Helen Clark’s ill-fated bid for the top job at the UN is documented with extraordinary proximity and passion in My Year with Helen. Alex Casey sits down with the former NZ prime minister and director Gaylene Preston, in an empty foyer at the movies, to discuss the shit that happens.
Of all the firm handshakes in the world, ‘twas Helen Clark’s that nearly crushed my brittle, brittle bones to a very fine dust. Last week – long before the streets of Auckland’s CBD ran red with the sacrificial blood of Don McGlashan – the ex-Prime Minister, ex-Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and tremendous emoji-user was in town with filmmaker Gaylene Preston to yarn about her new documentary My Year With Helen.
Filmed last year during Helen Clark’s bid to secure the position as the first woman secretary general of the UN, My Year With Helen is angering evidence of a reinforced glass ceiling in action. See, no matter how much light it appears to be letting in, a woman is always going to get a big old donk on the head for trying to charge through it. Because, spoiler alert: like a lot of people towards the tail-end of 2016, Clark doesn’t really come out of the experience smiling.
Despite being what looked like a shoo-in to win on paper, a favourite of the media, and surrounded by a group of unwavering optimists, My Year With Helen is all the more fascinating for chalking up a loss over a win. It’s a portrait full of extraordinary candid moments of pause, heavy disappointed air, and a puzzlingly devastating wooden Buzzy Bee atop an office desk. And if that moves you to tears, wait till you see the oceans of curry she cooks for her 94-year-old father back home in Waihi.
My Year With Helen is also a quietly considered rally cry, a call to action to chuck a helmet on and keep charging at that stupid ceiling no matter what industry you find yourself. Once the glamorous TV media had cleared, and Helen had warmly complimented her director on her opulent shawl [“it’s a lovely, stylish shawl”] we got a sliver of time together to chat about changes in New Zealand, Fitbits and why women need to stay angry.
The Spinoff: Amazingly, I actually saw the film right after I wrote about your bewildering social media presence, did you catch that story?
Helen Clark: I did see that. I tweeted it out actually. It was sort of about that hashtag “ask me anything”, right? AMA?
Exactly. Did you think it was a fair assessment of your online brand?
HC: Sure. Except I don’t answer everyone’s questions, but I do try and answer a lot. Some are a bit silly, and some just don’t know what they’re saying. But I do try, especially if someone’s having a row in a pub about Afghanistan and the Iraqi troops. Of course I’ll settle that.
Gaylene Preston: People just about faint when it happens, they are like, “oh my god, Helen Clark told me!”
There’s also an exciting element of spontaneity to it.
HC: Exactly, you never know when I’ll pounce.
Gaylene, were you aware your subject would be glued to her phone the whole time like some bloody millennial?
GP: No, I didn’t know that about her. But Helen’s not wasting a moment. While everyone else is sitting on the podium quietly, she’ll be on her phone. Why waste time?
HC: Time is short, you know? In our lives, we’re travelling in cars, we’re waiting for planes, we’re sitting in transit lounges and at boring meetings. There’s plenty of time there to connect with people.
It seems like that mindset fed into your motives around creating more transparency at the UN, how important is it for you to be accessible?
HC: You see, I’ve spent a life in politics. If you’re not accessible and you don’t have outreach, you’re not going to go very far. Social media came about just as I was at the end of being Prime Minister, I knew nothing about Facebook or Twitter. But when I went on the UNDP, I took to it as a way of getting information out there about the issues I was interested in. It’s worked well.
I’ve also noticed it’s worked for the travelling of the film online, as well.
GP: When we were in Sydney for the premiere, I remember waking up the next day at 5am to my phone going “ping”. It was Helen saying, “Gaylene, I’ve started a Twitter storm.” She had already managed to get the film out there before anyone had done anything else.
HC: If there was any kind of publicity strategy around the release of the film, I’ve ruined it completely. Sorry, that horse has left the stable!
GP: In a way, Helen does a lot of recording of things herself. When we first started shooting the film, we were on a small plane to Botswana. I remember Helen grabbing my phone, putting it onto record and filming out the window. Her shot is actually in the film.
That’s amazing. I loved how there were these intense, emotional moments in the film, and you’d just hear Gaylene sigh and say, “what a thing, eh?”
HC: “What a thing, eh!” It’s very Greymouth.
