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Helen Mirren Goes For It (& Women Directors in NZ)

Helen Mirren's making a habit of it. When she accepted a lifetime achievement award last year at the Czech Karlovy Vary Festival she said "I don’t know how many female directors are presenting their films in this festival. I very much doubt that it’s 50%" and added that, should she return to Karlovy Vary in five years, she’d want to see at least 50% of the films at the festival being presented by women directors. Now she's done it again, at Britain's Empire Awards, after fellow award-winner Sam Mendes acknowledged a group of directors who'd influenced him, all men. Like other veteran actors – Judi Dench, Meryl Streep – she's uniquely placed to identify changes in the industry and like Meryl Streep, she's happy to speak out.

The last little while I've been working on one piece about women directors in New Zealand, for the Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand and another for Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, edited by Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo. Academic writing for the page has become more of a challenge than it was, and it makes me miss writing scripts, filming, producing and the immediacy of activism and the associated online communities that I love.

So, this morning, with thanks to Helen Mirren, a round up of what's going well for New Zealand women directors. But first, a gender analysis of the New Zealand Film Commission's (NZFC) funding decisions for the last quarter, available on its website.

Gender and NZFC Funding December 2012 - February 2013

I love the new NZFC website. It's much richer and many times more attractive than the old one, worth a look. But, unlike Screen Australia (and various European counterparts) the NZFC hasn't incorporated gender statistics. In other NZFC news, the organisation now funds documentaries for production and has also created three new funding programmes: the Documentary Development Fund; Te Whai Ao – a $250,000 fund for emerging and experimental doco makers; and $2.5m fund for feature length docos, in association with New Zealand On Air. In theory, because New Zealand women shine as documentary makers – Gaylene Preston, Pietra Brettkelly, Annie Goldson, Leanne Pooley – women directors will benefit from these new funds. It's a little unfortunate then that men direct the three docos funded for production in this quarter, although Miriam Smith, working again with Christopher Pryor (How Far is Heaven) wrote The Ground We Won, about rugby, and another funded project is about a woman: Kiri Te Kanawa – My Breathing Is Singing. Of the $40,000 invested through the Documentary Development Fund all went to men-directed projects, though The Ground We Won with Miriam Smith as writer is also one of these.

Of NZFC investment decisions in this quarter, in the Advanced Development category there is a single woman-directed feature, Sunday, co-written and directed by Michelle Joy Lloyd. It received $25,000, or 17% of the $141,414 invested in projects at this level. In the Early Development programme, seventeen projects received funding. Eleven of these already have directors attached and one of the directors is a woman, Vanessa Alexander (Magik and Rose 1999, followed by a lot of television), for Howard. That's 9%. Three more projects have women involved. Robin Laing and Judith McCann are adapting Fiona Kidman's The Book of Secrets. Merata Kawharu is co-writing God of War. Rochelle Bright is writing Petrol Head (with Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of her producers!) The taxpayer investment in these four projects where women are involved as storytellers is $42,000 or 15.75% of $266,500. Also in this period, there were three Seed Development Grants to writers, two of them women: Sophie Henderson for Manhunt and Sue Reidy for Chatterton Virgin. That's $20,000 of the $30,000 allocated.

So, adding up all this investment (except investment for production, not available), that's $477,914. Because this is a 'director' day, I'm going to omit the investment in projects from the Early Development programme that don't have directors attached and the Seed Development Grants, because they too do not yet have directors attached. The total investment in projects with directors attached is $391,414 and $35,000 of that, 9.68%, went to projects with women directors attached. Dismal. Where is Helen Mirren when we need her?

Moving quickly along to the good news now--

1. Roseanne Liang and Flat3

At last, New Zealand has a woman-written and directed webseries, Roseanne Liang's Flat3. Roseanne's made a group of films, including the successful romcom My Wedding and Other Secrets and has received multiple awards. In some ways, it seems to me, Flat3 echoes her Take 3 (2007) short, another comedy, which you can watch here. Lovely to see the three actors acknowledged as co-creators. I hope they get New Zealand on Air funding for another series.

Kimberley Crossman interview (great!)

2. Ellen is Leaving Wins Best Narrative Short at SXSW

Michelle Savill with her award

Written by Martha Hardy-Ward and directed by Michelle Savill.  Executive produced by Gaylene Preston, always lovely to see her support of the next generation (and sending her every good wish for her Hope & Wire shoot in Christchurch). Ellen is Leaving and Zia Mandviwalla's Night Shift are now both eligible for the Academy Awards 2014. I think that Ellen is Leaving was funded by the New Zealand Film Commission Fresh Shorts programme but can't at the moment find when or at what level.

And the other day, I heard Martha Hardy-Ward talk about the experience of working on Ellen is Leaving in a way that really interested me. Wrote about it briefly here and hope someone interviews them both in more depth (maybe that's happened, and I've missed it!). Martha is a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters' MA scriptwriting course, with experience writing for television, on both series of the Emmy award-winning online drama Reservoir Hill and more recently Boy vs Girl. She also writes for theatre and radio.

