Filmmaker Gwen Isaac was meant to be in Japan filming a documentary about a New Zealand MMA fighter. But when Covid-19 hit, she found herself embedded in the household of Dr Siouxsie Wiles, documenting a different type of fight.
I had never heard of Siouxsie Wiles before March this year. Then, suddenly, she seemed to be on every screen and radio wave in the country. When I reached out to her about the possibility of making a short documentary, things started moving fast.
Siouxsie told me she was in Wellington the next day to meet the prime minister and take part in a press conference for children about the virus. Did I want to meet her after that? She had a feeling this virus wasn’t going away – she’d spent 20 years researching infectious diseases and their effects on humans, and had seen this type of thing play out before in other parts of the world. Talking to her made me excited about science and less frightened of the virus. I wanted to spend more time with her and document, as she put it, “these crazy times” – so I flew up to Auckland the next day.
For the next four days I was embedded in the Wiles household. The crew I’d hired had to be let go, to follow bubble and social distancing rules, so I did everything myself. Siouxsie was an amazing subject to follow, but as camera, sound and director all in one, I had my work cut out for me. She never stopped moving and her phone never stopped ringing.
I felt lucky to be with Siouxsie as the world changed forever, and privileged to be in the presence of such an adept science communicator. Despite the stressful situation unfolding around us, I was welcomed into her household with warmth, and we bonded over grilled lamb, daughters and mutual frustrations of everyday sexism. She was generous and open and let me film almost everything.
Siouxsie comforted me when I burst into tears at the level four lockdown announcement. We’re both the type of person who believes in wearing your heart on your sleeve as a sign of strength, so I knew I was in good company. She is an inspiration, a trail-blazer, a “firebrand”, as she puts it. She was extremely qualified to be holding the hand of New Zealand through this crisis, but it came at a personal cost.
Not everyone approved of her leadership role, it seemed. She became the target of trolls and online abuse. My time with Siouxsie reminded me that women who put themselves in the firing line like her aren’t doing it for fame or fortune – nobody would ever choose to do a job like that for glory.
But Siouxsie and I both wanted to show our daughters that we can be the change we want to see in the world, as messy and challenging as that can be to achieve. I hope Siouxsie’s story encourages others with expertise – especially those who wouldn’t traditionally be thrust into leadership roles – to have the courage to step up and make positive change in these challenging times.
I was meant to be going to Japan this year to film a short documentary following a young Māori mixed martial artist preparing for a career-defining fight in Tokyo. Covid put a stop to that. But perhaps Siouxsie’s story isn’t all that different from a cage fight – only instead of using physical force, she overcomes her opponents using science and kindness.
Siouxsie & the Virus is part of the Loading Docs 2020 collection – watch more at loadingdocs.net
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.