No­body wants a cam­era in the room when they’re go­ing about their busi­ness. Once you are mak­ing an ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary, it’s a bit like hav­ing lep­rosy.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - — GAY­LENE PRE­STON, UN CON­FI­DEN­TIAL,

UN con­fi­den­tial Track­ing He­len Clark’s tilt for the top job at the United Na­tions, Gay­lene Pre­ston doc­u­mented the crea­tures of the diplo­matic world.

One re­mark­able thing about mak­ing her lat­est film, My Year with He­len, was that her sub­ject could hardly have been more re­laxed about let­ting her into the room... and yet the lep­rosy fac­tor was still there, be­cause for a lot of the film­ing, the room was owned by the United Na­tions.

“Af­ter Hope and Wire [Pre­ston’s 2014 TV minis­eries about Christchurch in the wake of the quakes], I think I had swal­lowed too much liq­ue­fac­tion dust and I got a lung prob­lem. And that al­ways makes you a bit de­pressed, you know? And it just seemed to me that ev­ery­thing was get­ting worse — the planet was melt­ing, the world was in a ter­ri­ble state. And at some point around then the thought struck me — why is He­len Clark so chirpy?”

As the head of the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme, Clark was surely in a po­si­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate how ter­ri­ble the state of the world was. And yet... she seemed to en­joy her job. In fact, she had just signed on for a sec­ond term. “I thought, she re­ally must think she can make a dif­fer­ence. I’m in­ter­ested in find­ing out how that goes. And so I rang her and asked her if I could make a film about the work she was do­ing.” Usu­ally this would trig­ger a lengthy bout of ne­go­ti­a­tions, or a flat no.

“But she just said yes. And I said, well, I’d want creative con­trol. And she said, you’ve got it.”

So Pre­ston went to Botswana, to watch Clark at work. “The Film Com­mis­sion have got this great ap­proach at the mo­ment where you can test out a film idea by do­ing a lit­tle bit of work. So they funded a lit­tle crew of three of us to go to Botswana, where He­len had a visit sched­uled, just to find out whether there was a film here. You know: What does the head of the UNDP ac­tu­ally do? Is it so in­vis­i­ble you can’t film it? Is it just peo­ple sit­ting around in meet­ings?”

It turned out to be con­sid­er­ably more filmable than that, though meet­ings were cer­tainly in­volved; footage from that trip is in the fin­ished film. Pre­ston came back and set about se­cur­ing fund­ing for a full-length doc­u­men­tary. “We got money from the Film Com­mis­sion on this com­pli­cated new plan where they give you half, and then you have to raise an­other quar­ter, and they’ll match that quar­ter. But when you get your ini­tial half, you have to agree that you’re go­ing to de­liver the film re­gard­less.”

Pre­ston has been mak­ing in­de­pen­dent films in New Zealand for nearly 40 years. “Ba­si­cally, the work that I do, and have done since 1978, starts be­tween my ears, and then I go out and work with oth­ers to raise the money to get the project onto the screen.” She found pri­vate in­vestors and se­cured her bud­get, and set off to start mak­ing the film. There was just one lit­tle thing she didn’t know. “I think He­len knew from the be­gin­ning! But I didn’t. So yeah, it turned out the year we were fol­low­ing her around was the year she was run­ning for [UN] sec­re­tary-gen­eral. Ac­tu­ally, He­len let us in at a very vul­ner­a­ble mo­ment. How would you like to be filmed do­ing a re­ally big, drawn-out, semipub­lic job in­ter­view?”

“Semi-pub­lic”, Pre­ston found out quickly, was a term whose mean­ing had to be ne­go­ti­ated day by day when it came to film­ing in­side the UN build­ings. “Once we got to New York, ac­cess was dif­fi­cult. Be­cause, A, these peo­ple are re­ally busy.

And, B, they’re re­ally busy in rooms that it’s im­pos­si­ble to get a cam­era into, be­cause of all the se­cu­rity re­stric­tions.” These bar­ri­ers were some­what re­duced for the ini­tial de­bates among the can­di­dates for sec­re­tary-gen­eral. “That first 2016 de­bate was a his­toric event. It’s the first time there have ever been cam­eras in the room for the Gen­eral Assem­bly. Nor­mally the way the sec­re­tary-gen­eral is ap­pointed has been a se­cret shoul­der-tap thing.

The process is pa­pal, ba­si­cally.

And, ba­si­cally, it still was, de­spite ev­ery­thing they did to make it seem like the pub­lic was be­ing al­lowed in. There was a Dan­ish doc­u­men­tary be­ing filmed that year at the UN as well... as the only two crews who have ever been in there mak­ing doc­u­men­taries over a long pe­riod, we would some­times get to­gether on a Sun­day, the Danes and the Ki­wis, and com­plain about how hard it was.”

The de­bates made it seem the can­di­dates who per­formed best at them — in par­tic­u­lar, Clark — had a re­al­is­tic chance of be­com­ing sec­re­tary-gen­eral. As the year went on, this no­tion faded. “And when He­len didn’t get the job, ev­ery­one went, oh dear, I guess you haven’t got a film there.” But Pre­ston and her crew had also been track­ing cam­paign­ers lob­by­ing to have a wo­man to lead the UN and filmed the press corps try­ing to work out what was go­ing on in the con­test.

“I see this film, and re­ally I al­ways did, as an ethno­graphic doc­u­men­tary. So the UN is the wa­ter­ing hole and the an­i­mals come through to drink, you know? There’s ones that ar­rive in the morn­ing and ones that are there at night. The big an­i­mals come past... there’s the diplo­mats, the lobby groups, and there’s the press and the ob­servers. Those are the prin­ci­pal tribes, and there’s a whole bu­reau­cracy around keep­ing them sep­a­rate. And when we went there, we were film­ing the gaps. We’re the un­of­fi­cial ver­sion.”

ABOVE— Gay­lene Pre­ston at the United Na­tions in New York.

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