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Sister Galvan

An interview with film-maker Marian Evans

by Heather McPherson (2004)

H McP: You’ve chosen this medium — film-making — subsequent to being an artist and publisher. Can you talk about why?

ME: I’d often thought about making films. But I’d never felt enough of an artist to make super 8 films on my own like, say, Joanna Paul. Especially as I tend to think in long, costly, sequences. Digital film-making changed everything. The wonderful thing about digital technology is that it offers infinite possibilities for portraying someone’s life and ideas.

We’re no longer limited to either a film or something written, something on the Internet, an audio oral history or a video one, an emphasis on still or moving images. We can mix it all up and use multiple authorship to get what we want, using autobiographical or biographical sources. I find that exciting because it makes it possible to make a film about someone now, and include all the past stuff on an extended DVD. 

Sister Galvan doesn’t do justice to Galvan’s complex life and work before the last period of Galvan’s daily life, ten years after he decided he wanted 'power out of his life' and left a problematic work environment and an unsatisfying domestic arrangement. And there’s only a tiny bit of his interactions with the next generation.

But his DVD will include, alongside Sister Galvan, Galvan’s own writing — he had a vivid and idiosyncratic way of writing about art and social issues and wrote from the 70s about New Zealand art, as well as keeping a diary — and audiotapes, especially those we made about his gay life in the 60s and 70s and his memories of the legendary Rodney Kennedy. 

I like thinking of people in bed with their laptops, watching Sister Galvan and having the opportunity to flick to something Galvan wrote, or to an Internet reference, or more detail. For instance there’ll be more about Richard Grune, the gay artist who made absolutely stunning images of the concentration camp he was in. Galvan discovered him on the Internet and talks about him very movingly in the film.

We can also add pictures of Galvan working with various artists and craftspeople, Kaleidoscope tapes that include him. And the full story of the loss of his dog Puka. As we filmed we got caught up in that story in real time and it deserved its own movie. Finally, I’d like to include tributes from others.

H McP: What is Penn doing in the film?

Penn and Galvan outside City Gallery Wellington

ME: Because Galvan loved young people and they loved him, I chose to involve young men in the film. Gary Morris, who’s made 24 films himself, did some of the camera work and all the editing. Paul De Lean, who then went off to study at Swinburne, did the rest of the camera work. I knew that their conversations with Galvan were very different than mine and wanted to include a young man as interviewer and because Penn’s my son, and he’d been enjoying film and journalism at school, he was the obvious choice.

I’ve had feedback that the representation of Penn as the visible member of the younger generation in the film is problematic. Although Penn and Galvan were very close, that doesn’t come across visually in the way that we expect a close relationship will. When I look at the footage I see an eighteen year old who could be described as unengaged or not listening, as I remember students also appearing to be when I was teaching. But because I know Penn well I can also see him thinking hard and completely engaged. And I see Galvan communicating vigorously for the camera rather than with Penn. One person thought Penn was possibly a young lover of Galvan’s and by implication a bit deferential to an older man; Galvan in fact always liked older men. Some people found Penn’s presence intrusive.

There’s no doubt that the transparency and sense of relationship I wanted is there in the sound track. The woman who transcribed the sound track before she saw the film — and who found the visual expression of the relationship problematic when she later saw it — had a better sense of the relationship between Galvan and Penn than those whose first encounter with the material included the visual images. So I may have failed in not directing Galvan and Penn differently because their relationship didn’t come across visually. But is this also because we have conventions about how interviewers should look and respond? Is it about our visual expectations? Should I have 'trained' Penn to look like a TV interviewer? I don’t know yet.

This year I’ve been reading Bresson on the use of 'models' as actors, not wanting people to 'act'. I’m wondering how in a documentary people would accept the visual relationship between Penn and Galvan as being an authentic representation of their (warm) relationship and having its particular, useful, significance, just as the verbal relationship has on the soundtrack. But this would require them to modify the way they behaved for filming purposes. I do know that Penn asked questions that as an older woman I might not ask, for instance about Galvan’s testicles, and that the other young men filming appreciated those questions. As have young men viewing the film.

H McP: How do you see your role in choosing your subjects of filming: as a social historian, a personal biographer, an empathizer with endangered marginals — all of the above?

ME: Being a mother and a daughter was especially significant in the process, as I found out recently. As you know, I’m doing the scriptwriting course at the International Institute of Modern Letters this year. We did an exercise the other day, intended to help us find our own uniqueness as writers. I found that my focus is on motherhood and remembering. If I were to stand on a roof-top and shout a single message to a crowd, hoping to make them cheer (as required in the exercise) it would be 'remember your mothers'. To an intimate partner the message would be 'remember your mother'. Or if I had to whisper a one word message, it would be 'remember'.

