My Year With Helen: Helen Clark and Gaylene Preston say 'don't get mad, get organised'

My Year With Helen premiered in New Zealand at this year's NZ International Film Festival. It is now screening in ...
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My Year With Helen premiered in New Zealand at this year's NZ International Film Festival. It is now screening in mainstream cinemas.

Given half the chance, New Zealanders not living under a rock at the turn of the millennium will tell you about the time they met Prime Minister Helen Clark. Ribbon-cuttings, corporate keynotes, tree plantings, prize-givings, a ride shared in a Beehive elevator – mention Clark's name in conversation, and your companion will invariably regale you about their brush with Aunty Helen.

Gaylene Preston's tale lasts rather longer than most. The award-winning film-maker's latest documentary, My Year With Helen, is a study in what happens when a woman publicly contests the most prestigious role in international diplomacy. It's also a portrait of resilience in the face of a very public loss.

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* Helen Clark documentary gets standing ovation at world premiere

 
 
 

CAPTURING CHANGE ON CAMERA

Two years ago, Wellington-based Preston was feeling despondent about the state of the world. She got wondering about what the former prime minister, then in her second term leading the United Nations Development Programme, was doing. The pair didn't know each other beyond the artsy circles in which they'd occasionally mixed when Clark was PM. But Preston contacted Clark, who'd been based in New York following Labour's loss to National in the 2008 election, asking if she could make a film about her. It was to be, Preston would later say, "about how global change might work from behind the shoulder of the most powerful person in the world that I could get access to". Clark agreed to the film, giving Preston complete creative control.

Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of the UNDP, with filmmaker Gaylene Preston, at Event ...
DAVID WHITE/STUFF

Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of the UNDP, with filmmaker Gaylene Preston, at Event Cinemas in Auckland.

Ahead of My Year With Helen's general release in New Zealand theatres, Sunday meets film-maker and subject in a lounge at Event Cinemas in central Auckland. Clark explains she thought the film would be a good opportunity to let people know what she'd been up to as the head of the UN's global development network.

In the years since departing New Zealand, her high-powered globetrotting has lent her an air of mystique it's unlikely she'd have cultivated had she stayed in the Antipodes. Clark's Instagram account depicts a patchwork of exotic locations, while her Twitter feed offers more than 158,000 followers a steady stream of links to issues of global import. 

Almost two decades after she became New Zealand's first elected female prime minister, the 67-year-old's Facebook page is regularly beset with half-serious pleas to re-enter the political fray. Clark's responses indicate she isn't the slightest bit tempted, but some Kiwis' nostalgia for Aunty Helen is unwavering. In last year's ill-fated flag referendum, a design was submitted for consideration depicting Clark's sunglasses-clad visage in lieu of a Union Jack.

 

Six months into filming, Clark announced her bid to become the UN's ninth Secretary General. Preston, who'd been having trouble raising funds for the film, was thrilled: Suddenly, would-be donors were opening their wallets. In a recent post-screening Q&A, Preston told the audience: "Once Helen decided to run – she took ages to own up – the whole thing took off."

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The result is a fly-on-the wall documentary, following characters ranging from Clark herself, her husband Peter and 94-year-old father George, to the diplomats, staffers, journalists, and academics who were willing to go on the record about the history-making possibility of a woman leading the UN. Clark rubs shoulders with US Congress members, shares a candlelit dinner with Botswanan community leaders, nurses a cuppa at her dad's kitchen table…

Preston, 70, can also be glimpsed in the film, hopscotching through the UN's bureaucratic red tape in a bedazzled leather jacket and a fedora. She told the Q&A audience that UN media liaison officers referred to her as "the Mad Hatter".

A still from My Year With Helen, featuring Helen Clark with husband Peter Davis.
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A still from My Year With Helen, featuring Helen Clark with husband Peter Davis.

"I took it as a term of endearment".

For her, having a woman at the UN's helm was a simple equation. In the 70 years since the organisation charged with maintaining international peace and security was formed, it had had eight Secretaries General, all men. And yet the UN's own charter enshrines gender equality as a guiding principle of the organisation.