GP: I never wanted to say “are you disappointed?” or “how are you feeling?” The thing with that phrase is that it’s a Kiwi-ism but it’s also very open. All I was doing was wandering around and having a look at things, following the UN process with a particular set of interests around gender parity. That’s my core business.
And on the flipside, Helen, how did it feel to have to front up and be on camera during such a disappointing outcome?
HC: If you’ve been in the public eye as long as I have, then you’ve been through the school of hard knocks. You know that saying “shit happens”? This was a good example of it. Shit happens and you’ve just got to move on.
That should be the tagline of the film. Well, I was fighting back tears. Meanwhile, you were just somehow being staunch as?
HC: That’s all learned you see, you have to have very thick skin. You also have to de-personalise it, because in the end it’s not really about you. In my opinion, there is nothing more we could have done on that campaign.
I mean, it should have been highly achievable given that I’d come from a strong track record as Prime Minister and having the third highest position at the UN and being a significant reformer at UNDP. But there were just other significant forces at work that made it unattainable. We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t gone and had a go.
GP: I think there’s a really good clue in there about resilience and depersonalising. If you’ve got a philosophy which allows you to see past just you and them – and allows you to have a reasonably straightforward analysis of why the world is the way it is – it means you can start chewing away at the next tough bit. If you take it all personally, you’d just end up under the duvet.
My other big burning question from the film was this: were you wearing a Fitbit in some of the shots?
HC: Oh, I would say all of them. I’m wearing it now. Always.
[Helen Clark pulls back her sleeve like a magician to reveal her Fitbit, bright red obviously]
And you’re aiming for the 10,000 steps a day?
HC: Yeah. It’s a good reminder to get up every hour and walk 250 steps.
Seeing as you’ve both worked for decades in industries run by men: how have you seen the goalposts shift for women? Have they shifted at all?
HC: It’s shifted in New Zealand, for sure – there’s still a lot of change that needs to happen elsewhere. Look, when I first started working for New Zealand parliament it was a really horrible atmosphere where nobody ever expected a woman to achieve anything or get anywhere. I remember when I was elected in 1981, the number of women MPs doubled from four to eight.
GP: I think when Sonja Davies became the MP for Pencarrow, Muldoon called her the “Granny over there.” Sonja said, “yes, I am a grandmother, and it is something you will never attain.” The fight is important, and it can actually be quite good fun if you a few other women to do it with. You really need your gang.
HC: I remember when Mr Muldoon retired, he was asked, “what was the most significant change in your time in New Zealand politics?” He said, “all these women.” All these women! We had only doubled from four to eight, and we were such a lonely little band. It was a very different atmosphere, and I think a lot of that has changed now in New Zealand politics.
There was a kind of sickness I felt towards the end of the film, knowing that in a short time the US elections would see Donald Trump become president and another woman thwarted. How do you see it looking back now with that context?
HC: Honestly, when the UN contest ended the way it did, I actually had a deep sense of foreboding for Hillary’s campaign. I thought there were forces at work that would have been very, very tough for her to overcome. You just have to ask yourself, “why?”
Why was it that America’s most well-known woman, a proven competent person with a global reputation, why did she lose? I don’t think she should be sitting there asking that question of herself, I think America has to look in the mirror and ask why they couldn’t bring themselves to elect a highly qualified women candidate.
After I stepped outside I mostly just felt very, very angry. How are you not so angry?
HC: It’s like we’ve always said – you’ve got to get mad and you’ve got to get organised.
GP: You don’t all have to agree, but find out what you do agree on and fight for it. Go with that. You have to remember that things have always been a certain way for women for thousands of years, so you can’t expect to have it all changed in 10 years or so. It takes longer than you thought it would.
HC: It takes too long though, doesn’t it? Things are going backwards globally, the number of women leaders is actually going down. Based on the current trends in parliamentary representation, it would take 170 years to get close to parity for women as legislators. Do we really want to wait 170 years?
There’s been a report done in the World Economic Forum on the gender gap in the workforce, and they say it’s widening. It’s widening. The World Bank still identifies well over 100 countries which have laws or policies that directly discriminate against women in the workforce. Let’s not think the job is done – the job is nowhere near done. Nowhere near.
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I’m rarked up.
HC: Good. Get rarked up and stay rarked up.
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