Given that in some ways I’m not the greatest mother in the world I was surprised. But then I remembered Mothers about being a mother and being a daughter, the show I selected with Anna Keir in 1980, and sent round the country with an associated programme. I thought of my law thesis about the New Zealand jurisprudence of shared and equal parenting rights and responsibilities and its consequences for mothers — and how these laws obscure the gendered hierarchy of care for children and reinforce gender inequities. I remembered writing for Spiral about my own mother who mothered me badly but whom I came to love when I cared for her as she was dying. I remembered our — yours, mine, other feminist artists’ — difficult search for cultural grandmothers and how I’ve felt dependent on my peers to be cultural mothers. I realised that the feature film I’m writing in class is essentially for Simone, an eight year old who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film, that my TV series proposal I thought was a thriller is also about motherhood.

My first film project, with Irihapeti Ramsden, was called Something for the grandchildren to hold. She and I talked often about mothering and the next generation, and her cultural safety theory is of course ultimately about making sure that everyone is safely nurtured.

And, as Galvan says in the film, he missed being a parent, and he wanted to be reincarnated as a mother. Certainly he 'mothered' many artists in the best possible way. He also loved children and young people and they loved him, right until the end. Shortly before he died he gave a young friend art classes over five weeks for him and some of his mates. I hear the classes were wonderful.

For me, the next generation is the reason for making films, another aspect of my own practice as a mother. If — like us when starting out — the next generation doesn’t have the opportunity to know its cultural forebears, locally and globally, it won’t benefit from their accumulated experience and wisdom. Galvan’s early work on Parihaka is just one fine example of his concern to learn and teach about difficult aspects of the history of this country. But he was also deeply concerned about making and analysing art and about details, like giving art objects space to radiate their own excellence when on display, or providing exhibition labels that were easily accessible to everyone. He never ever stopped questioning and thinking.

Galvan and the inula from a cutting in Rodney Kennedy’s garden

And I found that the three young men who worked with me and who had never heard of Galvan just blossomed from spending time with him. He gave them so much. They were transformed by the experience. Other young men who see Sister Galvan also respond strongly and positively. One story Galvan himself told me was of sitting at the Wellington Railway Station in the freezing cold and having the young man on the coffee stall run over to say “You’re Galvan, I saw your film. It was wonderful and it changed my life.” That young man had responded to the gay parts of the film particularly, but the enthusiasm has come as often from straight young men as from gays. And from young women.

H McP: What is your position on the selective decisions/interventions/insertions of the maker? i.e. do you or/and Galvan decide on the content? Whose decisions — if either — would override? It may seem that only Galvan’s comfort boundaries operate — do yours?

ME: Hmmmm, as you would say.

None of it was scripted, nothing in the film at all, we just started filming. I asked questions about what interested me and Penn asked questions about what interested him. I’d also done some audiotapes and reading to make sure I had the right basic info to start from and a sense of the shape of Galvan’s life. But once we’d finished the interviews I tried to shape the material in a way that ensured that the basics introducing Galvan were in the first part and after that each of the more important aspects of his present life — identified by him — received equal attention.

I’ve learned from a number of these projects that it’s important to start with as few preconceptions or expectations as possible and that each project has to be carefully negotiated. There are oral historians and documentary makers who have standard contracts and release forms for their “subjects” who relinquish their copyright in the material generated and who often begin from the understanding that there will be no ongoing relationship after an interview is finished.

My view is that although this may be appropriate for others, it can’t work for me. For a start, anyone I interview owns the copyright in their contribution to our interview, outright or in equal shares, depending on what we jointly decide. What they choose to contribute is their intellectual property, not mine, though I may “use” it to make another piece of intellectual property.

Galvan talking about McCahon does so from years of careful looking and rigorous thinking that I had nothing to do with. 

Why should I alone benefit from the use of that if others pay to watch and listen to him? It’s possible to make money from documentaries and if they are about individuals I think those individuals should receive a negotiated, proportionate, benefit.

Galvan didn’t want to have anything to do with shaping the movie or DVD, so we agreed that he’d see the film for the first time at its first public showing. Partly because of this I think but also, typically for him, and because he wasn’t going to be around for long, he wanted Spiral and the young men involved to benefit financially, rather than him. Unfortunately, because TVNZ wanted so much money for the use of their 87 seconds’ footage, we’ve only recently, thanks to GABA, been able to buy the rights to it. Until we distribute the film there won’t be any money to complete the DVD and certainly no financial benefit for Spiral to pass on. And as the DVD’s not a biography 'for the page' and the film is designed to be read with the other material rather than for TV or theatrical release, the project’s ineligible for many funding resources.

