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Shepherdess: ‘We were driven by the belief that every woman has a story to tell.’ (Photo: Sky)
Shepherdess: ‘We were driven by the belief that every woman has a story to tell.’ (Photo: Sky)

Pop CultureOctober 22, 2023

Shepherdess shines a light on the lives of women in rural New Zealand

Shepherdess: ‘We were driven by the belief that every woman has a story to tell.’ (Photo: Sky)
Shepherdess: ‘We were driven by the belief that every woman has a story to tell.’ (Photo: Sky)

Tara Ward talks to Nadia Maxwell, the producer of a new documentary series that shines an inspiring light on the lives of rural women. 

Nadia Maxwell knows a thing or two about the resourcefulness and resilience of rural New Zealand women. The documentary producer lives in the Canterbury rural heartland of Hurunui, and has long been inspired by the women living around her. “When you live rurally, often there’s quite a traditional myopic view of rural women,” Maxwell says, “but there’s actually all these amazing, diverse women.” After seeing the lives of provincial women reflected so beautifully in the magazine Shepherdess, Maxwell contacted the magazine’s editor Kristy McGregor with the idea of bringing these women’s lives to the small screen. 

The result is the heartwarming new documentary series Shepherdess, which premieres tonight on Sky Open. Each of the six episodes visits a small community in New Zealand – from Tokanui and Lauder in the south to Pōrangahau and Tora in the north – and tells the stories of three women living there. It’s a gentle, thoughtful portrait of each woman’s life, their whānau and community, capturing the everyday beauty in a world not often seen on our screens. 

Shepherdess producer Nadia Maxwell (Photo: Sky)

Maxwell wanted to feature women who could give different perspectives on one place and, as a born and bred South Islander, was particularly keen to highlight southern stories (four of the six episodes are based in Te Waipounamu). She admits finding the right subjects was an extensive and lengthy process, but it was one she didn’t want to rush. “We didn’t necessarily go to a community and go, ‘we want to find the leaders’,” Maxwell says. “We were driven by the belief that every woman has a story to tell.” 

And those stories are unique and diverse. We meet the mother of four young children who runs a shearing gang business for 200,000 sheep, and the 82-year-old postmistress of the oldest continually running postal service in New Zealand. There’s a fisherwoman working to supply sustainable kaimoana across the country, a station cook raising her daughters on a high-country farm, and a wahine who uses traditional Māori healing to help her fellow shearers. Each experience is entirely different, yet they’re all connected by a sense of place and a desire to make a difference in their community, no matter how small or remote. 

Photo: Sky

Maxwell knew it was important to take time to lean into the rhythms and routines of each of her subjects’ lives, so that Shepherdess could capture a balanced sense of who they really were. They spent nearly a week filming in each location, and while each day was full and busy, Maxwell noticed the women she was with never appeared stressed. “Because a lot of their work is tied into the community – they’re the president of the playcentre, they’re running this or that – it’s the kind of stuff that really feeds your soul. They’re busy, but they’re really chill as well,” she recalls.   

Shepherdess is a show about women, but it’s also produced and directed by women and made by a predominantly all-female crew. Maxwell says this helped to create a sense of relaxed intimacy that made each subject feel more comfortable about sharing their lives with the country. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘oh no, I don’t know why you’d be interested in my story,’” she says. “But I remember Val [the Ophir postmistress] said to me on the last day of filming, ’I definitely felt like I could open up more, because you were a woman as well’.”

Maxwell was just keen to provide an empowering environment for her team working behind the camera. “In our industry, there’s a lot of lip service to supporting women with families, but there’s often very little done in the way of practical steps to enable that,” she says. Shepherdess director Hannah McOwan was a new mum, and was encouraged to bring her seven month-old on location. Hannah’s family was on set to help look after baby Joey, and Maxwell supported Hannah by making simple changes where possible, like setting a consistent finish time so she could feed and put Joey to bed every night.  

“There’s definitely a shift starting to happen in the industry,” Maxwell says. “But this series is about and by woman, and we wanted to create an environment that would work for Hannah – and it did.”

By making an uplifting show about the ordinary lives of New Zealand women, Maxwell hopes Shepherdess will provide an empowering legacy for generations to come. “I’m a mother of two daughters, and it’s about seeing the diversity and the resilience of these inspirational women, who are also everyday women living their lives and doing great things,” Maxwell says.

Shepherdess is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the beauty in the small things. “I just want to celebrate these stories. These are the stories I want to show my kids.” 

Shepherdess premieres on Sky Open (formerly Prime) on Sunday 22 October at 7.30pm, and streams on Sky Go.

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