This interview was conducted with Gaylene Preston at her home in Wellington, which also serves as her production studio. As Preston led me back towards the kitchen, obviously the central gathering place in her modest home, I was struck immediately by the array of black and white family photos lining the walls of the hall corridor, showcasing family members who have become vivid, memorable characters familiar to film audiences around the world. The bedroom had been converted into an editing suite, the front living room into an office where papers and documents lay unopened. I had caught Preston in transit; she had just returned home from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where her recently released film Home by Christmas had been screened as part of a selection of Antipodean films. While abroad, she had learned of the unexpected death of her long-time friend and collaborator, respected Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, with whom she had worked on the landmark documentary Patu! (1983). Preston was en route to the Sydney International Film Festival the next morning. At Sydney’s State Cinema, Home by Christmas was voted third most popular film in the Audience Award category. Fifteen years earlier at this same festival, her documentary War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) – which in many respects can be considered a companion work to Home by Christmas — had not only been voted the most popular film but also Best Documentary. The Cinema Studies Program at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in association with the Christchurch Art Gallery and Rialto Cinemas will host a retrospective exhibition of the director’s work in 2011.
ABROAD AND AT HOME
Can you describe how your interest in filmmaking evolved; where and when you first decided to become a filmmaker; your early experiences as a woman forging a film career within New Zealand?
I’ll summarise for you. I studied painting at Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury…
Do you continue your painting at all today?
No, I do a bit of drawing occasionally. I studied for three years. I did not graduate. In fact, I would be one of the better known ‘failures’ from the Art School. I took the first job available in Christchurch in 1969—early 1969—and I got a job at Calvary Psychiatric Day Hospital. I found myself in a very progressive environment at that little day hospital. I was an nursing assistant and because I had a background in drama and the visual arts, and it was the open minded place it was—nine months later when I had to fill in “Occupation” on my passport, I wrote ‘Art Therapist,’ a term I thought I had made up, but when I got to Europe I found that it was a very well established discipline.
Anyway, when I got to Cambridge in the UK, the first job that I got was as an assistant librarian at Fulbourn Psychiatric Hospital and I sort of found my community there. Part of the assistant librarian’s job was to direct the hospital Christmas pantomine every year. Using that as a platform, over three years with a small multidisciplinary group, I managed to establish drama therapy across the hospital, and we also managed to lobby to get an art therapist position set up.
So we were doing improvisational drama therapy, and we could see how useful it was for institutionalised patients. They thought they were getting ready to perform a play. A play institutionalises the performance. You have to learn your lines, and you have to learn your moves, and you repeat them over and over. The problem these patients had was that every day was the same as the day before, and every week was the same as the week before, so we were trying to de-institutionalise them. All over Britain hospitals were being closed down. These institutionalised patients were on the brink of being shut out and shunted off to bed sitters without real support. Anything that could be done to help them reclaim their sense of spontenaety was crucial. Anyway, I had a bunch of mates—I was in a small experimental theatre group in Cambridge called Whole Earth. We were a theatre group that was political. We were interested in forging a fusion of acid rock and Brecht, and we were constantly rehearsing; we did very few actual performances.
Anyway my Whole Earth mates, they came out to the hospital, and one of them had an 8mm camera, so she said, “Oh yeah, we’ll make them a film. A film is great. Every take is fresh.” And then my friend who was shooting the film eloped, and I got left with a little pile of film cans on the dining room table when I came in one night. I had to solve the problem of making a film out of the material we had shot so far, so that we could screen it to the patient group. And I didn’t even know that you cut it up—you know—you could take the bad bits out and cellotape together the best bits. So I made this silent film. Then we needed to make a sound track. I borrowed a tape recorder that was probably about as big as this half of the table. It was a big green thing. I thought it was fantastic because it had two tracks. Two separate tracks! And if you pushed the tape recorder and projector buttons at around about the same time, you could play the film, and it nearly achieved a weird synch. So my first films were made as silent movies with a sound track added, because once I made that film I then moved to London, and I started working in drama with West Indian kids at Brixton College of Further Education. I started making films with deaf kids. It was fantastic for them to be able to actually say a line of dialogue because you can record each word one at a time and then cut it together and make it a sentence. So anyway, my interest in film grew out of doing that community therapy based work.
Were you at all interested at that time about what was going on in the film world? It must have been a very vibrant time in Europe with people working in the post-New Wave period.