SXSW Young Guns: Michelle Savill - "Ellen Is... by YoungGuns


3. I'm Going to Mum's competes in the Berlinale Short Film Generation KPlus section

Lauren Jackson wrote and directed I'm Going To Mum's , on $10,000 from the NZFC Fresh Shorts programme.


4. Lippy Pictures' Donna Malane and writing women characters

There are some good things about academic writing. It forces me to research slightly differently. And I know this is a director post but I came across a radio interview with Donna Malane, which is the first time I've heard a highly experienced New Zealand woman writer reflect on why she doesn't write about women for the screen. We have lots of television series that include complex women and certainly Roseanne Liang's protagonist in My Wedding and Other Secrets in some ways turned the rom com conventions on their head, but we have a shortage of interesting women protagonists in film. And I've wondered why for a long time.

Donna Malane and Paula Boock’s Lippy Pictures is a highly successful, award-winning, partnership which works to date only with male directors. It has produced two telemovies Until Proven Innocent (2010) and Tangiwai: A Love Story (2011) written a third, Bloodlines (2010). Their Pirates of the Airwaves, a docudrama about Radio Hauraki, a pirate radio station established in 1966, is in post-production (early 2013). Another telemovie Field Punishment no 1 has also received funding. Lippy Pictures is crossing over to film, with one feature film in NZFC-funded development, The 10pm Question, adapted from Kate di Goldi’s novel and another, Hungry Ghost, adapted from Ian Wedde’s novel Chinese Opera, for which they are seeking international investment. In a Radio New Zealand interview about her second crime novel My Brother’s Keeper, which has a woman protagonist, Donna Malane reflected on the lack of women protagonists in Lippy Pictures projects. She said:
To be honest, I’m not used to writing female protagonists in my screenwriting. For some reason, Paula Boock [and I] end up telling stories that are primarily about men. And it’s quite bizarre really, because there aren’t many writer/producers around and Paula and I formed Lippy Pictures and then we’ve gone on making male-dominated stories and it’s a bit of a joke actually…the film we’re working on at the moment has I think forty-five male characters and one female…It’s just embarrassing because we would love to write stories for and about women but…somehow these ones we develop just seem to be about men.
Donna also talked about her crime novels as a 'private' activity very separate from her screen work and added that although she had resisted adapting them for the screen she and Paula would now like them to do that. Is there something about the public/private divide that encourages all women to write men's stories if they're out in the world? This reflection from Donna Malane is a favorite part of this week's good news for me because it makes me think about the elements that affect what we see on screens large and small.

5. White Lies/ Tuakiri Huna

Here's the trailer for this long-awaited feature, written and directed by Dana Rotberg, one of our rare features with women at the centre. Produced by South Pacific Pictures, who also produced Whale Rider, another story by Witi Ihimaera.


6. The Red House

Developed at the Berlinale Talent Campus, The Red House, directed by Alyx Duncan (check out her range of projects here) debuted at last year's New Zealand International Film Festival and won the Best Self-Funded Feature at the New Zealand Film Awards (even though it was partly funded by Creative New Zealand and the Asia Foundation, New ZEaland Film Commission – post-production) and is ON NOW in cinemas. It stars her parents and the house they brought her up in. Tim Wong in Lumiere produced the best interview I've read with Alyx and there's an excellent Facebook campaign to attract audiences, right now. 

Called a 'creative documentary' at the Talent Campus (Doc Station), The Red House is the story of

...a Pakeha (NZ European) man Lee, married to a Chinese woman Jia - they share a great love, yet have different perspectives and pasts. Lee is a disillusioned conservationist, struggling to protect his world from rampant development. Jia grew up in Communist China and came to New Zealand to give her son a better life. In a time of rapidly changing cultures and environmental upheaval, this couple strives to be true to their values and love.

According to Alyx's site, 'The Red House offers a personal perspective in the context of globalization. The film asks: What’s worth preserving in times of change? How do we keep our hopes and love alive?' The pace and the images in the trailer, remind me of another 'creative documentary', Steve McQueen's Hunger; and of Vincent Ward's work. Or maybe a 'hybrid' doc, like Gaylene Preston's Home by Christmas. I'm delighted whenever a New Zealand woman makes this kind of feature. I've enjoyed the images and choreography in Alyx's short films, am interested in how she'll manage a longer structure; I'm expecting something challenging and very beautiful.

Official site
Alyx's own site

7. Top of the Lake

Jane Campion's Top of the Lake's on around the world right now. She co-wrote it with Gerard Lee with whom she also wrote one of my all-time faves, Sweetie. And her co-director was Garth Davis. I love it that it's set in New Zealand and made by a New Zealand woman. AND, although I haven't yet seen it, from what I've read there are some great women characters! May Top of the Lake inspire New Zealand-based filmmakers and funding decision makers!

