No Ordinary Sheila: NZIFF Review
The name Sheila Natusch will be familiar to anyone who loves nature and anyone who's from the lower reaches of the South Island.
Director Hugh MacDonald's gentle film biography takes in the life of Sheila Natusch, with better access than most given he's part of her family.
Starting off in Stewart Island where Natusch was born (nee Trail), MacDonald uses a Kim Hill Radio New Zealand interview with Natusch herself to help paint a lot of the scene, as well as Sheila's own writings. From growing up with a fascination for the wildlife and a strict father to Natusch's friendship with Janet Frame after they bonded at teacher's college, the depth on display here is fairly exhaustive, even if MacDonald knows which bits are best excised.
Using some stunning wildlife footage and shots from around Stewart Island itself, (a nice quick cut montage manages to show the range of what the island has to offer), the scene's set for Sheila's interests to be awakened.
Essentially a social document of growing up and life in the south from when she was born in 1926 on Rakiura, this telling of a life story is amiable stuff. It helps that it's centred so laconically by Sheila herself , a fairly upbeat sort of a character, whose enthusiasm is never in question throughout.
Very occasionally, there are some sadnesses on display, giving Natusch a more rounded edge. Be it the lack of children or the rejection of her Animals in New Zealand book by a publisher written off when one error was clocked, the more human frailties are brought to the fore by MacDonald's use of footage and other's questions.
But with an ethos of "If I'm going to look back, that's what I want to see", the toothy Sheila is a tough old bird, with an attitude which many could learn from - but sadly, most of the audience for this piece won't unfortunately be the youngsters they're looking to try and inspire, with a feeling that perhaps an older generation or a clutch of people from the South will benefit better from this gentle portrait.
It could occasionally do with an edit, and it's not always entirely convincing chopping and changing from different interviewers to tell the story of her life with soundbites or interview moments, but when the spotlight shines on Sheila, there's evidence of the spirit and the inspiration which shine through.
Quite a handy social document as well as salutation to one of New Zealand's pioneering naturalists, No Ordinary Sheila is genial fare, which is fortunate to be blessed with the cunning dry wit and warmth of its quintessentially Kiwi subject.