My choices when editing were based on using the strongest material available to illustrate an aspect of Galvan and I didn’t think about the comfort zones of others. If I had, I’d have got in a terrible tangle. Boundaries were not something we discussed. Galvan and I abandoned our boundaries in a way that sometimes happens in sex where you just trust what’s happening without too much thought. We had an intense curiosity in the process, in each other’s questions and responses. There was never any question he didn’t want to answer and he was embarrassed just once, when I asked him “What about your mouth?”

We talked a lot about sex and about prostate cancer and had many conversations that we didn’t record. It felt important to get the essence of the significance of sex in Galvan’s life. And there’s no doubt it was huge: I am still amazed when I imagine him having meetings in the institutions where he worked and then whipping out at lunchtime for sex in the local public toilets, instead of having a sandwich. I hadn’t realised that that went on and of course still goes on.

There’s so little documentary material about prostate cancer and about dying and death and there was enough material to do a whole film about either, but the prostate interviews were hard to edit and although we added some of Galvan’s CAT scans to cover some of the cuts, it’s not as easy to watch as I’d like, and that may exacerbate a viewer’s discomfort.

As far as ongoing relationships are concerned, the time that the people share with me is precious and if we’ve both valued that, it can only enhance our lives if we later choose to spend time together without the recording machines, building on the relationship we’ve developed. The relationship is an equal relationship, because we take time to negotiate the power balance at the outset, with a proviso that the initial agreement can be renegotiated. Penn as a young heterosexual did, now I think about it, have a less 'equal' relationship and this may explain some of the visual problems.

It would be a different relationship and a different work if I had harvested Galvan’s story and taken it home to do what I liked with, without the initial negotiation and the assumption of shared ownership . Galvan asked me to include what he wanted — the shower scene — and told me I was to feel free to ask any question I wanted and to film anything else I wanted. He seemed to lack vanity. I don’t think I would have his trust or his courage, because I’ve always found it hard to look at photos of myself and to articulate aspects of my life in a way that satisfies me.

The relationship we created meant for example that long after the film was done I went out to the Wairarapa for a day after Galvan developed dysphasia and lay with him under his duvet while he rested, each of us with a book to read. He was very tired. All afternoon we watched the leaves dropping outside, with little conversations about things like why the coloured leaves dropped more slowly than the green ones and why the trees had different rhythms. Making himself understood was a struggle by then. But his mind was still working in the same way as usual apart from no longer having the capacity to find words easily and to form sentences. He was a bit disappointed that the Douglas Wright book I’d told him about had had to go back to the library. He’d hoped I would read it to him. But in spite of that, it was a lovely time.

Our ongoing relationship meant that Penn and I participated in Galvan’s dying, too. And that was special. Being there when the beautiful woman in the cancer ward shaved his hair off and being aware of how much cultural safety has affected the care given in hospitals, in the way that kind of thing is done. Holding his woolly hat and glasses while he had the stunning custom made net mask put over his head to hold it still for radiation and then seeing the radiation on the TV screen. Hearing his second mother sing and talk to him the night before he died, sharing his care with his friends, keeping his mouth clean and lubricated, holding his hand. Seeing one friend kiss him lingeringly and lovingly on the lips and noticing Galvan’s response: the sleeping queen woke briefly, experiencing pleasure. If it hadn’t been at such short notice and if I hadn’t also wanted to be involved in his physical care I would have filmed the entire process. And he would have been happy with that. One of the best things about working with him was that he wanted all aspects of his life to be included and trusted me to do the best I could. He would also have been delighted to know that while he slept we watched Taika Waititi filming among the rubble of an old hospital building, out the window.

And from his dying and the hospital I’ve been given so much to think about. You and I both now live alone, our health somewhat compromised. I know from my thesis research that single mothers have a shortened life span, because of their single motherhood and not just as the result of the ongoing poverty that accompanies that status. Our marginalisation as lesbians has probably also affected our health. How will we be cared for? The nurses were so good at the hospital and even made sure Galvan was cared for by male nurses, realising he would like that. But they were overworked and the environment they work in made me feel ill. I don’t want to end up in a similar place, without resources, eating the horrible food, or at home feeling alone and unwanted as Galvan certainly did over the years he was sick. After he first saw the film he told me that before we started working on it he had decided to suicide. I don’t want that for you or anyone I care about either, but we are all so busy and you and I (as an example) living in different cities and without great energy or resources won’t be able to provide much care for each other.

