My Year with Helen – movie review

by Peter Calder / 11 September, 2017

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Ever the optimist: Helen Clark’s graciousness in failure was belied by her expression.

A documentary about Helen Clark and her bid for the top UN job doesn’t hit the mark.

Both less and more than it might have been, this documentary about Helen Clark’s tilt at the top United Nations job is an engrossing failure, the best parts of which seem to have happened more by luck than as the result of a coherent vision.

The title presumably reflects the origins of the project: Clark was in her second four-year term at the head of the UN Development Programme and veteran film-maker Gaylene Preston – who says she was down in the dumps about the state of the planet – decided to make a film about Clark’s “optimism about the possibilities for doing global good”. Inexplicably, though, the “my year …” was not ditched the moment that Clark, in mid-production, announced her candidacy for the top job, which disturbingly suggests that Preston never realised it’s not all about her.

In any case, the sudden change of direction seems to have caught the filmmaker by surprise from which she never quite recovers. From its opening moments, it plays as a fly-on-the-wall, day-by-day account of Clark’s campaign, but that only works if the audience doesn’t know how things turned out. Since the result is probably better known – at least here in the film’s primary market – than the result of World War II, it was never going to fly.

We do get a moderately fascinating portrait of the inner workings of the UN. Thanks largely to the generosity of a couple of members of the press pack who keep both film-maker and audience up with the play, we glimpse – and only glimpses are allowed – how the organisation goes about selecting a new boss.

It gives nothing away to say it’s a dispiriting spectacle: the smug expressions of ambassadors playing hard to get, the opaque “announcements” after rounds of voting, the sheer ponderousness of the machinery.

Preston is alive, as she should be, to the sexism at work (spoiler alert: the ninth SG, like the previous eight, is a bloke), but even here she misses the story hiding in plain sight. She has two terrific women, a middle-aged Yale academic and a dazzlingly smart young researcher, to intone the refrain that it’s time to give the girls a go, but the film never makes the case.

It notes that Clark, the first woman in her job, opened the UNDP’s books – an extraordinary achievement – but squanders the opportunity to extrapolate from that and explain just how women might make a better job of running the world than the grey white men have done. It’s not a hard argument to mount, but the film needs to do more than take it as read.

In the final scene, the defeated contender sits in her office and speaks of the importance of not being bitter and of her confidence in a future in which “something constructive will be found” to do. Her graciousness is belied by her face, though, which wears the expression of a woman who has just bounced off one of the biggest glass ceilings there is and is sickened by the fact. It’s a telling, sobering moment, despite Preston’s jarring, chirpy interpolations. And it serves to underline, as if it needed underlining, how the film is an opportunity missed.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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