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Pop CultureJuly 19, 2023

How Gaylene Preston and friends restored Bread and Roses in the nick of time


The filmmaker tells Gemma Gracewood about the challenges and joys of bringing her feminist classic back to full 4K glory.

“This is a fortunately-unfortunately-fortunately story,” Dame Gaylene Preston promises, as she plops herself into a chair at The Convent, a nunnery-turned-hotel in Grey Lynn, to talk about bringing Bread and Roses, her 1993 film about activist and MP Sonja Davies, back to big screens in this year’s Whānau Mārama NZ International Film Festival (NZIFF).

The restoration of the original 16mm film is magnificent. The luxuriousness of the colours, the attention to period design, the clarity of sound. We hear bird life, a suckling baby, mutterings from grumbling men, the rattling of a car over Te Kuiti potholes as Davies (played with grounded grace by Geneviève Picot) goes into labour.

It’s a real treat to be immersed for several hours in mid-century Aotearoa, and Preston’s a cracking director, letting long, richly detailed scenes unfold with smart camera movement rather than going for mid-shots and easy cuts. It’s economical and emotional, with space for the actors to do their best work.

The cast is a roll-call of New Zealand’s best from the early 1990s, including Mick Rose, Theresa Healey, Erik Thomson, Tina Regtien, Fran Kewene, novelist Emily Perkins, poet Vivienne Plumb. Thousands of extras were drawn from Labour Party ranks – including Trevor Mallard as a farmer with a pitchfork at the landmark 1955 all-woman sit-in at Kiwi Station. (The protest, which involved both National and Labour-voting women, was a last-ditch attempt to save Nelson’s railway after the men’s attempts had failed; it’s a central scene in the film.)

“Put the pitchfork down.” Trevor Mallard, left, as a farmer in Bread and Roses.

At NZIFF we’ll get to see Bread and Roses in full 4K glory (with intermission!), a small miracle considering the master negative was found damaged in 2012 from being rolled too tightly. It was touch and go: another year and Preston reckons the film would have been lost. Plus: Brian Scadden and Lynne Reede, the chaps who did the original lab work and grade – “the last people standing at the National Film Unit” – were still around to supervise the urgent and delicate work.

Unfortunately they didn’t have the right gear to clean up the negative. Fortunately, Sue Thompson, who had been a film investment executive at TVNZ’s Avalon Studios when Bread and Roses was being financed, was now the CEO at Park Road Post. (When the Film Unit was privatised and brought under Sir Peter Jackson’s ownership, she followed.) So producer Robin Laing, with Thompson, raised funds to get specialised equipment brought over from Australia to do the job. A telecine copy was made; the master negative was snatched back from the brink but remained vulnerable. That was then. Now, digital technology can build a new digital master; with a grant from the Aotearoa/NZ Film Heritage Trust, every frame of Bread and Roses was able to be digitised and the film remastered.

That was the picture taken care of, but a report commissioned from Wellington sound engineer Phil Burton had bad news: the soundtrack was damaged beyond repair. Fortunately there was the television version of Bread and Roses, which was timed for the 1993 Suffrage centenary (it premiered in NZIFF then aired in four parts in October that year, but “could never be properly owned as a Suffrage event, because of the election” Preston laments). The team were able to get the soundtrack stems from the TV episode tapes and join them together for the cinema version. Unfortunately, film runs at 24 frames per second, while television is 25fps, meaning things get out of sync pretty fast. Fortunately, they’ve got buttons and knobs for that now.

Geneviève Picot, Emily Perkins, Theresa Healey and Tina Regtien as student nurses.

When we meet, Preston is fresh from “a heady adventure” with audio engineer Michael Hedges. “An unsung hero of New Zealand cinema,” she calls him, though Hedges is well-known to the Academy, having won two Oscars for his sound mixing on Jackson films. “For the first time ever you can hear every word,” Preston says of the “glorious” remix Hedges has created from the stems of the film’s original dialogue, music and sound effects. “Very rarely do people talk about the sound side of a restoration,” she reckons. “Nobody other than Mike Hedges and I together could have done it. We’re making so many creative decisions as we go. Bread and Roses’ restoration is a great testament to the technicians still being around from the Film Unit days, who took good care of it when it was made.”

Most film rescues have a nick-of-time air about them. “It doesn’t bear thinking about what we as a nation are currently losing. Our screen heritage is very fragile,” Preston says, pained. Next in line for digitisation is her Sam Neill-starring psychological thriller Perfect Strangers, but she’s not urgently worried about that (“the 35mm negative is safe”) – it’s other people’s stories Preston is concerned about. “There’s a tsunami of television work that was shot on Beta tapes that are sitting there, not getting any younger. Archives is a whole other situation; all the trusts holding this work need more money before we lose anything else.”

