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Kathleen Winter & ‘Minimum’

Kathleen Winter’s Minimum explores the lives of women of various ages, ethnicities and sexualities working in minimum wage and under-appreciated jobs in Aotearoa. In hospitality; as carers for old people and as teacher aides for disabled children; as call centre and security workers; as cleaners and bus drivers; often dealing with zero-hours contracts, racism, sexism and abuse; often with multiple jobs, bad housing and a struggle to buy food; and, if they have children, not able to see their children often enough. A 10-part webseries, Minimum was made with support from the Emerging Artists Trust, New Zealand on Air (NZOA) and Wellington City Council.

Kathleen searched hard for women with stories to tell, through social media and other networks, with a website where women could tell their stories anonymously if they liked. I enjoyed playing a small, early, part in her meticulous process and found the finished series — told in a mix of participants speaking to camera and animation — both heart-breaking and inspiring.

Kathleen is a vibrant, hardworking documentary filmmaker educated at the New Zealand Film School where she received the Robin Laing Scholarship; and at London’s Royal Holloway and Victoria University of Wellington. She’s made a group of short documentaries about media: the award-winning FeminEast Makes Zines, about a group of three young feminists who ‘introduce us to zine-making and its potential to share feminist ideas’; DVD Dreams, ‘a love letter to the last remaining video stores in Wellington’ and the forthcoming Datastream Instant Print. Her short film He Kākano Ahau–From the Spaces In Betweenfor Loading Docs in 2017,screened in Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Light Cinema Free Screen a few weeks ago. I interviewed Kathleen late in 2018; and have added an update question and a little bit about Minimum’s screening in #directedbywomen last year.

What did you bring to this project?
Because Minimum started as a ‘research project’ — I was gathering as many stories as possible for a possible future script — my approach was pretty unique in that I wasn’t initially striving for a specific type of end-product. I wasn’t fishing for the most dramatic stories or even thinking about the visual look of our interviews. It was purely about having a conversation with the women in front of me.

Maybe what I brought to that was — being someone who was also holding down a couple of day-jobs at the time, being someone who absolutely hates being on camera — I definitely removed any pretense of glamour from the process. We all had a shared purpose for wanting those stories told, we all know that there’s no profit being made from a series like this, so being honest about our political drives was what this project was about from the start.

still from Minimum

As a minimum wage worker yourself, what have you learned?
This project has really helped hit home for me that poverty is cyclical, and working hard isn’t always a key to escape. That’s something I thought I knew — that we have an economic system (capitalism!!) which is inherently broken and means there will always be people on the bottom. But we’re still fed the idea that people can climb up from the bottom if they work hard enough, try hard enough, are smart or talented enough.

To break down this myth you need to hear the stories of multiple people who do try hard, work hard, are smart and talented and whatever other condition they’re meant to fulfill — but still can’t make progress. Once you realise that, you also realise that people who have ‘made it’ or live comfortably don’t deserve that success any more than anyone else. No one deserves to live in luxury while others are living in poverty, and we need to start focusing on collective, community success, rather than on individual gain.

There’s a lot of irony around my own wages over the 2 — nearly 3 — years I’ve chipped away on Minimum. The first grant I got — from the really generous Emerging Artists Trust — was used for research. I didn’t pay myself at all, and used that money for crew and gear hire. Same goes with my second grant from Wellington City Council ; it was enough to give a financial koha to my crew, but definitely not to pay myself a wage.

Security guard Lavinia, centre, with Kathleen, left, DOP Jess Charlton right, and the rest of the Minimum crew  Photo: Mark Tantrum

While we were waiting to hear if our NZOA funding application was going to come through, I was a few weeks away from needing to pick up a hospo job to keep me afloat. When the funding did come through, I was suddenly on a weekly salary and being paid more than I ever have been — to make a series about women working for the minimum wage. That salary was for a period of just under 5 months. In a few weeks the project will be finished and I have no idea what my financial future will be.

I guess what I’ve learned is how much privilege and support we need to make art — I can accept such an inconsistent income because I have no dependents, but I do have family and friends who will take me in if I suddenly need it.

Is there anything you’ll do differently another time?
Right now I’m reflecting on how to more assertively ask for what I want as a director from my crew. I’m used to working on very low-budget productions where you’re paying everyone less than they’re worth, so the dynamic is always that everyone working on the film is doing you a favour. So when people are doing you a favour, you don’t treat them badly, obviously.

Even in a fully-funded production like this I still often find myself thanking people so much for their time and working around their schedules etc — which is a really good thing!! — but I forget that I’m not asking for favours anymore. That this is my crew and we’re doing a job together and I can ask for what the film needs without pleading or convincing. I guess my goal for the future is to be more straight up without being a dick, y’know?

Does it make a difference that you knew that He Kākano Ahau and this will be online rather than in cinemas?
It actually makes a pretty huge difference — to the edit more than any other part of the process. With online content you have to spend the first 15 seconds fighting for people’s attention, and then you have to work much harder to hold it. In some ways this is a good challenge in that it forced me to really think about what was most important / compelling about the story. But it also means that most of your edit choices come down to — how quickly can we cut to the next scene. There isn’t as much room to sit on an empty frame or allow a breath — not unless you’ve really earned that time by hooking your audience at the start.