Galvan felt utterly embraced, possibly for the first time in his life, over his last months, by the group of people in Greytown who cared for him, including his friend Ian with whom he stayed often and his friends Juliet and the other Marian, as well as others. But although Ian stayed in Wellington to care for Galvan until the end, it wasn’t possible for the others to do so. And I was surprised — that apart from one former lover from out of town who happened to be in Wellington and another who came when he wasn’t at work, one friend from the art world, his wonderful second mother and a couple of visitors Galvan decided he didn’t want — there was no outpouring of love and support. Earlier one group had sent him a digital camera, and that thrilled him [2020: no iPhones then!]. 

But towards the end, there was this silence and inaction, followed after his death considerable numbers of people wanting to participate in a send-off, who rang about the funeral and emailed to get copies of Sister Galvan. So many people knew he was ill and did nothing to help. No enquiries about what Galvan or his carers needed. I know he was 'difficult' as well as loved. But why did those people not even try?

And I read in an obituary for Irihapeti that towards the end of her life she felt isolated, emotionally and intellectually, and realised that I stopped ringing or going to see her at times when I felt I might be intruding. I think we need to talk more about living and dying and how to offer support, even if it is just to drop off or post an interesting book or image, rather than making assumptions. I know I’d like support while I’m living rather than people acknowledging me when I’m dead. And I’ve spent a bit of time thinking “Who I’d like lingering kisses from as I die, or to give me strength to live?” Strangely, I thought of Barb Macdonald who when she was alive would have liked to kiss me lingeringly and because at that time I wasn’t into lingering kisses on a casual basis I missed out. That kiss was certainly life enhancing for Galvan. It’s an issue to be considered, along with all the other touching and caressing: he loved me caressing his feet, even when his oedema was very severe.

H McP: The wonderful shower scene and Galvan’s commentary which runs from the ‘aging body’ to the ‘old auntie” stereotype and details of what mother said on cleanliness…is there also a minor sub-text of “How to keep healthy”?

ME: No, no sub-text there, simply Galvan being as and saying what he wanted. The second time he saw the film he told me that the shower scene ran for twelve minutes and he had expected it would be twelve seconds, but he liked it. One young Swiss woman found it hard that Galvan used a single face cloth for all parts of his body. I defended him, since he washed and rinsed the face cloth between parts, but from her point of view that was an extremely unhealthy practice. His mother I think has a strong presence in the film (there’s that mother theme again) which neither of us really thought about at the time but one of the first 'test' viewers remarked upon and really liked.

H McP: I was fascinated by the unexamined — as in the 8 year old being inducted into homosexual sex and the throw-away “I didn’t like it much at first but then I grew to love it”. To me this suggests this homosexual was ‘made’ not ‘born’ — does this resonate with you — does it matter? A defecting film watcher who said that “any sex, not just homosexual sex” was too much for him also talked about “’triumphalism’ — a need to be seen as ‘winning’ or I am who I am regardless of others’ boundaries.” I’d interpret this more as a kind of compensation as in — if this is what I am then I will be it flamboyantly. You as maker seem content to leave in the contradictions — Galvan’s quest for ‘inner’ spirituality with the need to embody or identify with symbols/markings, his pragmatic reaction to the dog’s skeleton compared with previous distress — without wanting to tie things up. Is this a commitment to being post-modern or how the work unfolded or….?

ME: O dear, this is where I reveal my naivety. As I’ve said, I just began and went on, without a theoretical basis. 

Now I’ve learned about films as ‘journeys’ I can see that the film is based around various kinds of journeys: Galvan’s life and the work within it until the present, his bicycle rides to and from his office, the sexual journey, abruptly terminated by his castration, his spiritual journey, the tattoo trip and the travelling towards death as his final magic moment. Also in there are my journey and the journeys of the young men working on the film.

Several people have asked why I didn’t pursue the issue of Galvan’s sexual experience as an eight year old. They were mostly shocked. I guess if he had been a woman I may have asked at the time. But my sense was that the question was redundant. When I asked him about the sex as abuse ­– after people asked me — his response was much as I expected: that in the larger scheme of things his introduction to sex with another person may have been ‘abusive’ but that it didn’t matter at all. What is perceived as abusive towards an eight year old may have introduced Galvan to sexual practices that suited him rather than ‘turning him into a homosexual’.

