)

They may have lost the battle then (the line was pulled up), but, sitting on that railway line, Sonja discovered the community of womens' activism that was to become central to helping win much larger fights for universal principles. Principles that would eventually achieve greater equality and a nuclear-free New Zealand.

None of it was easy. They lived in a conformist monocultural country where difference was hardly celebrated. She suffered the slings and arrows for her strongly held beliefs on many occasions. The most recent was probably Robert Muldoon calling her 'Granny' when she came to take her place in the House of Representatives for the first time. She was quick on the uptake. 'I'm proud of that,' she said. 'And it's something you will never achieve.' She battled on in the circular corridors of power. Even in the middle of the Douglas years and the pulling down of the post offices, the selling of the railway, she battened down the hatches and worked tirelessly for her constituents. If everyone did as much on behalf of their fellow human kind as Sonja Davies did, we all would surely be living in a better world.

She was a persuasive and passionate public speaker and though she was always associated with womens' issues she was a great unionist and friend to mens' causes. I was always amazed at how she seemed to be able to travel the length and breadth of New Zealand on the train without being able to get anyone to accept payment for her ticket. When we were filming the Kiwi sequence on the railway line past Lower Hutt, Sonja arrived with hot muffins that she'd baked for our crew. At the end of the day, we offered her a ride home to Masterton. 'Don't worry, I'm fine,' she assured us as she whipped out her red jersey and held it out over the tracks. The regular train came along, stopped, picked her up and off she went. The guards, the driver – they all knew they were in the presence of greatness. She had the common touch.

I learnt to allow extra time if I went anywhere with Sonja. Even a quick walk to a taxi could be interrupted by a stranger wanting to thank her or, more usually, to ask her for help. I went to Nelson with her in 1993. It was Suffrage Year and Robin Laing and I had just completed the mini-series we made with Graeme Tetley based on her autobiography. It was Sunday. Nelson was deserted. I was walking with Sonja down a suburban street when a car came along, passed us, slowed down, did a U-turn and stopped. A door was flung open and a man approached us. 'Are you Sonja Davies?' Out came the chin. 'Yes,' she replied. 'I've always wanted to thank you for helping my father keep his job at the hospital. I was 10 at the time, you were on the hospital board …' Sonja nodded and smiled. She had no idea who he was, but she was happy to have helped them out, whoever they were. Later that night at the Suter Gallery Cinema, a packed house sat in silence as the credits rolled at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour screening. No one clapped. The lights came up. To my amazement, no one moved. They all sat there, wanting to be in her presence a little longer. Then from somewhere a man's voice rang out strongly,

'Three cheers for Sonja! Hip hip…' and the place erupted.

A mighty tree has fallen. A warrior is lying down.
Ka hinga te totara o te wao nui a Tane.
Haere ra. Te Rakatira. 

 

BEGINNINGS

By Gaylene Preston
Landfall 205, Autumn 2003


I’m wearing my polka-dotted Ossie Clarke trousers and my boots I painted rainbows on. I’ve been deposited in the darker reaches of Kilbirnie, the southerly raging as Martin drove me though the gloom of the Mt Victoria tunnel in his Austin Seven with the window screen wipers barely coping. ‘They built this during the depression.’

Accounts for the gloomy pinched narrowness with only light at the end so bright. Blinding Kilbirnie. My sister has bossed us out here. She’s a force to be reckoned with, my sister. I’ve turned up from England, all scrawny and white apparently, with a suitcase the New Zealand Railways fucked forever and $500 in my post office savings account. ‘But what are you going to do?’ They all asked. Not a question. Scary. I was doing it wasn’t I? I came home didn’t I? Seven years later, I am here. YOU ARE HERE. X marks the spot.
   
So I’m standing in John O’Shea’s office in ‘the White House’. It’s only white on the outside. Orange and brown with white and grey wallpaper – run down suburban 60s on the inside. ‘I don’t care what I do,’ I’m fond of saying. ‘There’s lots of things I can do…’ Tails off about there. John’s a large literate man in shirtsleeves chain-smoking rollies. The ash falls on to his tie and he absentmindedly flicks it aside as he continues viewing my ‘portfolio’.

Radical Feminist cartoons mostly. ‘I did these in a cartoon collective for a London-based magazine for radical social workers,’ I tell him, trying to ignore the quizzical look in his eye. ‘They’re cutting everything except the grass,’ two cartoon women sitting outside a council estate high-rise commiserate. I wonder how this translates to Muldoon’s Godzone, where unemployment is 3 per cent (dole blugers) and the cradle-to-grave social security state has been shaken by the oil crisis but not yet stirred.