It was —it was amazing. I was part of the London Women’s Film Group. We met every Wednesday in the Women’s House in Earl Street, and there were woman in that film group who had jobs in the industry. They just seemed to me to be really upset most of the time. I gradually realised that if I stayed in the UK, then chipping away at the edifice was pretty well what I was going to get to be doing. Most of the people that I was involved with in London outside my actual job were people who were campaigning for sexual politics and progressive politics, often within the large monolithic unions because you know the left was very hard bound in those days in Britain. I pricked up my ears when I got messages from home because there seemed to be more possibilites. I heard about this bus that was going around doing concerts for kids using film and performance. So, though I was living happily in Britain, I started to get a bit home sick. Around this time, my friends in London took me to see This is New Zealand —the now quite famous three-screen installation by the NZ National Film Unit. The way that they took me to see it was unusual. They said, “Right, we’re taking you on a magical mystery tour for your birthday, so what time are you home from work”? And I said, “Oh, I’ll be home at 4 o’clock”. “Great”. And I walked in at about half past four, and suddenly they grabbed me, blindfolded me, shoved me into the car with a joint in my hand, and off we went. We drove for 20 minutes. They guided me across big wide streets blindfolded, and they’re not worrying too much about me because we are now late. We are having to nearly run with me, still with the blindfold on, and we walk into what I think is a big ferry building. It sounds like a big building. Then they take the blindfold off, and I am standing with my nose just about one inch in front of these two black vinyl doors, and on the doors is a big sign in white-on-black that says, ‘This is New Zealand’. And I pushed open the doors and I walked into the dark where a film was just beginning—it was just that moment after the lights have gone down, and the film hasn’t started yet. We hustled into front row seats, sat down, and up it came—this three-screen blast. The Southern Alps, we are flying over Aoraki, and I just thought, “Oh, I have to go home. They can make films there!” That film really brought me home, which was not the result my friends were looking for.
It did the opposite.
Yeah, it did the opposite. So with difficulty, I left my lovely life in London where I had it pretty good; like I had three days a week well paid part-time work down at the College of Further Education, and four days a week off to do what ever I liked. I had a badge that said ‘Einstein was a Part Timer’. I mean it was very creative time for me all of that period. Anyway, I came home.
Was the transition hard?
Very. I don’t actually think that I really, really, really arrived home until Perfect Strangers (2003).
Well, I don’t know…. I think the way that my father dealt with it was actually the opposite to me. He just came home from the war and went, “I’m never going back there again”—and never did. He wasn’t going one millimetre out of New Zealand—he would eventually go to Australia much later in his old age. He didn’t talk about it but he stayed home. Whereas for me, ever since I came back in 1977 I’ve always had to head out on a regular basis. In a funny way when I finish a film, I need to still go and sort of set my compass—I set my compass over there in the Northern Hemisphere.
Different from other filmmakers like Jane Campion though, you’ve chosen to stay here in New Zealand. I think you said at one time it’s important to make films for New Zealanders because no one else will do it if you don’t.
So did you ever cross paths with Campion?
Only at parties. See, as I arrived in New Zealand, Jane left.
So, you were like ships passing in the night, and she never really came back to live.
Well, she is back here occasionally—down south, but there has not been a conversation there. I would have liked there to have been, I like conversations with other directors, but we have never really been in the same place at the same time.
It would seem to me that New Zealand offers a kind of safe haven in many ways for voices like yours, so that you’re not just completely subsumed or overwhelmed by everything else that’s going on around you.
Yeah, because you need a bit of quiet to hear the inner voice. I think if you were summing up my films you could say that they are quiet—they don’t easily fit a sort of political filmmaker profile. I think that they’ve got really strong politics in them, but they’ve also got…there’s an interest in fantasy and whimsy that sits around the ideas. I think I’ve got a gentle voice, and the film room is noisy…
Did you become, when you came back to New Zealand, less prone to identify with movements like the feminist movement or other film movements, or did you still feel connected to certain aesthetic traditions? It seems like in Britain you had this period where you were identified with certain movements and you enjoyed that collective spirit– did you find yourself more isolated here?
No, I found myself very involved, because here was a new industry emerging and there was this maverick urgency. But there was also a very sophisticated discussion going on, particularly among those of us who were making documentaries. There was a bunch of people in Wellington during 1978/79/80, they came and went, but there was a core group who were having an intense conversation about what film was for, and what change could be achieved using film—which side was the camera on and what were the ethics of tax payer funded filmmaking. That’s how Patu! happened. During the Springbok Tour of 1981. That was an extraordinary piece of collective filmmaking— Patu! We all went out; we stole film stock, we shot extremely dangerous situations, we….
Were you part of the cinematographic crew on Patu!?