Maybe that’s the biggest difference, the need for a ‘hook’ in the opening 15–30
seconds. And knowing we’d need that hook while we were shooting meant I shaped some of my interview questions around making sure we’d get it.

Are you going to continue with docos rather than fiction?
Most probably in the short-term, yeah. I really love true stories and I love what documentary can do. Everything I make will continue to be politically focused, but I do love films that blur the line between documentary and fiction and hope I can do more of that in the future.

We also have to be honest that there are more women making documentary films because they’re cheaper to make. I watched a fiction feature directed by a man the other day and it was ‘fine’. It felt in many ways like a Film School film, in that it was pretty self-involved, using slightly over-the-top metaphor and imagery, but ultimately fun to watch.

And I watched some interviews with the (all male) creative crew afterwards and I found myself feeling really angry. And I had the thought, ‘I wish I could have the chance to do that’. It really surprised me, because I didn’t know that I WANTED to make schlocky art pieces, but I guess I wish I had the option. Right now I don’t feel like I do. Making an ‘art’ film which is purely contrived and higher-budget to produce would be such a risk, and if I failed as a female director, I would never be given another chance.

This is something I’m only just considering, and I don’t mean to devalue
documentary as a genre. It’s incredibly important and creatively challenging and inspiring to work in. I’m happy to be making them and desperate to make more, but I think it’s worth reflecting on why documentary is a form that women are pushed into.

still from Minimum

And are you still going to use Minimum for a future script?
Not likely. Now that we’ve been given a platform for these women space to speak their stories in their own words, I don’t feel any further need to ‘script’ their stories or produce drama from them.

What are you working on now?
A webseries called After White Guilt (working title) which focuses on Pākehā identity, and how people with colonial ancestry can push through feelings of guilt to take positive action. The series, funded by NZOA, is scheduled to come out in October, to coincide with the 250-year anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa. It’s really important to me that we use that anniversary to have meaningful conversations about ongoing colonisation and the responsibilities Pākehā have. It’ll go out through the New Zealand Herald primarily.

Loading Docs website(all episodes)
The reality of life on the minimum wage in New Zealand(Radio New Zealand article, by Susan Strongman, with links to all episodes)
Women Working for Minimum Wage(Radio New Zealand interview with Kathleen Winter, by Jesse Mulligan)


Minimum & #directedbywomen 2018

Thanks to the Associate Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage, Grant Robertson, and to Jan Logie, Under-Secretary, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Justice (Sexual and Domestic Violence Issues), Minimum screened in Parliament’s Beehive Theatrette during last year’s #directedbywomen, following Kanya Stewart’s classic Even Dogs Are Given Bones (1982, for Dyke Productions and Auckland Women’s Community Video), about the women who occupied the Rixen clothing factory in Levin when the owner decided to close the factory but wouldn’t pay them redundancy.

still from Even Dogs Are Given Bones

It was a beautiful thing when Grant Robertson introduced the evening and asked the Even Dogs Are Given Bones women to stand up so we could applaud them.And beautiful to watch the two works — made almost 40 years apart — together; and to watch all the Minimum episodes at once, in a crowded cinema.

As well as some of the Rixen women, the audience included some of the participants in Minimum; and many participants in the Women’s Studies Association (WSA) annual conference. Because I’d become aware that academic women often choose their reading with regard to an author’s gender but not their viewing, I planned the Q & A to be a discussion between Kanya and Kathleen, to spotlight them as women directors, hear about their processes and experiences and inspire some WSA women to look out for work #directedbywomen. But I hadn’t taken into account the effects of the work.

I now believe that Even Dogs Are Given Bones and Minimum share a characteristic with Ava DuVernay’s powerful When They See Us, currently on Netflix. The New Yorker described When They See Us as a ‘ bleak, beautiful drama’ whose ‘main concern…is empathy. Not a syrupy, manipulative empathy but a rigorous, corrective one’. I think the responses to those screenings in the Beehive Theatrette demonstrated that Kanya’s and Kathleen’s works were also concerned with ‘rigorous, corrective’ empathy. And because so many of the women represented onscreen were in the audience, I now wish I’d thought to choreograph the Q & A more effectively and to have them onstage too. 

Regardless, Kanya and Kathleen — with Lea Dambeck, one of her animators — shone. The audience participated energetically and Tara Black, who makes comics and ‘aspires to be a professional notetaker’ documented the discussion. I loved the comments Tara Black recorded. And am thinking today about one of them: ‘the meaning of the thing overrides the craft’, which I understand as ‘the thing’s relevance’. 

Tara Black's notes

‘Craft’ is essential to effective storytelling. But I’d argue that ‘relevance’, and ‘rigorous, corrective empathy’ can be key elements within craft; and are sometimes paramount. They readily transcend the old boundaries between and language about film, video, television and webseries too; and expectations about the screens where viewers will watch them. Again, Ava DuVernay provides an excellent example.

Melanie Reid’s recent ‘video story’, Uplift, about the mechanisms behind one example of ‘NZ’s own taken generation[s]’, much of it shot on family phones as it happened, is another example of a storyteller’s ‘rigorous, corrective empathy’. Powerful, relevant, storytelling grabs us whether it’s recorded as a film or television or web series or on our phones; and whether we watch it on a phone or other device or in a cinema. But it’s a pretty special joy to watch this kind of work in a cinema followed by a Q & A with directors and other participants? It certainly was that night at the Beehive.


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