‘A bad moment,’ he tells me. Pacific scrambles for business in uncertain times. ‘Y-you should see them at Avalon.’ Avalon. The city of the dead in Arthurian legend, but in good ol’ Godzone it’s Television Land. The government has built a big multi storied concrete tower in the middle of the paddocks overlooking Hutt River. A brand new television complex for a brand new Television Nation. Everyone watches. Streets deserted after half-past-six. They’re sitting in their la-Z-Boys eating chops and mash and Watties as Dougal reads the news and the brave boys take on Muldoon and everyone yells a bit on  Close To Home and the whole country is watching when Mavis’s budgie in Coronation Street lays an egg but it was supposed to be a boy budgie! Pacific have been making documentaries. Director-led docos. Barry Barclay’s ‘Tangata Whenua’ series. Tony Williams and Micheal Heath’s The Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Planet in the Universe. But I still haven’t seen these films at this point. ‘I just want to be part of a creative group,’ I tell my sister. ‘You need to go out to Pacific films then,’ She has just composed and recorded the music for Hunting Horns: James McNeish on China. Directed by Barry Barclay. Music by Jan Preston. They even paid her too. And a documentary hour is fifty-five minutes of care and attention and time to think on the telly. Two commercial breaks. Marvelous.

And I’m standing there looking at the rainbows on my boots as the dots on my trousers polka and this chain-smoking pillar of New Zealand film making is kindly and completely dismissing me from his creative cauldron. Just about the only one in the country. I look up and shrug. ‘I’ve worked seven years since art school in various institutions, some of them of a fairly total kind, and I don’t want to work in them anymore. So I won’t be going out to Avalon.’

As I left, he introduced me to this bearded bear of a blue-jeaned bloke in cowboy boots. ‘Rory, this is a film-making Sheila. An old dropout trying to drop back in again.’ They laughed the O’Shea laugh. Like water over gravel – phlegm ravaged lung with a rattle of mischief. I didn’t know till a while later: I’d got the job. 
It was the one they didn’t have. ‘You can come and art-direct.’
‘But I have no idea what an art director does.’
‘Don’t worry about it, it’s a s-secret profession. Nobody knows.’ That laugh again.
‘Well you’d better put me on a couple of months’ trial because I only know about loony bins.’
‘P-perfect training.’

So I’m now a proper professional. Fully paid ($90 a week for as many hours as it takes), Pacific Films’ ‘new art director from London’. And I haven’t the foggiest clue what I’m up to. And, more frighteningly, neither has anyone else. I take to slyly sidling up to unsuspecting (I hope) graphic artists with fully paid nine-to-five jobs at the National Film Unit in Miramar ($170 a week with superannuation and a subsidized café for a eight-hour-day, five-day week). Actual art-school graduates, they know what they’re doing. ‘I’m not sure where to get materials,’ I lie. They concur. Living with imposed import restrictions, it’s like living in Romania, not what you’d be used to in London – ‘and why did you come back anyway?’ I’m starting to wonder myself. They would then show me ways to do things in ‘this bloody country’. I’d nod sadly amid a certain amount of tut-tutting, leap into the Pacific car and whiz back to Kilbirnie to try it all out before I forgot anything.

In such a way, I managed to do graphics for the Pacific films nearing completion (Autumn Fires: Martyn Sanderson talking to his aunt Olive Bracey in the Hokianga; Korowai: weaving with Rangimarie Hetet, directed by John Reid) and every day at morning and afternoon tea I’d sit in the tearoom where strong tea brewed in a big aluminum pot and people would emerge from the bowels of the big building to drink, have a breather and swap film talk. Film talk. It’s completely incomprehensible to the unitiated. ‘Mag track’s drifting, must be a problem with the crystal.’ ‘Picture’s held well on the 600, but a bit soft in the middle there.’ I learned it by osmosis in the tearoom. Nowadays it would be called a knowledge-wave incubator. Back then it resembled a shearers’ tea-break more than anything else. We sat on orange vinyl squabs under a pall of smoke.