Sonja Davies, Gaylene Preston and Geneviève Picot on the set of the 1955 railway protest. Courtesy of Gaylene Preston.

The Bread and Roses restoration project was almost as tumultuous as the film’s making, reflecting in turn the ups and downs of its subject’s life. This year is the 100th anniversary of Davies’ birth; she was born out of wedlock and never knew her father. She married and divorced at age 17, had a baby at 22 to a US Marine who did not survive the war, contracted tuberculosis as a student nurse and had to foster her daughter out during a long, lonely stretch in hospitals and sanatoriums.

Another husband, a second child and five decades as a union organiser, peace protester, politician and champion for women’s and children’s rights followed – as well as a late-in-life discovery of her maternal Ngāi Tahu roots. Davies was a force, and too often a first. With so much story to tell, working with writer Graeme Tetley, Preston kept the focus tight, covering WWII through to 1956 when Davies won her first public election (becoming the only woman on the Nelson Hospital Board). It’s an intimate epic about mothers and babies, dignity and friendship, love and lovers, class and legitimacy.

Geneviève Picot (Sonja) with Erik Thomson as Red, Sonja’s ill-fated American fiancé.

“Bread and Roses is about an outsider becoming an insider on her own terms,” Preston writes in her absorbing and funny new memoir, Gaylene’s Take: Her Life in New Zealand Film. She could as easily be talking about herself in the male-dominated screen industry of the early 90s. She writes of crew members grousing that “she hasn’t done her homework” because they didn’t understand her creative process. With her good blokes – cinematographer Allen Guilford and camera operators Alun Bollinger and Leon Narbey – she took an exploratory approach to “finding the life of the scene: choreographing actors to a moving camera is time-consuming before you shoot a single shot. Over 14 weeks the crew got bored. A practical joke at lunchtime caused an explosion.” The shoot sounds like a horrible slog.

Also, Preston’s father Ed was dying, her relationship was ending and her daughter Chelsie was just four years old. “I sat in the editing room and cried,” she writes. “I went for long walks and cried. I seemed to be leaking.” Even funding wasn’t a given, despite the frantic work of Laing and executive producer Dorothee Pinfold. Bread and Roses got its final green light, Preston recalls, thanks to “a gender-conscious lawyer in 1991 on the New Zealand on Air board” who noticed the decision was split between the men and women on the board and changed his vote.

“You need to be able to stick to your guns to get something made,” she says – something Preston’s a national champion at. Soon after putting the final print to bed, there was a cast and crew screening at the Paramount in Wellington (it had a 16mm projector) studded with notable audience members. Davies was now the MP for Pencarrow, and her bestie Dame Catherine Tizard was the first woman governor general (who would soon have to deal with the small matter of an almost hung parliament after the ’93 general election). They chatted away loudly and happily during the screening about details like the casting of a family cat (wrong colour!).

Preston (centre) directs a farewell scene for Bread and Roses. Courtesy of Gaylene Preston.

Tizard outlived Davies by 16 years, dying aged 90 during Covid restrictions in October 2021. Her state funeral was belatedly held last month in the Auckland Town Hall, where shining pearls of Dame Cath wisdom were shared. Her favorite toast: “Success to temperance!” Her favourite warning: “Don’t go to a meeting unless you’re prepared to come home with a job.”

Davies and Tizard both went to hundreds of meetings and always had jobs on the go. I’m only writing this story because I accidentally went to a meeting I’d thought was just a drink and a natter in a nunnery. Preston is sly like that – as she herself writes many times in her book, “still haven’t learnt!”. But I’m grateful to have been invited to document this tenacious, feminist act of preservation and reclamation; to be reminded that progress has been made for women and children even if it doesn’t feel like it most days; and that the pioneering achievements of activists and artists alike need to be upheld, protected and extended.

I count myself so lucky that Jane Campion’s Janet Frame biopic, An Angel at My Table, and Preston’s Bread and Roses both came out while I was studying to craft screen stories of my own, but it’s dismaying that it wasn’t the start of many more. Last year’s Whina was half the length of both and needed to be three times as long. It is bloody hard to bring a lost film back to life anywhere in the world, let alone make new work in today’s streaming culture where a story is there one day, gone the next.

We need our art and our artefacts. As the song goes: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.” How fortunate we are to have Preston and Laing’s masterpiece blooming anew.

Bread and Roses screens on Saturday July 29 at the Embassy in Wellington; Sunday July 30 and Thursday August 3 at ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland; further Whānau Marama NZIFF dates here. Film images from the restored print are courtesy of Preston*Laing Productions. 

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