My credit on Patu! is “middle New Zealand co-ordinator”,—it’s an in-joke. Basically the collective stood alongside Merata, and we made sure that all of the independently shot footage went in one direction—it all went to Merata to make a feature film. One film for the cinema, because we saw that as the liberating space, not television which was pretty locked up here. There was a real feeling that independent filmmakers— it flowed out of Pacific Films to a degree—that the independents were the filmmakers of the people; we reflected local concerns and I felt like I was part of a small community of activist filmmakers, progressive thinking people, who were politically sophisticated—many of them Maori—most of them gone now.
Unlike the UK, the politics in New Zealand suited me because it’s little. There’s not enough of us to form factions. Actually, the 1981 Springbok Tour protests were a really good example of that. On one end of the spectrum you had the churches marching, you know, ladies from Thorndon, and on another end of the spectrum you had the gangs getting involved. There was a sometimes very fraught conversation going on between all of them; but somehow these factions were able to agree to disagree on fairly basic things and take action on what they did agree on. And that was about racism in sport. On the 1st of May 1981, more than 300,000 people marched to ask the Government to stop that tour. Now in a country of just over three million people, at the time, that amounts to around 10 percent of the population hitting the road across the country to state, really clearly, a heartfelt view. I always think that for every person who is actually on the street in any protest, there are two or three that aren’t there but support the cause, so it was an overwhelming phenomenon. Did the Government stop it? No. So we stopped protesting and picked up cameras and stood with the anti-racist movement often in the middle of the line, staring down the police batons rolling film we had begged, borrowed, or stolen.
I didn’t make Patu! —Merata did—but I certainly played a part along with Martyn Sanderson, Waka Attewell and Vanguard Films and others, recording that extraordinary moment from a very different point of view from the other footage that was shot during the tour. We didn’t shoot from on top of buildings; we shot down among the protesters, and all of that footage was put in one place, which was with the independent un-vetted voice of a Maori woman filmmaker who was able to go away—pretty well into hiding—and make her film with total creative control. We decided that, and we stuck to it. That remains an extraordinary thing to me because filmmakers get very attached to their footage. Especially if they have the raw stock!
I agree. Do you find that that spirit, that kind of community spirit and political spirit, is still alive today in New Zealand?
I think among documentary filmmakers most certainly.
Obviously what you’re pointing to is a strong tradition of women, activists and filmmakers who have enjoyed long, very prolific and successful careers. Merata, of course, serving as the mother figure, in many respects, of that particular documentary tradition.
You see, that tradition of documentary filmmaking is deeply rooted in independent work. If you look at the films of Barry Barclay, if you look at the way Vanguard Films have just carried on making their movies, that’s the old guard. And I have played my part one way or another. I was making films that reflected my concerns. In All The Way Up There (1978), about a disabled 21-year-old who climbs Mt Ruapehu with Graham Dingle, the centre of that movie is the interview with Bruce Burgess whose disability is quite extreme aphasia, which has a huge impact on his speech. It takes him a while to say what he has to say, and we had to subtitle it. The commissioning editor at TVNZ said, “Whatever you do, don’t interview him. Go away and get some good wallpaper footage, and then put a commentary over it.”
But making a film where the audience are brought to that interview and feel able to sit comfortably and wait to hear what he has to say, no matter how laborious, that’s the reason for making that film. It’s all about changing attitudes.
I feel like Titless Wonders (2001) continues in that spirit, where again you’re focusing on women who have been invisible, whose scars, whose experiences have been not spoken about publically.
That’s an overriding interest. When I came back from the UK, I felt that our kids, our teenagers, were extremely invisible. I came back to New Zealand and felt like everybody was asleep; that there was this big wave of unemployment about to hit, and nobody was prepared for it, least of all the kids who were going to be the ones that wore it, which was exactly what happened. Learning Fast (1980) was a way of revealing that process. That took two years to make. So I suppose by choosing the less obvious political subjects, but choosing to focus on the personal political, that’s where my work sits, always has, you know, all of it. Political filmmaking for me is to make consciousness-raising films that screen in prime time or at the movies. They’re actually masquerading, if you like, as mainstream populist movies. All of my work’s been around that idea. So today we’ve got Home by Christmas having done a million bucks at the movies, and actually, it’s an anti-war film, masquerading as a nice old codger entertaining you. But actually, it’s got a very clear —I mean I’m reflecting my father’s opinion—but it’s got a very clear anti-war theme.
I was thinking of how you grew up –obviously you went abroad, and this had a great deal to do with shaping you professionally and personally. But really, you came from a typical Kiwi family with typical Kiwi parents. Did they play any role in forming you as an artist? Did they give you that impetus to speak your mind or to have a unique personal vision? It seems like a lot of your films are generated from within this family.
