When Labour MPs galloped out of a movie premiere

Watching a movie that speaks your own accent, that wears the same clothes, that sits in the same hills – that’s a joy. I love it when a film rolls off the screen straight back to the community that it comes from. I don’t mean the actors – they are usually suffering everything from despair to relief, and it is personal. It’s their mugs up there, when all is said and done. No. I mean the community that come to see the film because it makes them visible. People watch every beat of the story, wanting it to be great, and if it is, they take it into their hearts forever. I don’t believe that the movies are all about ‘bums on seats’. They are about memory. How long can a story be held in the mind’s eye? It’s unquantifiable, and funding bodies can’t measure it.

Film is the art form closest to actual experience. That’s why we need to make our own movies. To render ourselves visible, to gather the tribes, to camp in the dark, to be enthralled and disturbed and delighted and enlightened. Strangers. Together.

And it is why, even now, when I could watch any film I like on my phone, filmmakers like me still make their movies for the big gathering in the dark cinema. Words can’t describe the terrifying thrill of standing in front of an expectant crowd to present a new film and finally experience it with them. It is a struggle and it always takes years, but it is always worth it.

Home by Christmas was almost exactly 21 years old when I sat in the Embassy Theatre on opening night. War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us was a 10-year odyssey. But when it got to the screen, it mattered. Strangers approached me in the street to hug me, and cry. Really cry. I realised we had shared not only battles and army yarns, but lasting sorrow. The family secrets that had lurked unspoken for so many of us could now come out of the shadows. The dark became light. The audience was ready.

When a curtain is pulled back and the world shines and speaks to us, we are never the same again. To be the guardian bringing the waka to the shore is a terrific feeling. When the women from Ngāti Porou sang us out of the cinema on the opening night of Barry Barclay’s Ngāti, the music from the soundtrack by Dalvanius Prime flowed straight off the screen and into the party.

A few years ago, I presented My Year with Helen, my feature documentary that follows former prime minister Helen Clark during 2016 as she makes a bid to become secretary-general of the United Nations. She knows what is needed and will forge through. But no way was the United Nations Secretariat going to be having that. I was able to shape a film that revealed Helen’s sheer dogged resilience and the frustration of women’s groups whose hopes were dashed as they were left frustrated, once more, in their campaign for the first female secretary-general. My Year with Helen premiered at the State Theatre during the Sydney Film Festival.

I stood there in this Australian temple to film, remembering the same moment after the first Australian screening of Ruby and Rata. When a full house spontaneously leaps to its feet, it is unforgettable.

I want to gulp it up, make it last. It is one of those moments when you know you are in the right place at the right time. As I stand there with Helen, I feel the strong presence of my parents. They stand with me. I think of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers – what hard lives they lived, and what a gift is mine. No matter how hard the struggle to make a film, their struggle was harder. I have the luxury of serving my imagination, not cleaning up other people’s messes and emptying piss pots. I have dined with world leaders and broken bread with beggars. Helen Clark could say the same, probably. We have been part of a revolution that has only just begun.

Gaylene Preston with Helen Clark at the premiere of My Year with Helen at the Athena Film Festival in New York.

But you never know how a film is going to play until you hand it over to its own constituency, and it was without Helen alongside me that, a few weeks later, the mighty Civic in Auckland was packed for the first screening of My Year with Helen on home turf. Two thousand people watched as I stood on the stage guarded by those golden plaster panthers, now restored to their resplendent former glory, blue eyes lit and glaring. The crowd included the young deputy leader of the Labour Party, Jacinda Ardern. I had met her a few times and put her on the comp list. She and I had a photo together in the foyer.

The crowd are expectant, excited even, but never adoring. They care much more than any other audience. This is our world. It matters to us in a way nothing else does. That’s why the home crowd is the hardest crowd. They can eat you alive if they get offside.

My Year with Helen is enraging. Inspiring, too. It begs the women in the audience to call out the patriarchal system for what it is, to take up the challenge. In her final interview she is worn out and reflective, having hit her head hard on what she refers to now as a “steel ceiling”. She says it will be up to the next generation of women to take up the fight.

“Don’t get mad, get organised,” was something she said in Sydney at the Town Hall post-screening Q&A. That was to an adoring bunch of Australians, who dream of a leader such as her.

The appreciative home crowd left the cinema mad all right. If a woman like Helen Clark can’t conquer, then how is anyone else going to succeed?

A week later, as the credits rolled after a screening of My Year with Helen to a packed Embassy Theatre in Wellington, a block of Labour MPs stood up as one and galloped out before the lights came up. I was standing by the screen, ready for my Q&A, and was a bit taken aback. Later, I realised they were hurrying to the meeting during which they voted Jacinda their new leader. Andrew Little, the incumbent, had asked her every day that week to step up and finally, at thirty-seven years old, she agreed. I will never know whether My Year with Helen was influential in that decision, but if there was one film that might have encouraged the parliamentary Labour caucus to be brave and back a talented young woman, My Year with Helen was the one.

Taken from the newly published memoir Gaylene’s Take: Her life in NZ film by Gaylene Preston (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $40), available in bookstores nationwide.

Wellington filmmaker Dame Gaylene Preston is the director of the feature film Mr Wrong (1986), the drama series Hope and Wire (2014), and the documentary My Year with Helen (2017). Her memoir Gaylene's...

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