Filmmaker Gaylene Preston on stalking Helen Clark for a year

by Russell Baillie / 23 July, 2017
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Gaylene Preston.

Gaylene Preston was taken by surprise when her famous subject decided to apply for another job in the middle of filming.

Gaylene Preston spent much more than a year on My Year with Helen. Her observational documentary about Helen Clark at the United Nations had started as a simple idea: she would film what the former prime minister actually did in her then role as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and try to make a movie out of it.

But after the veteran director had started filming and followed Clark from the UN’s New York headquarters to Botswana, Clark announced her bid for UN Secretary-General. Preston didn’t see it coming.

“No. Well I should have. There were people who did know that that job was coming up. But one of them wasn’t me.”

If Preston was blindsided by the decision of the UN’s No 3 to have a tilt at No 1, it certainly gave extra impetus to the film by the director-producer whose documentary credits stretch back nearly 40 years.

But that was part of what she had signed on for – a doco where she didn’t quite know in advance the story she was setting out to tell.

“It’s a funny thing for someone such as me to like doing because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles. And in a way, making a documentary like this, first, you have to find the pieces and then put them together. But this was like making a jigsaw puzzle out of soft jelly.”

The finished film clips together neatly into an illuminating, intriguing doco. My Year with Helen becomes something more than just a fly-on-the-wall study of Clark. It’s a campaign documentary and a study of UN in-house and gender politics as well as a look into the strange closed world of international diplomacy.

And, yes, it’s also a portrait of Clark who, despite her profile and experience, failed to win the recommendation of the Security Council to be Secretary-General. Instead, it appointed former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, the ninth bloke in a row in the job and a man who, in the words of Clark, was “a good old boy who won’t do anything”.

But it was before the selection process, when Preston tagged along with Clark on an official UNDP visit to Botswana, that she realised her fledgling film had its own theme. Preston came away from the visit moved by Clark’s meeting with local women leaders.

“Female leadership is not something I have ever been particularly interested in. I have always sort of seen it as a bit of a white woman’s lament. But once you actually start looking at how things work globally, it is clear that women are marginalised when it comes to the top-level work.

Preston with Helen Clark.

“The film is not really about Helen Clark. Helen is the main character who takes us through the story and gives us the kind of arc of the story – the ups and downs of it. But Helen is not a theme.’’

Theme or not, Clark is the woman Preston stalked for a year, and not just through the high-security corridors of the UN (“I’ll tell you what,” she says, “the UN is not made for documentaries and our access was unique and extraordinary and difficult”).

Preston and crew also followed Clark to Africa, Ukraine, Spain – and to Waihi Beach, where 95-year-old George Clark proudly displays a deep freeze full of meals cooked by his dutiful eldest daughter on her flying visits home.

“If you want to know what it is that women do differently, I think that is it in a nutshell.”

Preston didn’t know Clark particularly well before asking if she could film her. “I was in that circle of people, which probably constitutes thousands, who have had a conversation with her on the edge of a party.” They first met through Sonja Davies, the pioneering feminist, trade unionist and Labour MP whose autobiography Preston turned into the acclaimed 1993 miniseries Bread & Roses.

Clark.

When the Listener suggests that Bread & Roses and My Year with Helen might be companion pieces, Preston likes the idea. After all, some of her other movies work in pairs – her thrillers Mr Wrong and Perfect Strangers; the World War II recollections in War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us and Home by Christmas.

“I hadn’t thought of Bread & Roses and My Year with Helen going together but actually, although one is a documentary and one is a period drama, you don’t get Helen without Sonja.”

As the title suggests, My Year with Helen puts Preston in the frame – or at least at the edge of it, asking questions in such a way that it suggests she hasn’t missed her calling as a current affairs host.

“Helen probably thought I was even dumber than I am, because of my interview style, which was, ‘Gosh, golly, holy cow, really?

Preston.

“But I had to do that because I didn’t want the interviews to be interviews. I wanted them to be hanging out. The film is not a current-affairs thing. It’s actually personal.”

She’s happy with the amount she appears on camera. There was some discussion during the long editing process that she should be in it more. But Preston sounds thankful to a test audience who saw her in an early cut.

“We had a test screening where I was in it more and I rated lower than the Russian ambassador. So that was easy. I am sitting comfortably where I like to sit.”

My Year with Helen will screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Further centres to be confirmed.

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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