Yeah, which is interesting, isn’t it? I grew up in a participatory culture. First of all in Greymouth and then in Napier, and in both of those places, like most little towns in the 50’s in New Zealand. . . you know, everybody would say, “Oh, we made our own fun. We entertained ourselves”. So if you could sing or dance or were the slightest bit precocious, you kind of got pushed on stage. So that meant I was in the Sunday school concert at the age of three and from then on I was an entertainer; my mother who was very shy was quite appalled at this but supported me. And as far as the arts are concerned, my generation got fast-tracked—we got an art based, play based education— big time. When we walked into our primary schools, we were handed a big fat paint brush into our chubby little mits and confronted with big easels and paint pots, and there was a sandpit and this scary lady who played the piano, and we all had to learn to folk dance and sing harmonies. A whole generation of us, who were working class kids got put through to university—educated far beyond our parents’ wildest dreams— for free. I’m a part of that, and through that time I found not a single New Zealand story on our bookcase at home.
But all this education became a source of conflict eventually because I got interested in a much larger world and wanted to leave home to go to art school. I was kicking over the traces wearing black tights and big jerseys and black eyeliner and white lipstick— that wasn’t what I was supposed to be educated for. I was meant to be wearing a white cardigan and teaching piano part-time while working in a bank waiting to get married. Well, that was not going to happen. We, my generation of women, have lived way beyond our parents’ expectations. When I made my first independent film, All the Way Up There, my father and mother came to a screening. At the next family gathering my father took me aside—he’d realised that I was going to be a filmmaker without steady work, standing outside the institutions—he worked it out, which is quite clever for a milkman from Napier. Anyway, he said, “Look love, I’m retiring next year. I’m 75 and I’ll be retiring, and that milk run of mine, that’s the best milk run in Napier; you can do it in three hours a day and then you’ve got the rest of the day for yourself. Why don’t you have the milk run? You would have steady money coming in every week.” You could see how he had thought about it. So I make my first movie, and my father offers me his milk run. So there is how it was supported – how the arts were supported.
As we are on the subject of support for the arts, could I ask how you acquired funding for Home by Christmas?
With great difficulty over a very long period of time. I don’t think that there’s any such thing as an easy film to fund, I don’t think that there ever was, but it is especially not the case now. I produced, directed and wrote Home by Christmas. I didn’t produce it alone; I have two producing partners – Nigel Hutchinson, who came on board after a year or so, and Sue Rogers, who stepped up to the plate a year or two after that. I’ll just go through the process of how it got made because you can’t really separate out financing as a separate issue from the rest of the evolution of the film – well, I can’t because I was involved with it all.
A friend of mine, Nigel Hutchinson, said to me, “You have to come and be our artist in residence for a week” —his place was a completely isolated little cottage on a peninsula in the Marlborough Sounds. So I went there to have a think and clear my head after having made Perfect Strangers. That was when I realised that the war story that my father had told me was still sitting there in my computer; a series of interviews that had been transcribed, with scenes that I had worked on over the years. And I thought, well, that would be a good project for me. I like to just follow my nose you know, follow what interests me. Choosing a project means you’re going to live with it for a long time. So anyway, I started—I could see how making a work that was based on oral history, like closely based on oral history that included dramatic interventions, would be a really interesting form for me to explore as a filmmaker. So then I wrote a script, by taking the transcriptions and cutting them down. I wrote some of his story into imagined dramatic scenes, and sometimes I let him just tell the story. I decided to do that because the way he told the story was about as interesting to me as what he was describing. And also, it’s what he doesn’t tell that really has huge reverberations. So I always knew that the interview needed to sit in the middle of the story. You’ve got choices at that point; you can say, “Well, I’ll dramatise the whole thing”, but I never wanted to do that. I wanted to have the interview in the centre.
So I wrote a script and put that into the Film Commission, and they gave me some development money. In that development proposal I mentioned that I felt that it was not going to be possible just to develop the script in the usual way by writing and rewriting and getting assessments because I had to know whether a central reconstructed interview was going to work. So with this tiny amount of development money, I cast Tony Barry to play my father. Tony is an actor whose work was not unknown to me, but I didn’t know him particularly well. Anyway, it was my sister who said, “Tony’s well worth looking at, he’s awfully like Dad”. So I went over to Sydney and gave Tony the script; he loved it. The next task was to get Tony over here to see if we could pull off a reconstructed interview because if you don’t believe that interviewer in Home by Christmas, you haven’t got a film.