Amid all this deeply mysterious chatter, I finally solved the mystery of how I got hired. John O’Shea, with the wit and pure white-raged vengeance of a true-blooded Irishman, hated them out at Avalon. Acerbic and ‘ungrateful’, he had spent a lifetime trying to tickle money out of the Broadcasting Combine, a job that had become harder and harder as the only television network in the country became more-or-less exclusively an entirely in-house institution, locking out the few existing independents. Outside ‘experts’, mainly from Britain, had taken over. Pacific had gone from being a small powerhouse providing a full slate of well-made auteur documentaries to being a maker of training films and commercials, struggling on with antiquated gear and no TV commission.  John seemed to blame the current director-general personally. ‘The only time a rat joined a sinking ship,’ he had been heard to mutter. An angry Irishman who became funnier and more eloquent the angrier he got, he tested would-be hopefuls washed up at his door by suggesting the Avalon option. It was his way of getting rid of them. My strongly negative reaction had been noted with surprise. He must have remembered me when a Sydney-based ad agency suggested that Pacific would get more work if they had an art director.

To say John had a conflicted attitude towards making commercials would be an understatement. They were the only work that Pacific did that paid a healthy profit, but he despised having to do them. That was obvious to me on day one.

That morning I had got on the cable car and caught the bus to Kilbirnie. I’m delivered outside Pacific Films, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8.45 am. The place is deserted. A chill wind blows down Cruickshank Street. I’m in a ghost suburb with not an instant coffee in sight. I wish I’d never left my nice friendly gas-central-heated urban commune in Stockwell Park Crescent where we endlessly discussed the politics of housework and knew all about dialectical materialism – sort of. Karl Marx would have been completely stonkered if he’d had to account for Muldoon’s Kingdom. ‘Fish out of water’ doesn’t start to describe how I’m feeling. This is supposed to be my pond. Everything in it is so familiar - lamp-posts, washing lines, bungalows, Morris Minors. But I’m an alien being here, a square peg. I don’t belong.

Eventually a slightly worse-for-wear white Mazda turns up and out gets a small, natty-looking man with a moustache and wearing a very-neat sports coat and tie. Eric Anderson, the accountant. It wasn’t a very auspicious meeting. I have a moustache prejudice and he wasn’t too pleased to seem me either. I suppose I was just another hungry mouth to feed. But he is pleasant and amid much rubbing of hands in the cold I’m taken into a sprawling dark concrete building, shown the kettle and told not to turn the second bar of the heater on.  People wander in, quite a scruffy lot I note with relief.  No more moustaches. Beards I can handle. The last to arrive were the directors.  Noisy John Reid  - a friend from university days in Christchurch – and Barry Barclay. He had seen my 8mm film – Creeps on the Crescent – ten minutes of silliness made with my London mates. I had brought it in to show John. Barry congratulates me. Here’s this man, one of the few experienced film-makers in the entire country, making me feel like I’m the clever one. My heart doesn’t leap but that chill wind lets up a little.

John O’Shea is the last to arrive. He and Rory are trying to sort out who could do an extra unexpected task – clearly not me because I know nothing. More jokes at my expense. John looks at his watch and leaps up, bidding me to follow him to the screening room. They are presenting a commercial to the agency people. It’s a training film for New Zealand Breweries bar staff – twenty minutes on how to pour beer really fast from hoses – with the Pacific Films in-house working title Piss Pour. As we head over there, John tells me about the agency fold. ‘For really clever people, they’re quite stupid actualy.’ Cheerful disdain. We head through the little dark labyrinth of the old bakery to the double-head screening room.

As we are about to enter, John blocks me from the view of the assembled men in suits, grabs a friendly looking character standing by the doorway, pushes our heads together and whispers, ‘P-pretend you know each other, alright?’ With that he continues into the room, leaving me shuffling about looking into the equally bemused face of a complete stranger. ‘ Yea, well then… how’z a goin.’ ‘This is Gaylene, our new art director from London’,  John tells no one in particular and the lights go down.

Crunch, that was his name. Why ‘Crunch’? ‘Crunch the lunch.’ They had a nickname for everyone. They called me Bruce.

I was the worst art director you could think of. The first job I had to do was to fix the sign on ‘Chloe’s Wine Bar’. They’d put the apostrophe in the wrong place in Piss Pour and it had to be re-shot. Well, I could do that OK. Had to get a man to help me with the ladder, though, and the hammer, and the nails.

The second job was to art-direct a commercial for a sheep drench. That involved talking Dr Margaret Sparrow into allowing us to use her surgery as a location and bring a sheep in to be ‘patient’ to Ross Jolly’s ‘doctor’. John Reid was directing and was very keen to have a skeleton hanging in the back of shot. Apparently it was the art director’s job to go out and find one – which I did – from the very reluctant and quite scary tutor sister at Wellington Hospital. ‘His name’s George. He’s very fragile, you will be careful with him, won’t you.’ ‘Absolutely,’ I assured her as I bundled George into the back of the Pacific Films Holden Kingswood, doing my best to hurry before she changed her mind. George never really recovered from this experience.

