My Year With Helen: NZIFF Review
Director: Gaylene Preston
There's plenty to get frustrated about with Gaylene Preston's latest My Year With Helen, in which the Kiwi doco-maker spends time within Clark's camp as she tried for the job of UN Secretary General in 2016.
However, it's primarily the boys-led system that will have you raging as the film plays out, not the way the film's constructed.
Tagging along with Ms Clark, Preston had the idea to follow and see what doing good (as was Clark's desire) could actually achieve. But what, of course, transpired is that Helen Clark became the eye of the hurricane in a bid to become the next UN Secretary General.
Hindsight is both a blessing and a curse to this documentary.
It's a curse in that we all know the depressingly failed outcome of Clark's campaign, but it's also a blessing because what Preston actually captures, rather than an intimate diary of her moods, dreams and desires is the fact the UN is in crisis. Having had 8 men run it since its inception, what Preston's doco does is show what exactly is wrong with the UN, and why the zeitgeist desire to get a woman to the top job galvanised so many, and ultimately, why the final result was so head-slappingly dumb and a thumbing to those campaigning for glass-ceiling change.
Preston's smart enough to use the camera to capture the trappings of the UN, and while there are a few candid moments when Clark is less guarded (though these come primarily when she is relaxing with her father in the Waihi Beach home, making meals for her dad - I defy anyone not to release a Helen's Chilli Con Carne after this- or a fleeting glance of her using social media in the back of the car on her way to yet another press the flesh meeting), there's little salacious or shocking on show. Throughout the entire film, whether it's scouting on a plane to Botswana, or attending meetings with the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Clark is the diplomat you'd expect at the UN and the restrained politician so familiar to so many.
While Clark's campaign becomes the film's raison d'etre, and Preston's camera wisely captures the voices around her, rather than seeing Clark grandstanding, the United Nations becomes more of a focus of the documentary as it goes on. There's a terrible nagging sense of it being desperately out of touch with the people it serves, whether it's a subtle side shot of a US politician texting while an impassioned plea is made for those stuck in Syria, it's here that Preston's masterful touches pull back the curtains on the horrific political machinations within.
If there's a criticism, it's that there's little debate and debrief into what went wrong after the final straw poll and the galling decision to install yet another white man in the top job; in the immediate aftermath, Preston captures the hubbub of others rather than using the exclusive in to get Clark's immediate reaction. So it is that once she shows, she's already in composed mode, the perfect politician.
But it's also in this moment, that Preston reveals her master stroke interview technique.
In just four words, a very laid-back intro of "What a thing, eh?" leading into the post-failed campaign interview, Preston says it all. It's at this moment the candid camera captures the pragmatic resilience Clark is famed for, her never off-guard manner personified, but threatening to crumble. It's fascinating to see, and depressing for its implications to so many.
However, in hanging on Helen for a little longer in this muted debrief, Preston draws us into her eyes, and the disappointment and dejectedness that lies within them. It's an utterly enthralling moment to behold and a technique that delivers an emotional and unexpected pay-off.
While My Year With Helen's focus is more on the UN bid (as would have been necessitated by events), and regardless of how you feel about Helen herself (the brief insights probably won't change any deep-seated beliefs) what actually emerges is a definitive rallying cry for change within; not just for feminists but for all those frustrated with political back and forths in the 21st century.
It's a sickeningly fascinating examination of the human condition, the politics of change and the lip service that goes in, but thanks to Gaylene Preston's light and deft touch, what it becomes is a dignified and restrained yet undeniable clarion call to arms.