That’s right, but you never doubt it—I never did. How did you work with him to ensure that he would have that authenticity?
I thought I would just muck around with my PD150—my little Sony camera. Alun Bollinger had read the script and really liked it, so the idea was that Alun and I would just muck around here in this house with Tony being Ed [Preston’s father]. And then it somehow grew. Some people round the corner had some Thomson Viper cameras, and once they knew Alun was coming to town, they wanted him to try out these new-fangled cameras; to run those cameras you kind of needed a crew, and the next thing, we had a crew.
Did you shoot the interviews here in the house?
Yeah. We came to shoot the interviews here in the house because I could control the location. If anything we shot worked, it could supposedly be in the final film. I could do subsequent shoots in the same location—my home. If we had been developing, financing, shooting in the way that you normally do, we wouldn’t have been shooting in my home. It’s not very convenient when you’re trying to work, to do it at home—to have your house full of film crew. However it worked really well. I stepped in to work with Tony one-to-one because we certainly didn’t have money to pay for another actor to come in and play me. If I had been making the film the usual way I would have cast an actor to be me, a younger actor. When I interviewed my father I was 40, and my father was 80. When I interviewed Tony in the film he was 67, and I was 60.
I must say, in the film, it doesn’t really come across that way.
No, no, it doesn’t does it. Mind you, we did our best to make sure it didn’t. But that decision made the difference with the interview because I could make Tony really talk to me, I could catch his eye and direct him as he was going—the way a good documentary interviewer does. So a lot of the decisions that were made were made because it was a muck about, where we were just trying to find out how we could make this thing work. Actually, I’m sure that if I had had another actor it would have just been too hard. It would have been just about impossible.
Did he work from the transcripts of the tapes that your father did? Obviously you cut and edited the tapes to make a kind of scripted transcript.
But did he work verbatim from that transcript or did he improvise at all along the way?
We both improvised, but it’s a strange kind of improvisation because you’re not allowed to make it up; you have to improvise using what you’ve heard. I wouldn’t let him learn the words. It’s a very interesting medium; once you take an interview out of a tape into a transcript, then edit the transcript and then go back to editing the original sound tape, its amazing how much you’ve edited out from the sound tape—just in little wee ways of saying, ‘the’ instead of ‘a’ or you know just changing things slightly. It was very interesting going back and doing a new sound edit and those sound edited tapes were what was used for Tony. So he was given those to listen to as he biked around Sydney. One of the hardest things was to get them onto a cassette tape because he had a walkman; he’s the last person alive with a walkman! Fortunately he was really busy, and he didn’t learn any lines. I had told him not to learn them. But actors will always want to learn the lines because that’s what actors do. They learn the words.
It’s hard to believe when you’re watching him on film that he’s actually speaking to some degree a script or speaking from the recorded transcript. It’s so natural that you never get a sense of that at all.
Well, that’s what we had to achieve. We had to work really hard to get to a really relaxed place where we could achieve that. When I’m making a documentary I’m always trying to get the person to get off the tape recorder version in their memory—the tape recorder memory is not pure memory, it’s a retelling of how the story is usually told. There is remembering what happened, then there is remembering how to tell the story. I prefer the former. It makes more compelling cinema storytelling for one thing, but also, it’s more pure and immediate. Human memory is quite complex. The soldiers they would go out into battle, something horrendous would happen; they would end up back in the bar, having a beer or two, and their only chance of being able to talk about the horrendous stuff was to find a way to tell it that had a punch line, that made everybody laugh. So the well-told war story always has a horribly funny punch line. It’s a performance—right? But when I make a documentary, I’m wanting to get past mere performance of storytelling into something more immediate, truthful, compelling. I’m always digging to try and punch a hole in the tape recording of how the story is usually told, to pass through that layer of memory into moments that might suddenly illuminate the pure memory. I’ve probably spent years of my life thinking very specifically about interview and very specifically about interview on film and what it really ought to be. Because if you want to make a film it’s got to be cinematic, and the great pieces of cinema have brilliant performances in the centre of them, and what is a brilliant performance? From an actor, a brilliant performance is where there doesn’t seem to be any glass between the performance and the screen—immediacy is everything.
