My Year With Helen: One Kiwi film-maker's journey into the surreal world of the UN

Transmission Films

My Year With Helen will screen in select cinemas nationwide from August 31.

Kiwi film-maker Gaylene Preston says she didn't set out to expose the UN in her latest documentary.

But while My Year With Helen is designed as a portrait of one of our own, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, the focus on her bid to be Secretary General reveals the closed-door politicking and archaic attitudes rife at the supposedly transparent world body.

With candidate-swapping, block voting and vetos, the film suggest an organisation as slippery as the much-maligned IOC or FIFA and a voting process akin to the Vatican's anointing of a new pope. There's even a depiction of white smoke, something Preston puts down to "a little film-makery joke", but that was really billowing just outside the UN that day. 

But for all that she witnessed during the New York shoot, the affable Preston still believes in the importance of the organisation.

"I think it's worth remembering that the UN is an audacious idea. One hundred and ninety three countries believing in talking. You can't expect that to be easy because all countries have regime changes – they're not solid state. It's a miracle it's still there really."

My Year With Helen follows former New Zealand Primer Minister Helen Clark as she bids to become UN Secretary General.

My Year With Helen follows former New Zealand Primer Minister Helen Clark as she bids to become UN Secretary General.

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Describing her tale as "an ethnographic film" ("the UN consists of tribes – the diplomats and politicians, the lobbyists and the media"), she says she found filming at the UN  "totally frustrating". 

"Fortunately my co-producer Catherine Madigan knows the organisation well – she spent a year in East Timor with the UN. So she knew how it worked, plus she's a great researcher. With her alongside, we could use the formal channels and when they didn't work, I would 'duck under the fence' and hope I wouldn't get arrested."

Gaylene Preston at the world premiere of My Year With Helen during the Sydney Film Festival in June 10.
Brendon Thorne

Gaylene Preston at the world premiere of My Year With Helen during the Sydney Film Festival in June 10.

To both her amusement and consternation, she and Madigan were lumped in with the UN's regular media contingent. "They were doing daily dispatches. We had to make ourselves a little bit different. Over time, people got what were doing. It didn't mean we had anymore access, in fact we probably had less, because the only sources we had were them [the other media]. We were in the dark most of the time. I wore my hat, leather jacket and clearly identified as a kind of 'Ngati Arty Farty' and that saw us through – to a degree."

But before Preston even contemplated hanging out on First Avenue, this particular film-making journey began half a world away in Africa.

"The [NZ] Film Commission have this thing that allows film-makers to 'test a concept' for a proposed drama or a documentary. We were funded with enough money for a small crew to go off to Botswana and follow Helen on a visit to see where a film might lie.

Helen Clark shows father George the latest batch of meals she's created for him, in a memorable scene from My Year With ...
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Helen Clark shows father George the latest batch of meals she's created for him, in a memorable scene from My Year With Helen.

"It was during that visit that we captured one of the women in the leaders' meeting saying 'we are punished for being the mothers of the human race'. When we filmed that, my heart leapt because I thought I would really like to make a film where somebody could say that clearly.

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"That was my interest in following Helen. It might sound strange, because she's isn't a mother, but she has always had a clear idea around empowering women and mothers."

Preston says working on the film also made her proud to be a New Zealander.

Gaylene Preston says filming at the UN was "terribly frustrating".

Gaylene Preston says filming at the UN was "terribly frustrating".

"We do seem to tolerate women leaders. Someone might correct me, but I think we're the only country in the world to have had, at one moment, women as the Prime Minister, Governor General, Attorney General and leader of the CTU [Council of Trade Unions]. And we weren't all going crazy about what they were wearing each day. I looked at Hilary Clinton last year and thought that woman has spent two hours in hair and makeup before she appears in the morning anywhere. That's a terrible burden to put on our female politicians. I saw a lot of misogyny and see it a lot in leadership around the world. I'm not saying it doesn't exist here, I'm just saying that women leaders are more mainstream here."

Preston admits that like many Kiwis she probably hasn't appreciated that proud heritage and the Clark's influence as much as she should have. "I took Helen for granted really. But I thought it would be really interesting to follow what she was doing at the UN, because I thought she's not the kind of person who is going to sit around with a soft desk job. Put Helen Clark on the world stage with the way she operates and you'll find her running around with a metaphorical screwdriver in her top pocket."

That can-do attitude and desire to fix things was probably what cost her top job though [it instead went to Portugal's António Guterres], Preston believes. "She clearly started what she'd do and I think that was very threatening to some countries."

Gaylene Preston believes many Kiwis took Helen Clark for granted while she was a politician here.

Gaylene Preston believes many Kiwis took Helen Clark for granted while she was a politician here.

But as well as a consummate politician and smart operator, My Year With Helen also shows New Zealander's another side to Clark – that of doting daughter. Some of the documentary's most memorable scenes involve Clark with her nonagenarian father George up at his home in Waihi Beach.

"That's her other job," says Preston, "the daughter of a 94-year-old who is maintaining himself very well at home in the small community.  I think he should get a best support award. He is a great supporter of his daughter."

She says that it was while in Botswana that Preston discovered that Clark phoned her Dad every day – no matter where she was in the world.

"It's not every second or third day, or three times a week. It's every day.  You've got to be organised to do that. I think that's what keeps her firmly planted."

And as the documentary also demonstrates, whenever Clark is home, she cooks around 90 meals for her Dad and freezes them in margarine containers.

"I think we'll have to publish Helen's recipes," laughs Preston. "Chilli Con Carne, pear and beef stew, chicken and pineapple," she says slightly grimacing.

"I put that in the film because I think whenever a women does a job they are never going to do it the same as a man. We talk about equality, but to me that doesn't mean 'the same'. We all know as women in New Zealand that we'll have achieved equality when public buildings have two female loos for every one male loo. Everytime you go to anything there are huge queues for the ladies' loos because there is a biological difference. So I think when there are no queues – we've achieved equality."

My Year With Helen (E) opens in select cinemas nationwide from August 31.

 - Stuff

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