Leanne Pooley

by Sarah Barnett / 02 September, 2006

As we go to press, Canadian-born Leanne Pooley is up for Best Director and Best Documentary at this year's Air New Zealand Screen Awards for The Promise, a documentary following euthanasia activist Lesley Martin's life during her trial for attempting to murder her mother. Pooley won Best Director at last year's awards for her 2004 documentary Haunting Douglas, a moving profile of dancer Douglas Wright. This year she turned her attention to the 1981 Springbok tour. September 15 is the 25th anniversary of the third and final test of that tour. And her latest documentary, Try Revolution, tells the story of the 1981 tour as seen by South Africans.

Why the South African side? I'd never had anyone tell me if it made a difference. I got here in 1985, and for 20 years I've heard how it tore New Zealand apart, but I've never heard the actual thing it was meant to be about: what the impact was. I was curious. As a film-maker, that's all you are at the end of the day - a paid curious person. And as soon as I started talking to South Africans it was really obvious that everyone over there over 35 remembered it vividly. [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu totally made space for me. He was only in South Africa for three days when I was there, and he was about to have prostate cancer treatment. His PA didn't want me to do it - she wanted him to have a break, but he's passionate about the fact that New Zealand was a significant element of the sports boycott.

Do you think that it will be controversial? In July, there were a couple of New Zealand specials for the anniversary, and the people who were pro-tour in 1981 are just as pro-tour now. And they still argue that politics and sport shouldn't mix. I'm sorry, but sit down with Cheeky Watson [a white South African who played with "non-racial" teams] for 10 minutes and then tell me that politics and sport don't mix. Here's a man who decided to play rugby with everybody - blacks and whites and coloureds - and his house was burnt down. His brother was shot. His children were ostracised. Nobody in South Africa ever said to me that politics and sport shouldn't mix, because they know it's an impossible argument to make. As a nation we should be mortified about some of the things - there was a tour in the 20s when the All Blacks were coming back to New Zealand having played in Britain, and stopped in South Africa to play, and the Maori players weren't allowed off the boat. And we still played with these people! Politics is all over it. But I don't think it will change people's minds.

White South Africans can get a bit of a bad rap here. There's a mixed view that either they moved here during apartheid, so good on them for getting away from a bad regime, or they moved here afterwards because they couldn't handle it. I must admit, I was really judgmental until I went. It's violent and scary - you want to try to make it work, because it should work. I've got a very good South African friend who's been here a similar time to me, and she says it's changed in the past 10 years since there's been a big influx. And she says now she can see in people's eyes one of two things: either they are liberal New Zealanders who assume she's a racist because she's a South African, or they are racist New Zealanders who automatically assume she's a kindred spirit. And she says she's not sure which is worse.

Haunting Douglas has been incredibly well-received internationally. I'd really wanted to make, for a long time, a film about what it meant to be an artist. And Douglas was a bit of a gift, because he's all those things that come with art - you know, angst and pain.

And he's thought his angst and pain through. He's so overt, taking out his heart and putting it out on stage, and I think we captured that with the film. I didn't know him before we filmed. I'd never had anything to do with him and I didn't know anything about him. But I think that's what appealed to Douglas, that I didn't come with any baggage. The dance world is pretty small and I was outside that community, so I came kind of clean, if you like, with Douglas.

What was it that attracted you to Lesley Martin's story? Well, I'd been thinking about a euthanasia film, even though I don't like making what I call "topic" films - though Try Revolution's a "topic" film. I prefer journeys, if I can find them, and I thought she's just an inordinately strong individual. I saw her on tele--vision just after she was charged and I could see that she was interesting, and in a way I think the film became about the sort of person who's willing to sacrifice everything for a cause, as much as it's about the cause. I'm just interested in people who are willing to put it all on the line, and it's the same with Douglas - you know, that kind of personality that nothing matters but the work.

Try Revolution, TV1, Monday, 8.30pm


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