Actually I’ve ended up with a very specific niche interest that comes from long exploration of what memory is. Once you do any work in oral history, you know that what this person says happened and what that person says happened are so mutually exclusive sometimes—you couldn’t believe that they were in the same room at the same time, but they’re both speaking their truth. What is interesting about oral history is you get all the truths, and you add three and four and five and six people, and you start to get a story net. You start to see how the situation might have been in the round. I mean, there’s no doubt it’s a very different story of a battle if you’re stuck out the back sending messages to the colonel, or if you’re digging a hole and burying dead people under fire. And because of the way that the old soldiers came together around the bar at the RSA upon their return, they homogenised their versions to all sort of fit a story that was convenient to tell in the 50’s, and of course, stories are always quite quickly made convenient to tell, but it’s a strange kind of edit of the reality of the thing over time. So I was always just trying to dig to get beyond that and into different more original territory.
It’s interesting what you’ve just said about different perspectives; it seems like your mother’s version of her ‘war story’ in War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) is a very different recounting?
Totally—couldn’t be more different could it—my point entirely. Tui [Preston’s mother]—she’s a completely different kind of storyteller to my father anyway. I couldn’t have chosen two more different storytellers really. My father is very matter of fact. Supposing they are both telling a story about going down to the dairy. My father might say, “Oh well, you know, we had to take this dairy. It was on a hill, and the Germans had it. We wanted it, so we had to take this dairy, and we did. And after it exploded, and we’d all settled down a bit, I said to Dinghy Taif …“. You know, I mean, it’s all like that. Unembellished. My mother is a far more conflicted personlity. She might tell it this way, “Well, I knew that nice girls did not go down to the dairy. It just wasn’t done in those days, and I knew that I shouldn’t go down to the dairy, but this one day, well one thing led to another, and I went to the diary. And I knew I shouldn’t have, but then of course, well…“. See, completely different—totally different. One very elliptical storytelling full of internal disharmony and indecision, and one terribly matter-of-fact about awfully big things.
I think my father’s ‘war story’ was a very sly war story—political in terms of the statement he had to make about war in general and very clear in terms of the particulars of his war, told in a very generous ‘one of the boy’s’ way. My father’s war story is not the one that gets told in the official versions.
I don’t think that your mother’s got told either until you told it or until you let her have the opportunity to tell it—both very unique.
But the reason I told them… the reason I thought they were important was because in New Zealand, because we have such huge budgetary restrictions — you know, we’re a small territory— so the amount of movies where we are able to put our version of the war or our version of any damn historical thing up there is actually really limited. So the reason that I wanted to tell Home by Christmas was to put something into the film catalogue that reflected an ordinary soldier’s version of the war. It wasn’t the English version or the American version—that’s our version. It’s not the Australian version; it’s our version—that one. And not only that, but it’s from a man who truly, truly is an anti-hero; he’s otherwise invisible. It’s a story of a man who went away in a flush of excitement, got over there, didn’t like it and unashamedly tells you about all the things he didn’t like. And even when he escapes, he does it by accident, not because he’s trying to get back to his army to fight on, but actually because he could. He took the opportunity. Why? Because he wanted to get the hell out of it and go home to his wife and kid. So, there’s no heroism in my father’s story as he tells it—none. You can’t find nobility in there. The only nobility you have is of an ordinary man doing what he could to try and avoid being a part of this terrible thing he had got himself into. Now that’s usually described as being a coward, but the way he tells it without artifice means that he takes the audience with him. So again, I’m just consciousness-raising. I think the film’s claiming back some territory in the communal memory actually.
It’s an oral history. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about the African griot, who is the person in the culture endowed with multiple functions—as a dancer, a storyteller, a performer. But in ancient tradition he was the storehouse of the oral tradition of the community. This was before there was writing and written records. So the griot’s performance became part of the recounting of history, and this is how history was passed down.
Oh, well, I’m just one of those.
Or a griotte, in your case . . . Could you comment on the structure of the film and the use of film stock and colour to identify the various narrative strands?
It’s a collage, a patchwork quilt of a film. Because of the way the Viper walked in the door, the interview was shot on HD, which gives it a kind of digital 80’s feel; it’s flatter; it’s beige; it lacks mood, but it feels authentic. The flashbacks are all on 16mm, shot on split focus lenses. Split focus lenses work on a mirror system which means as you’re moving the camera or even if you’re not moving the camera, you can move the focus in the frame. Similar to how your memory works, you have a frame, and you can move the focus in it in your head. So that’s used quite often in the flashback story. Once you’re in 1942, you’re with the split focus and the heightened colour. We worked most of the palate of the film from my mother’s house coat—the floral dress you see worn in the first part of the film.
The red, white and blue seems to come up quite a bit, was that was intentional on your part?
