Holly and Gaylene

The ever-engaging Gaylene Preston walked Holly around her Wellington haunts one afternoon and talked about what drives her art, the nature of Kiwis and getting her message across.

The daring filmmaker says she got her start quite by accident, when she was working as an art therapist at a psychiatric hospital. At the hospital, she witnessed the need to repeat, or institutionalize, stories. And fate, guts and sweat took it from there.

In the ensuing decades, she’s become a standout in New Zealand’s thriving film scene, directing and producing documentaries, feature films and television series, among them War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, Ruby & Rata, Bread & Roses and Mr. Wrong (Dark of Night in the U.S.).

She’s collected heaps of national and international awards for her work, including a Silver Clio in Cannes and a Mobius in Chicago.

She describes filmmaking as a really expensive habit. “Making film is like a fix, so you need to be doing that, however you can, and it makes you feel better.”

Her films cover a range of topics and genres, challenging long-held attitudes, and exploring topics from breast cancer (Titless Wonder) to women and independence (Mr. Wrong) to women and war.

When a topic grabs her, she typically wades in, and hopes the resources, and ultimately, audience will follow.

“If I want to decide to be a part of the solution, I have to A: Get a mass audience to my film, because it’s a mass medium, and B: I have to somehow get the message across in a way that people will remember.”

Connecting with audiences in New Zealand takes a special touch. Kiwis don’t necessarily go in for the swashbuckling type. Their heroes are different.

“The Kiwi hero is quite a passive protagonist and I think that’s actually been quite hard for us to get our heads around in terms of the making,” Gaylene says. “I’m actually about to make a film about somebody who doesn’t know what they’ve done.”

Instead of “divas,” she says, women in New Zealand, a country that is above all practical and without pretense, are more likely to connect with “stroppy sheilas.”

“A stroppy sheila’s gonna kinda put on the gumboots and stride out to the back pen, she’s gonna make sure that business is taken care of on the home front and she’s gonna go out there and she’ll have to do it, because who else would?”

And thus, the title of our New Zealand show was born.

A Sampling of Gaylene Preston’s Work:

Mr. Wrong (1984): A young woman buys a little bit of freedom with a new car and is haunted by the murder of the previous owner.

Ruby and Rata (1990): The aging Ruby lets out an apartment to Rata, a young Maori singer and single mother.

Bread & Roses (1993) Television series about Sonja Davies, a political activist/socialist/feminist in Australia in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) Seven women from New Zealand share their stories from WWII.

Punitive Damage (1999) Annie Goldson, Director, Gaylene Preston, Producer. The story of the mother of Kamal Bamadhaj, a young man who traveled from New Zealand to East Timor to support the pro-democracy movement in 1991 and shortly after his arrival was gunned down by the Indonesian military.

From the Interview

“The best way if you want to be subversive, is you gotta make ‘em laugh, you gotta make ‘em cry, you gotta make them scared, you’ve gotta do something with them.”

“I’m taking Thelma and Louise and they’re going to Mexico, dammit, and when they get there, everybody better watch out. Because Thelma and Louise are not the women they were when they set out, and one of them is fairly mad.”

“Why do we go to the beach? Why do we spend so much time looking out to sea? It’s because we think there’s something going on out there, and we don’t know what it is. And we’ve got a feeling that it’s really important.”

“If you’re up on yourself, if you’re a diva at home, you’re in trouble because you’ve changed, you’re not the same, so the best thing that my relatives can say about me is ‘Oh, okay, well she’s still the same.’ It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

Gaylene Preston

doco dynamo


Auckland, NZ

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