I got him up the stairs to Dr Sparrow’s Kelburn surgery alright, but he came apart a bit on the way down. It was the usual thing for those days. The shooting crew (at least five people – to me an unbelievably huge behind-camera crew) worked for thirty-six hours over a weekend, then the ‘Art Department’ (me) and ‘Production’ (Crunch) cleaned up. By that time it wasn’t just George who was coming apart. So we wired him up on Monday morning and took him back, but as Crunch was thanking the teaching sister, I was in a cold sweat, hunched over George in the cramped quarters of the back of the station wagon, trying to hook up his last remains. He came out of the car looking alright but every so often I find myself wondering if the fact that I am pretty sure I put one of his arms on back-to-front is going to lead eventually to real problems in the fracture clinic.

So I settled into work at Pacific. Work until it’s done – sometimes all day, all night and all the next day, until my eyes felt like the bottom of Mavis’s budgie cage and everything seemed to be seen through the wrong end of the telescope. I harped on and on to John until he let me direct something. A twelve-minute piece titled ‘Toheroamania’ for a series called Shoreline – a water-bound Country Calendar which never really took off but should have. By the time I was sacked six months later I was a director. ‘Madame le derecteur’, John proclaimed after the double-head of my first effort. But he had to sack fourteen people one day. The combine had finally got him. It wasn’t the end, though. He kept going. Plenty of films still ahead for him – and, fortunately, for me; because I can’t work in institutions and now, to add to that, I’m pretty much unemployable in any other medium.

On my last day at Pacific I was working in a large room euphemistically called ‘the art room’ Harry Wong was reputed to have been the one who painted it black. I was spotting some black-and-white photographs, a tedious process involving a very fine paintbrush and black water-based paint. John came in and sat down at one end of the large littered worktable. The day had been long and difficult for him. I was the last to come, so I had been the first to be told to go. I was the easy one. The rest were longstanding – family, really.  The golden years of Pacific TV documentaries were gone forever. As he spoke, the sun set over the bus depot across the road and the trolly bus sparks grew brighter until they were like explosive punctuation marks against the darkening sky. After a while the street lights came on, casting orange stripes over the gloom. I had stopped working, not wanting to interrupt by turning on a work light. By then John had become a film noir shadow articulated by the glow of his ever-present cigarette. As his monologue became more and more retrospective, he told me everything he thought I needed to know to be an independent film-maker in this funny little big country so surrounded by the deep Pacific. The other rolling raging Pacific. If ever a sea was so misnamed, it has to be the Pacific.

What I remember most vividly is a story he told me about when he was shooting Runaway. ‘R-runaway’, he always called it. He made it in the ‘60s, a lone feature-maker forging a path no one was at that time all that interested in. ‘We went to an alpine southern lake. The light wasn’t right. We waited for three days. The sequence l l-looked terrific.’ A long pause. ‘I’m still p-paying for that.’

A week later, I stood at the top of Kelburn Parade looking down on the glittering jewel that is Wellington on a crisp winter morning just after a southerly. And I had a bit of a moment. My stomach turned over and my palms were clammy. I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to leave this place until I had made a feature film of my own. I tried to make the idea go away but I knew it had come to stay. And in that moment, socialist feminist cartoonist stirrer and wanderer- returned, I finally landed.

 

JOHN DEMPSEY O'SHEA (1920 - 2005)

Tribute by Gaylene Preston
Illusions 33, NZ, Autumn 2002


I nearly missed the Pacific experience. I walked in off the street into the old bakery at Kilbirnie, just as the industry was freelancing and television had gone in-house leaving the few existing independent companies high and dry and scurrying for commercials. John asked me to join Pacific Films as their new art director form London. I had come from a few years living in England sure, but I had been working in a psychiatric hospital. John considered this 'p-perfect training.' And it was.

I felt like I had arrived in the equivalent of Walt Disney's Garage. The place was full of driven creative people, very versatile, varied and focused in that down home classic way of New Zealanders. Extremists who masquerade as moderates. John was our leader. He was the funniest, the most vitriolic, the most literate, the most political and by far the wiliest. He ran the place like an extended family and like a true Irishman wasn't too keen on anyone leaving home. I didn't. I got the sack — along with about thirteen others who he had to let go. Pacific Films was going through one of the thin times and it was last in, first out. But before he left me to paddle my own canoe, on my last Friday in the big old art room, he sat with me as the sky outside the bent Venetian blinds turned from blue to pink to dusk, and told me everything he thought I needed to know to survive as a film maker. In the end all I could see was his cigarette glowing and the occasional suggestion of movement as he flicked the ash off his tie. I never forgot.

