Director: Gaylene Preston
Gaylene Preston Productions
The aim of this film, initially, was to tag along with Helen Clark as she visited some countries, flew the diplomatic flag; a window into the idea of kindness and compassion within geo-politics (it’s still there if you search, as Preston and crew were planning). And then the film’s aims changed, just like that, suddenly Clark was very publicly being scrutinised in a campaign-length job-interview as she considered the top job at the UN, were she to get it would be the first ever woman awarded the role of Secretary General of the United Nations.
We know, before the film starts, that Clark was turned down, was unsuccessful. Preston mines documentary gold here – for this film would be a victory lap either way. The fact that Clark was unsuccessful give the film a huge power and keeps it – sadly – relevant for many years. That’s cold comfort in one sense of course, but it lends the film a potency. We see a very real, very human, very professional portrait of Clark in the glimpses we get. We also see the huge machine, the walls-have-ears in the wired-for-sound UN building. That Preston was able to get the footage she has seems remarkable. There must have been so many times when the camera had to be switched off – but there she is, sometimes filming on an iPhone, up close to Clark for several interviews that have a strange and lovely tension about them.
The resulting picture – that Helen is a tower of strength, that the UN and Big Politics is a sad old boys club – has charm and gravitas, has subtle humour and huge moments where the viewer will feel pride even as disbelief seeps in, as frustration rides alongside every key moment.
Preston has managed to make a film that is both fly-on-the-wall – about its actual subject, so cleverly, closely observed and yet also a metaphor of sorts; rumination on all that comes from this. That Jacinda Adern, who has shown some notes of Clark’s calmness and confidence in her early interviews, one day into accepting Helen’s old job, was asked about her baby plans shows the horrifying, erm, trickle-down effect from the swinging dicks that have, for far too long, set the agenda and tone.
Helen Clark is that rare politician – people admire her even if they are not on her side of the political divide, she shows commitment and focus, professionalism and enormous talent, she’s clearly a fearsome public intellect with a can-do/must-do/just-do-it approach and attitude. So Preston’s film captures the many different Helen Clarks that are, in the end, all just the one, same person. She poses for selfies, knowing it’s worse if you don’t – just do it, own it. But we also see her at Waihi Beach, making freezer-meals for her dear old dad. He beams as he tells the camera that Helen calls every day.
Pragmatism and warmth. That’s the Helen Clark we see here. Whether wooing women at conferences around the world or being handed marching orders by sad, old white men at the top. It is all handled. All taken in her stride.
She is a role-model, a hero, a down-to-earth, hard-worker. No-nonsense.
We feel that through the screen. We feel her frustrations and see her as another casualty of an impossible glass ceiling.
Gaylene Preston’s film is a masterpiece in subtly but pointedly aiming at the absurdity of these defiant male-hierarchy institutions.
The victory still happens in the sense that what got caught on tape tells a powerful – and damning – story; a failure that shines a light on the sadness of the powers that be, that shows how out of touch the UN really is.