Dame Gaylene Preston is one of New Zealand’s most valued filmmakers, with a screen career spanning four decades. She has writer, director and producer credits covering feature films, documentaries and TV drama series. Many, including War Stories, Bread And Roses, Mr Wrong, and Home By Christmas, are classics of New Zealand cinema.
Gaylene Preston — Why I Make Films
An excerpt from Gaylene’s Take
It was at school that I first saw a locally made film. In the wet, gumboot-strewn corridor of Grey Main School, where we were crammed in like little baby boomer whitebait, the crackly voice of our headmaster boomed through the tannoy above us. After lunch, we were to watch a movie on road safety together.
Blackout curtains had been haphazardly strung across our big classroom windows. A little screen was set up and a projector rattled the film through the flickering light. My first New Zealand movie. Black and White. A car drove up a deserted road in the rain, and the man inside didn’t obey the lights at the crossing. A train came. Terrifying. At 10 years old, I recognised everything about the place, the road, the houses, the hills, the car, the man. Unforgettable. This was my world, all right. Searingly so.
Many years would pass before I saw another New Zealand film. I didn’t grow up watching anything on the screen that I could identify as ‘my world’. That went for music and books too. I am part of the Janet and John generation who learned to read stories where ‘creeks’ were ‘brooks’, and where Daddy went to work on the train wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. We really were on the edge of the world, and felt it acutely. In 1995, when the world celebrated one hundred years of film, New Zealand still had very few feature films to ‘celebrate’. For the Century of Cinema series curated by the BFI, Judi Rymer and Sam Neill made an excellent documentary, Cinema of Unease. The title refers to the dark, brooding nature of many of New Zealand’s films, which certainly was the case when I saw the train going for that car in the rain, sitting on the floor of our dusky classroom at Grey Main School.
Watching a movie that speaks your own accent, that wears the same clothes, that sits in the same hills – that’s a joy. I love it when a film rolls off the screen straight back to the community that it comes from. I don’t mean the actors – they are usually suffering everything from despair to relief, and it is personal. It’s their mugs up there, when all is said and done. No. I mean the community that come to see the film because it makes them visible. People watch every beat of the story, wanting it to be great, and if it is, they take it into their hearts forever. I don’t believe that the movies are all about ‘bums on seats’. They are about memory. How long can a story be held in the mind’s eye? It’s unquantifiable, and funding bodies can’t measure it.
Film is the art form closest to actual experience. That’s why we need to make our own movies. To render ourselves visible, to gather the tribes, to camp in the dark, to be enthralled and disturbed and delighted and enlightened. Strangers. Together.
And that is why, even now, when I could watch any film I like on my phone, filmmakers like me, still make their movies for the big gathering in the dark cinema. Words can’t describe the terrifying thrill of standing in front of an expectant crowd to present a new film and finally experience it with them.
It is a struggle, and it always takes years, but it is always worth it.
Gaylene will be standing in front of the crowd, ready to take your questions at a Q&A session after the film, screening at The Embassy at 1pm on Saturday 29 July.