I'm glad I was around when John was around. Otherwise it would be easy to fall into that trap us baby boomers perpetuate. We think we invented everything — drugs, sex, rock' n' roll, and the New Zealand film industry. But when it come to inventing, John really was the one who knew all about that. When I stumbled into his domain ('an old d-drop out trying to drop back in again') John was on the final part of what had been a long journey towards setting up the Interim Film Commission (1978). He needed it much earlier, twenty years at least. And then when others much younger came to stand in his footsteps, he began to be called 'the grandfather', 'veteran filmmaker, John O'Shea'. He hated it. 'It makes you feel like a car,' he complained to me one day. He didn't like it because he knew that that was how they would sideline him. Veteranise on a pedestal and ignore. And he just wanted to make films, tons of them.

In a time when 'passion' was a word used to describe private behaviour nobody would want printed in Truth, he was a stubborn bloody minded Irish pakeha visionary — not easy in the monocultural Persil white fifties. He believed in the absolute necessity of a vibrant and vigorous National Cinema — about us, for us — in all our imperfections. One could illuminate and interrogate the culture's unique soul, so as to understand ourselves a little better. And he knew that central to this undertaking must be a strong Maori voice of the Tangata Whenua. It was a thankless task, and one he was still struggling with when he died.

One day when we were together in his office and I was young and hungry and probably haranguing him on something to do with womens' part in all this, he fixed me with a challenging gaze and quoted the bible.

'By their work ye shall know them.' Then he laughed.

A mighty tree has fallen. A warrior is lying down.

 

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.

BREAD AND ROSES 1993

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.

GETTING TO OUR PLACE (1999)
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.

NO OTHER LIPS (1996)
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. 

 

WAR STORIES OUR MOTHER NEVER TOLD US

by Gaylene Preston
Penguin Books Australia, 1995
ISBN 978014025619

War Stories. I don't know how I started collecting them. I suppose I grew up in the shadow of the war. During the peace. Back then, to me as a small child, there were three times: 'before-the-war', 'after-the-war' and, the most secret time of all, 'during-the-war'.

I heard stories around my mother's skirts. Sitting under the kitchen table while the women talked above me. Never about the battles or the bombs. Always about the relationships, dislocated and wrenched apart or, sometimes worse, forced together again because of that time called 'during-the-war'.

The men's stories were very different. Not only in context, but also in the telling. They were recounted loudly with a beer in one hand, a rollie in the other and eruptions of laughter. Army yarns for public consumption. Sometimes the voices would become serious and a small silence would fill the room, but not for long. The show must go on Lest We Forget.

Everyone was trying to, I realise now. Desperately seeking that amnesia that blocks out thoughts of waste and futility and tunes them into mythology. Because we won, it had to have been worth it. So my whole generation grew up in the bright piercing light of the peacetime. The fifties. Security. Conformity and everyone living the same happily-ever-after, with the deep shadow of the war largely unacknowledged. I suppose it's hard to own a war as a first-hand event when it didn't happen here. When you live in a little piece of pink on the edge of the British Empire in a place where hardly a shot was fired. No apocalypse here. No blitz. No death and carnage. Just romantic photos on the mantelpiece of young soldiers who never came back. Who never had funerals and who stayed forever young encased in the black and white reality of an Egyptian photographer's studio portrait. And those who did come back, often could only confront the terror in their worst nightmares. Sissy stuff. No demobbing. No therapy. No 'let's talk it over'. Just roll your sleeves up and work it off.

But down among the women the war was a continuing event. It was the reason why a neighbour never married, or couldn't have babies, or another's husband drank. Why a father rejected a son, why a husband couldn't be loving.

I used to think they were a timid bunch, these women, with their naïve unworldly ways and their insistence on conformity and security, but I now know how wrong I was. Reluctantly at first, because they all felt their stories weren't important, they have with great candour and frankness, told us tales that vividly evoke their lives and times. The nine stories in this book haven't been found after years of careful searching. Carefully selected they are, and it has taken a few years, but 57 similar stories are now lodged on sound tape in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and there's plenty more where they came from. Ask your grandmothers.

I have found the experience of knowing these women and listening to their stories a very humbling and inspiring one. Humbling because I suppose in my supreme confidence, I thought my generation invented everything; and inspiring because of who these women are. Their humility and deep understanding is a testament to the overwhelming triumph of the human spirit.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, one of them is my mother. I would like to thank her and the other women in this book for coming clean and telling it like it was.

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

 

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