Lots of reviews, but Lena Dunham's is the most interesting one I've seen so far. There seems to be no official site for Top of The Lake, no Twitter feed, no Facebook. Refreshing!

For those of you outside New Zealand, here's a 'behind the scenes' clip that I found in the New Zealand Herald, associated with a Russell Baillie article about his on-set visit. Also in the Herald, Paul Casserly offers a Top of The Lake Accent Alert and beloved New Zealand actor Robyn Malcolm enthuses about the script.


8. Amour and A Lady in Paris

What are these doing here? Well, think of them as a bookend to Helen Mirren. Or connected to the old(ish) couple in The Red House. Or to the group of post-menopausal women led by Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake. I saw A Lady in Paris and Amour quite close together and related them to other films like Quartet which I haven't seen and Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) which I have seen. And began to wonder whether Old Age films have sneaked up on me as a genre and what it means that women feature so strongly in so many of them.

I loved A Lady in Paris, about ancient, rich and cranky Frida (played by Jeanne Moreau) and the woman from Estonia employed to care for her, as a fellow Estonian (played by Laine Mägi) in superb and subtle performances. Patrick Pineau's Stéphane was pretty good too: there's a fabulous bed scene with him and Moreau, where she relives memories of their sexual relationship; and much more.

Written by two women, Agnès Feuvre and Lise Macheboeuf, with the male director Estonian Ilmar Raag, I found A Lady in Paris very satisfying because it illuminated something of my own experience caring for the elderly, how somehow age often distils who we are, and how – as a Braque lithograph tea towel someone gave me for my birthday says – Avec l'âge, l'Art et la vie ne font qu'un: With age, art and life are the same thing, and the conflicts of old age can often generate something very beautiful.

BUT Amour was (of course) another story, about a wealthy Parisian couple. So much has been written about Amour, full of admiration, but so far I haven't read a feminist analysis and I'm a little uncertain about my own. 

I went because I wanted to see Emmanuelle Riva. The woman next to me, on one of those super-comfy sofas at the new Cuba Lighthouse, was a visitor from Europe needing, she told me, a heart-warmer. (Spoiler alert!) She'd come to the wrong movie. The acclaimed Amour is a film about domestic abuse and I'm still not sure whether that's what Michael Haneke wanted to make and if so what he was trying to say. Have the performances and the Parisian setting somehow blinded audiences to the domestic violence aspect? I was amazed to read one New Zealand writer's description of the film as 'uplifting not depressing' and 'painting a welcome portrait of retired life'.

For me, Amour was profoundly depressing because as I read it, it's about two interdependent people whose apparent 'harmony' cannot be sustained in the face of adversity.

Early in the film – and there are (of course) aspects of it that I admire – there are two little signals that Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are not living together as harmoniously as it might otherwise appear: Georges finds an empty salt cellar and holds it out to Anne to fill and Anne resists that; Georges calls out after Anne "You look pretty tonight" with an effort, almost as an afterthought.  But, slowly, after Anne has her first stroke and continues to deteriorate, while continuing to act as a 'loving' husband who cares for Anne, Georges also demonstrates classic abusive behaviour. He isolates Anne from their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). He hits Anne when she refuses to drink, apparently because she wants to die and –shocked– she drinks. And then, after denying her the autonomy to choose her death, Georges suffocates Anne. We see her good leg kicking out in resistance under the bedclothes. It is horrible. Finally, Georges arranges her body with flowers and disappears, without suffering any consequences for murdering Anne.

For me, the film brilliantly revealed a particular kind of old age distillation, the heart of who Georges was, someone who needed to control his wife and to pretend it was something different. Amour shows,  it seems, that the conflicts of old age can generate something very ugly. Does Haneke want to persuade us that because Georges' violence is justified because he 'loves' Anne, even though he denies her her own choice of death and kills her himself, just because looked after her a lot in her illness and then finally surrounded Anne's body with flowers? I hope not.

I'll pay more attention to films in the old age genre now. If, as it seems, many of them have women as central characters, what are they saying about gender? Do they reinforce misogyny? Spoiler ends.

The woman who sat next to me at Amour disappeared quickly into the Cuba Lighthouse's elegant toilets at the end of the film. Did she find the film  'heartwarming', 'uplifting, not depressing', a 'welcome portrait of retired life'? I have no idea. Am I alone in my discomfort? No idea about that either. But, if you're into films about old age and women, and are looking for one that warms your heart this Easter, I suggest A Woman in Paris.


  1. It doesn't appear to be mentioned anywhere on the Wellywood Woman site, but at the Wellington Underground Film Festival, which screened at the New Zealand Film Archive in March, ten of the 22 filmmakers whose work was showcased, were women - only slightly less than 50%.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous! No, it's not mentioned, because I didn't know about it. Now I've tracked it down, and here's the link: I'd love to have a chat with the curator, Rosie Rowe, to congratulate her and ask her some questions!


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