As a former Canadian ambassador to the UN notes in the film, it's not as though men have brought great value to the role: Previous Secretaries-General had been at best mediocre, and at worst, Nazi supporters, he says. But Clark, one of seven female candidates of a total of 13, was by all accounts a formidable contender. As the first female leader of the UNDP, she'd transformed the institution into the world's most transparent aid organisation. She was ranked 23rd on Forbes' list of the world's most powerful women. She was, as a Commonwealth Local Government Forum official once put it, "one of the most successful New Zealanders ever produced".

 

In the film, Clark says she's never asked anyone to vote for her because she is a woman.

"I've said 'vote for me' because I'm the best candidate."

THE CHARADE

Gaylene Preston and Helen Clark at My Year With Helen's world premiere in Sydney this year. The film received a 4-minute ...
BRENDON THORNE/GETTY IMAGES

Gaylene Preston and Helen Clark at My Year With Helen's world premiere in Sydney this year. The film received a 4-minute standing ovation.

In the end, the best wasn't good enough. The six-month campaign, which involved addresses to the UN General Assembly, televised debates, and closed-door conversations with members of the Security Council, had been waged with unprecedented publicity, intended to lend transparency to a historically opaque process.

Any transparency was ultimately a charade, Clark says now. The Twittersphere may have been calling for a female in general, and Clark in particular, to lead the UN, but the Security Council's five veto-wielding members always had the final say. The members' individual choices were never made public, nor were their rationales. In Clark's words, the process "ain't a fair cop".

In the sixth straw poll, conducted in October, the Council voted to maintain the status quo. Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, received majority support. He assumed the role of the UN's ninth Secretary General in January.

Clark, who placed fifth overall in the contest, was on a plane returning from Dubai when the result – which she deems "entirely predictable" – was announced. Her gender wasn't necessarily the deciding factor, she says. The fact she wasn't Eastern European, and couldn't speak French or Spanish, also counted against her.

The "killer blow", though, was her reputation for being a change agent from "an independent-minded little country that doesn't take its bidding from anyone".

"When you add into that there's an older woman who's not going to be told what to do, she'll use her own judgment, I think that's very threatening," she says, adding: "It's what they need."

When Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern took the stage at a packed campaign launch last month, Helen Clark - the party's ...
DAVID WHITE/STUFF

When Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern took the stage at a packed campaign launch last month, Helen Clark - the party's former leader - watched from the front row.

In Clark's final interview with Preston, the UN's most powerful woman says winning would have been the easy bit.

"You have to be resilient enough to lose."

Clark's has been a career of wins and losses, which she says she's always put in perspective with maintaining good health, good relationships, a good life. Clark has lost elections, she has lost her mother.

"This was definitely not the most crushing thing that's ever happened," she says.

She is miffed to have spent six months on the campaign, which could have been spent on more productive work.

"On the other hand," she says, "then the point wouldn't have been made so strongly there are still glass ceilings to break".

DON'T GET MAD, GET ORGANISED

Less than two months after Clark's campaign ended, Wonder Woman – the buxom comic book superhero – was named an honorary UN ambassador for women. Staff at the UN and NGOs were less than impressed by the appointment, which was abolished within months.

Clark chuckles wryly at the memory.

"A lot of comment was made – 'you could have had the real thing'."

Reactions to Preston's films have been similarly outraged. The duo offers a mantra to those disheartened by the film: "Don't get mad, get organised."

For Preston, her film is a "drop in the bucket" to that end. She hopes it sparks in audiences an understanding that women's empowerment is a net gain for the world.

"If we empower women, men don't lose power. What we have is more power among humanity."

Clark, who left the UNDP in April after serving two full terms in her role, says getting organised isn't just about money, it's about using your voice to champion issues at home, and abroad. Her Twitter feed continues to reflect the spectrum of causes she's passionate about, among them women's health, rights and political participation.

"Certainly, whatever I can do to give women a lift up and encourage them, I will."

Indeed, when Jacinda Ardern was elected Labour Party leader to a chorus of questions about future reproductive plans, Clark was quick to tweet her advice.

"Ignore the sexist attacks and get on with the job."

 - Sunday Magazine

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