Well, that wasn’t the case in my head at all, but the way we decided to treat the archive was that we would slightly colourise aspects, just like you have a black and white photograph, and then you hand tint it. So the archive—each shot is treated as its own post card. We didn’t match grade the archive footge to be the same through the film. It’s actually very different—each shot. And of course you are either adding red or you’re adding blue—adding yellow is a bit harder. If you add yellow you just get brown, so that’s how the red, white and blue…
WAR STORIES AND HOME BY CHRISTMAS: GAYLENE’S “WAR AND PEACE”
I see, and of course, you use your own home photos too. All those photographs, were they passed to you by your mother and father?
Mm’mm well see, probably the making of those films— let’s talk about War Stories and Home by Christmas together for a minute. When I was little growing up, the house had a bay window along the side, and I could get down between the couch and the window, and there was a chocolate box and in the chocolate box were all these black and white photos, plus negatives, and I wasn’t allowed to touch those photos, you know, sticky fingers. But I would hide in that secret spot and look at those photos. I remember one particular day, there was music on the radio, and the fire was burning, and my nana sitting by the fire and I was behind the couch looking at these photos, but I couldn’t ask anybody anything about who was in them because I wasn’t supposed to have them. So I must have spent a bit of time trying to make connections with them, making up stories —you know—in my imagination how little kids do that? It’s a very vivid memory.
I did the same thing.
Did you. Maybe it was common? So you see it all comes from there, combined with—I had really bad eyesight. I don’t know why I put that in the past tense because my eyesight is still not good, but I was really into drawing and colouring in, which I would do on the floor and not get noticed. I loved it when my mother’s friends from next door came over for morning tea, which they did quite regularly. They were in and out of one another’s houses those women. And every now and then, they would talk about the war —with me under the table—ears flapping, but they would forget I was there. So I would hear—I can’t remember specific stories, but I’d hear very specific pain shared, you know what it’s like with little kids. They pick up the feeling without understanding the details. So from an early age I knew that my mother’s time during the war was difficult and that my father’s was not. Then as I grew up I came to realise that in the other households of school friends of mine, it was the other way around. Their dad was usually the one that had the problem. Whereas, my father wasn’t at all like that. He was just this anchor in the household, he held it together for everybody. So making a documentary about women’s experiences in World War II was kind of obvious to me, and I was always really interested in the rugby club aspect of my father’s trip away – the rollicking yarn aspect. And of course my mother was the sort of person who had her own internal pain anyway—brought up with an alcoholic father, so she was always going to be a bit easy to rattle emotionally.
Was her story that she revealed on film, was it a surprise for you or did you suspect as much?
Well, I was digging—I had interviewed my father before that, before he died.
So her concerns weren’t the same as his…
He’s being protective of her—he knows he’s dying and no matter how far I want to dig, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s going to be dictated by him and that’s pretty well how it worked—very generous, very warm, very clear—right; that was him in every aspect of his life. So it wasn’t until after he died that Tui told her story in War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us.
And in fact, the title is significant; pointing to the fact that she hadn’t ever told you?
Well, I think I must have got it by osmosis, but certainly her sitting there telling wasn’t something that happened until there was a camera on it. My father died in 1992. Ruby and Rata (1990) had just left the cinemas, and I interviewed Ed over Christmas New Year 1991, and Tui looked after Chelsie who was three. It was during this period, Tui said—song [“As Time Goes By”] from Casablanca came on the radio—and she said, “Oh, that was a very special song for me during the war”. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. She said, “Yes, oh, with your father and I”. And I thought, that’s funny, Casablanca didn’t come out till 1943. I understood that she was telling me something truthful. I had recorded ten tapes with my father—that’s 15 hours of tape. My father then goes into remission and refuses to mention it ever again. So there’s no way that I’d ever be able to film him. I mean we went off to the Sydney Film Festival screening of Ruby and Rata, and I had three or four days with my father, just him and me in Sydney. It was like he hadn’t told me anything about the war—it never happened, off the radar—in only the way that he could do. I think you can probably understand how he did it, with lots of jokes and evasions.
Do you suspect that he knew about your mother’s liaison during the war or…
I have no idea. She said that they never talked about it. But I don’t know, they could have both known.
There are places where you can’t go.
Especially a daughter who is also a filmmaker! In any case, everybody tells their version. They’re not lying, they’re just telling you their version. So I asked Judith Fyfe, who with Hugo Manson, had set up the New Zealand Oral History Centre ten years earlier. I said to Judith, “Could I pay you a pathetic amount of money, and would you go and interview my mother because I think that there’s a story there”? And she said, “No, certainly not, that’s exactly what we don’t do”. Anyway, I got talking to her about stories of women and World War II and things that I thought were important gaps that were emerging in the communal history and that we should get cracking before they all left us. Judith did go out and interview Tui, and I said, “What did she say, what did she say”? “You’ll have to listen to the tape, and you’ve got to get her permission to listen to it”. “Fair enough”. And you know what? I never did. I never listened.
