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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gaylene Preston

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gaylene Preston

Lisa Owen: When film director Gaylene Preston planned to film a year with Helen Clark at the United Nations, she probably had no idea just how eventful that year would be. Ms Clark threw her hat into the ring for the United Nations top job, and the race turned out to be highly political but also a bit of a gender war. Gaylene Preston had a front-row seat. She joins me now. Good morning. After your year with Helen, what do you think you found out about her that you didn’t already know?
Gaylene Preston: Well, I didn’t know very much about Helen, actually, because I was like a lot of people in this country where we meet Helen on the edge of parties, and she seems very lovely, but I didn’t really know Helen. So ‘everything ‘ is the answer to that question. But I learnt a lot about how women trying to achieve some kind of major leadership position in the world is particularly difficult. That was really quite a surprise to me. I’m not a journalist, so I guess I was pretty naïve.
And I want to talk to you about that. Before we move on to it, do you think she did reveal more of herself, or how much do you think she revealed to you? Did she really let you in?
Well, my job as a film maker is to get as far in as possible, and in this film, it wasn’t just Helen I was trying to get in on; I was trying to get in on a secret process that’s almost papal. So I knew there’d be lots of doors, you know.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I was fascinated to see the interaction with her elderly father and that scene with her and her marge containers cooking him up hundreds of meals for a later date. That surprised me.
Well, that’s her job. See, the thing that I really admire, and it’s something that relates to how we are as New Zealand women out there in the world, that we tend to just get on with it. Helen has three sisters. All of them have jobs. Their 94-year-old father — George was 94 when we were shooting; he’s older now. They all have jobs, and Helen’s job is to cook 90 meals a year for Dad. Like, we’re talking about a farming family. We’re talking about you put your gumboots on, you stride forth, and you do stuff. And, actually, watching that in train at the UN was fascinating. Because you see it in a multinational situation where it isn’t necessarily what a lot of the women are doing. And it’s actually quite threatening.
Yeah, and we’ll talk about that. In the film, you see this group of women who are really focused on getting a woman to be secretary general — any woman, not necessarily Helen; they just wanted a woman to be appointed. Did their view represent a wider view, or do you think they were in this idealistic little bubble?
Well, that is a global group of UN watchers, and they’re all pointy-headed academics, for lack of a better word. And most of them have got a huge amount of experience at the UN. So they may appear idealistic, and they are idealistic; they wanted a woman as the next secretary general. There’d been eight, and they wanted number nine to be female. And they had a global campaign to make sure that when the whole project did become sort of semi-transparent, that women would be put forward as candidates, because usually there are no women that are really, particularly… You know, what I learnt, actually, Lisa, making this film, is about how as soon as women are involved in a major race and there’s money and big stakes, it becomes about the best candidate. ‘Oh, yes, we want a woman, but we must have the best candidate.’ And I had a chance to really think about that and look at how it worked, and it’s kind of like the bar goes up.
But do you believe that? Do you believe that it was all about the best candidate? Because the thing is Helen Clark comes across in this as a strong advocate for change, and New Zealand had advocated for change. And, actually, it kind of looked like they wanted someone who wasn’t strong, didn’t advocate for change and maybe was just a little bit more vanilla, a bit more neutral.
Well, that’s not the Helen Clark we know.
No, exactly, and that’s my point.
She wanders round with a screwdriver sticking out of her to pocket, metaphorically speaking. So, you know, the whole chat was about, ‘Oh, yeah, but we have to have the best candidate.’ Well, actually, something else entirely was going on. I mean, you know, you can watch the film and you’ll still not know what it was. You see the effect of it.
Well, behind the scenes, you talked to the New Zealand ambassador in the UN, and he basically says that one person passed a vote of no opinion on Helen — one country passed this vote — yet four countries came to him claiming that they had been the country that had done that. So what is it? Is diplomacy just a bunch of bull when it comes down to it, and was there no one that could be trusted in this process?
I think the dark art of diplomacy — they say it’s a dark art, and it sure as hell is — and whatever goes on is a room with not very many people in it, and they are men. And so our film takes you right to the door of the old boys club. And, actually, I think that what we found out at the UN — because, you know, I was a UN virgin; I knew nothing. I mean, I didn’t know about the UN and just turned up with cameras to go, ‘Well, let’s see what we can see.’ And it’s secret. You can see how hard it is for journalists to find out. I don’t think there was a single journalist there— With all their leaks and everything, all their sources that they could get hold of, I don’t think there was a single journalist there on the day when it was finally announced who wasn’t surprised.
When you sat down with Helen when it’s finally over, you know who the choice is, she’s out, how long after her finding out, did that chat take place? Was it five minutes, five hours?
Oh, it was three days.
So how disappointed do you think she really was?
Helen was on a plane… Helen spent most of her time as administrator of the UNDP on planes. Getting on planes like they’re buses.
So how disappointed do you think she was?
I’m sure she was hugely disappointed. I got disappointed before Helen did, and you see that in the film. And I’m going, ‘But aren’t you really pissed off? Don’t you find this really disappointing?’ And she goes, ‘No, no. That’s life.’ And I think politicians are a different breed.
Yeah, well, she said to you, ‘You’ve got to be resilient enough to lose.’ That was one of the things that she said to you.
And I think that’s what makes the film… that’s what really gives the film its centre. Because I think that’s what makes it inspiring. Because I’ve learnt a lot about resilience from being around Helen for the last little while. There’s a lot about resilience that’s well worth learning.
So she lost in the end, but do you think that is the achievement by throwing her hat into the ring for herself and both women in general just to show resilience, get involved, have a go?
Well, it would’ve been pretty strange if she didn’t have a go, because she was already number two, and the number one job’s coming up, so it would’ve looked weird if she hadn’t had a go, if you think about it. But I don’t know. Helen was—
Did she achieve anything, though, in the end?
Well, you just have to keep going, don’t you? It’s kind of like you’re climbing a mountain and you think you’re going to get to the top, and you get to the top, and there’s another ridge. So it is important. I am a person who’s always felt, ‘Well, let’s look after the underdog.’ I’ve never been particularly interested in women’s leadership, to tell you the truth. You know, I’ve seen it as a bit of a sort of luxury. But when I saw what was going on around all this — not just Helen, but the whole thing — I think it’s terribly important that women take their place. We’re 51% of the human population. The planet’s in trouble. Why do we have such a large bunch of humanity not optimised? And that goes from the bottom to the top.
All right. Thanks for joining me this morning. It was a great watch. Appreciate your time, Gaylene Preston.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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