Furthermore, I see sexual and physical abuse as subsets of psychological abuse, which may itself cause physical ill health and I’m sure Galvan was abused psychologically, all his life. It’s important to remember this and see the abuse of him as a child within this context. Being ‘out’, as Galvan was in the days before homosexual law reform, and intensely sexual as well intensely intellectual, creative and political, I imagine he was scary for a lot of people. As are most visionaries. And there’s no doubt some people saw him as an unpredictable whirlwind of energy they needed to control, if only because implementation of his many excellent ideas blew out their budgets. Consequently I suspect some people responded abusively to him, overtly or subtly. Over the years, this kind of abuse could have been more damaging than the earlier sexual abuse. Maybe Galvan was recognising this when he said he wanted power out of his life and stating that if he had still been working at Te Papa he would have died long ago.

Galvan was a mass of contradictions and happy to own them and to live with them. His tenderness for Puka, his weeping over the corpse was as real as his concern to enhance Puka’s skull by having it covered in silver for use as a sacred object. One viewer was appalled that he could take the head and do nothing with the body, but my sense was that although he found seeing the whole body upsetting, it was immaterial to him whether it was buried or deteriorated as it was, concealed under a tree where people rarely passed. He also knew that Puka’s spirit was long gone from the body and as he was so fond of saying “It (the removal of the skull) didn’t matter”. He was pragmatic about his own body as well, straight to the crematorium without ceremony. I can’t quite believe that I won’t see those stunning tattoos any more.

Flamboyance. He could act the queen anytime he felt like it and it was wonderful when the Queen’s Birthday gun salute over Oriental Bay started just as I learned he was being cremated in the Wairarapa. What is flamboyance? Passion? Honesty? Transparency? The thing about his queenliness, which is how flamboyance is often understood, was that it persisted even when he was in his swandri building a chook house. I loved his refusal to tamp himself down for others’ comfort, although it was sometimes hard. It was awful when he shouted “GO AWAY!” to me at the hospital at a moment when I couldn’t help him because he was desperate for medication. 

But I know that he wanted to behave lovingly to those around him, was distraught if he felt he had hurt or caused offence and always made amends. In my own experience he changed his behaviour when I explained that something offended me; he did not offend again. He knew that it wasn’t acceptable to treat people badly and sometimes, like the rest of us, did not realise he had offended. Some of his behaviour may have been learned, resulted from others’ abuse of him; perhaps he never acknowledged the connection. But in the end I found it possible to accommodate Galvan’s responses, positive and negative, however powerfully expressed, because they were just part of his honesty, part of his flamboyance. Honesty may only be painful when it hits us in the ego I guess, or challenges our world view in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. And our last interchange before he died was utterly loving.

H McP: Would you approach making this film the same way another time?

ME: I’d do it more consciously in the technical as well as the emotional sense. I know now more about what digital film-making is capable of and where my own strengths lie. I’d perhaps try to direct Galvan and Penn and the camera more and I’d also persist more with the spiritual stuff. I think you can tell that although they were very important to Galvan I found it hard to relate to his spiritual practices. And the limitations of time, skill and money meant that the spiritual images were weak. I wish I’d been around when he made great petrol circles and set them alight. 

But yes, as an exercise in creating something that conveyed who and what Galvan was I’d approach it the same way: research, negotiation, careful looking and listening, trust and, of course, love. 

The outcome was no more important than making sure that the process warmed and enriched each of us. It looks a bit corny written down, but that’s how it was.

2020: I was clearing my files onto a hard drive for deposit at the Alexander Turnbull Library when I found this old interview. I'd forgotten about it.  

Poet and Spiral founder Heather McPherson’s own last days were hard, too. In late 2016, when Cushla Parekowhai, her car packed with Heather’s archives, also for the Turnbull Library, kindly drove me from Auckland to Wellington, we visited Heather at a rest home in Hamilton. 

She asked me if I’d help her die because her quality of life was so poor. And later, I wrote about that in the catalogue for the exhibition This Joyous Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu (2018–2019, Mokopōpaki and Spiral), about Heather and her peers. 

Here’s a short version of Sister Galvan that I used when teaching. Youtube removed it because of the nudity included in his shower scene.


I never made the DVD, because for years after Galvan died I couldn’t look at anything that reminded me of him. 

And, someone with accesss to a studio we used wiped the hard drive with all the footage on, although the original mini-DVD tapes are in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Maliciously, I believe, because they also set the hard drive to be unusable until some far distant future time.

I still miss him. 

More about Sister Galvan here.