And then two years later Judith and I got cracking, and we raised money to make an oral history of women in World War II. We worked with wonderful interviewers like Alison Parr and Jane Tolerton and Susan Folkes—brilliant interviewers and others. And we trained up Queenie Rikiana Hyland with other Maori interviewers and said, “Go and interview your aunties. We are not talking to only service women. We want the stories from ordinary women—just go and interview your aunty”. “You were alive during World War II. What happened to you”? We had money to do 20 interviews, and we got 23 out of that, and we raised another lot. I think in the end we’d got 60 or 70 interviews – and I think we got 12 or more in te reo Maori.
Anyway, impetus was building. The Museum [National Museum and Art Gallery in Wellington] wanted to use some of our interviews for an exhibition. We had Geoff Walker of Penguin Books wanting to make a book. Could I get a film made? No. We kept going to the Film Commission and getting booted out the door and told it wasn’t cinema, it was television, and I mean you can forgive them for that I suppose—it’s seven old ladies talking about the war with a bit of archival footage thrown in. Anyway, I had some film stock that I had bought off Kodak on a special deal; so after two years of trying, I just got a camera and did it. Got started the traditional way that most New Zealand documentaries get made, by picking up a camera and just shooting. Well it was Alun who shot them. With that footage from the first five subjects it was possible to raise some money for a film because it was clear they were amazing interviews and that they would work as cinema. When they asked what would make it cinema, I would say, “Because a filmmaker’s going to make it and it’s going to have a Dolby stereo sound track”. Quite arrogant. But I held to the idea that in New Zealand it is cinema that remains the liberating social space.
New Zealand television has been such a tragedy in that it has not been consistent. There hasn’t been any consistent public service space in the television area, and every time there’s a new Government they completely rejig all television. It’s been a very expensive missed opportunity, culturally speaking, for the New Zealand audience. So therefore with a completely commercialised television network and a teeny, tiny amount of New Zealand films being made every year, the audience is so starved that if you actually give them a film that reflects any kind of truth in terms of the world they inhabit, they’re so grateful they gallop into the theatres.
Well, I guess that they are inundated from global products being circulated.
More so than most places. If you actually give the New Zealand audience something that they can really click with, it’s like they’re having a glass of water in the middle of a desert, they are hugely grateful, and they never forget it. I think whenever a film reflects in an entertaining engaging way to a New Zealand audience a part of itself that has been hitherto under the radar, they go in numbers. That accounts for Boy [Taika Waititi, 2010], you know. Boy is reflecting a very energetic aesthetic and sensibility of a generation that hasn’t had its say. And I just wish that we could find a way in New Zealand to pull ourselves together and actually understand how important this is because, you know, we’re really still talking about memory, aren’t we?
Because we have personal memories and how those personal memories get expressed is a part of our communl oral history. There’s the way we choose to tell it, and there’s the way that we actually remember it. Our films are a flagship, which becomes how we choose to tell it. We need stronger funding of local storytelling on film. Having said that, when I look at my generation of filmmakers across the world, and if I then decided to look at only women filmmakers who are my peers, there are very few of them who have managed to keep going, so it’s hard the world over. It’s very difficult to make a work that is self-generated and not commissioned. Most of my films start between my left ear and my right ear—in my head—and get made independently without creative interference. So if you like my work, or if you don’t like my work, whatever you think, it’s mine. There are so few filmmakers who have managed to keep on going. I’d say if we did decide to make a list, we’d find that at least half of the list would be French filmmakers, wouldn’t they?
Yes, they would. From your generation, Claire Denis comes to mind . . .
Well, yes, and Agnès Varda, although she is older than me, but you know they are the models. My heroes.
What direction do you see yourself going in the future? Do you see yourself doing more fiction feature films, or do you feel like there are more documentaries and stories that you’re wanting to recount from the community?
So, am I going to do a fiction film or a drama or a straight doco next? I don’t know—the world’s my oyster, isn’t it? But I’ll tell you what—Home by Christmas was conceived as the middle story in a trilogy and the other two are—I could call them “81”. One is a passivist stand that happened in 1881 during the Land wars, and the other is the stand that was made in 1981 during the Springbok Tour. I would like to work using oral histories, archival footage and dramatising for those two. So I’m just taking the long way round to make my ‘War and Peace’ – Gaylene’s ‘War and Peace’. Don’t hold your breath, it will take a while.