We talk with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Dame Gaylene Preston Award for Documentary Film Makers.
How did you first get interested in documentaries?
I remember I used to watch the Wonderful World of Disney on a Sunday night when I was 11 or 12. They were traditional nature documentaries, Jacques Cousteau, that sort of thing. I remember sitting there watching, saying to Mum: “How do you think they get that in the picture? How do you think that happens? Because this isn't live”. My mum said, “I don't know, but we could try and find out”. I remember then thinking, I want to do this.
Where does your creative inspiration come from?
My mum is a really, really beautiful person. You see, in my family, there are the Brettkellys, opinionated, noisy, and then there are the Finns, which is my mother’s maiden name. She's this gentle, really creative, quietly driven person. I'm a real Brettkelly but I get my creativity from her.
My parents gave me the drive to look beyond myself, to wander and wonder … wonder at the world, wonder about everybody, and how we all fit together (or should fit together or don't). That curiosity is the thing that keeps me going.
You often choose subjects in languages you don't speak. Why? How do you navigate this in the filming process?
All my films so far have been in languages I don't understand. I love that because I think we've lost some forms of communication. People will ask, how did you know what was happening in that scene. I’ve learned to read a scene, read the feeling in a room, get an understanding of what’s going on. But sometimes I've been really wrong.
Guo Pei – the subject of my film Yellow is Forbidden – we clicked from the word go, yet neither of us spoke each other's language. Yet we could communicate, and we really got each other. It's amazing what you can learn from people without speaking language. And if we needed to, Guo Pei and I would WeChat and translate the conversation through the app.
You’ve an extraordinary persistence in your work, you manage to go places and meet people that seem so impossible. Why do you think this is?
I think my naivety gets me lots of places. People allow me into their lives because when I meet them, I think to myself: “I wonder what you’re really going to be like? Where are we going to go with this? What are we going to do?” People do surprise me, maybe because I have the openness to see what comes from a person. I think of all the stories out there, all the people that I’m yet to meet.
I'm really tenacious. I'm so friggin curious. If I meet somebody or I have an idea, I think, “God I'd really love to know the layers of that and what's really going on”. So I say, “I'm a documentary filmmaker, can I make a film on you?”
You build long relationships, filming over many years. Tell me about that?
I fall in love with my characters. I think for it to work I have to fall in love with them because I spend years with them. There have been many amazing people I’ve met through my films – in particular Guo Pei, and Isaaq Yousif, who was one of the subjects in my film, A Flickering Truth. He died during the making of the film, he was one of the beautiful people of the world.
I'm really humbled by the trust that they have all given me. It is a phenomenal thing. I wouldn't do it personally. If somebody came to me and said, as I say to my subjects, “I want to make a film. I find you really interesting. I think there's something in your story. I would like to follow you, I don't know how long I'll follow you for. It could be many years. I don't know what's going to happen, but I would ask that you don’t control me. There will be highs and lows, I'll need to be there for those, and you will have no editorial control. But I hope that you see that there is some wealth, some importance in me telling your story." If somebody tried to say that to me, I’d say: “Oh good luck. No thank you!”
What fascinates you as a filmmaker?
I feel my greatest fascination is with isolation. I find isolation really interesting. I think isolation is given a bad rap. It can be a really positive thing. Periods of relative isolation have been good for me. Throughout my career, I’ve had people say to me, "Why are you not living in New York or LA, you could have had this bigger career". But I don't think I would have. I think I would have shrivelled up into a ball. I think that with all that pressure and all those other extraordinary creatives, I would have felt terribly intimidated and I probably wouldn't have had this career. So I think retreating back here to New Zealand, and the sort of life I have here, the support I’ve received, has been really good for me. So I'm interested in other people's isolation.
What is the catalyst for your work?
When I look back through my career, the catalyst for me has been all about access. If I can get in front of anybody, I can convince them. And my tenacity to gain that access is often a really interesting story.
My first feature film Beauty Will Save the World released in 2003, which I filmed in Libya, was about Colonel Gaddafi holding a beauty competition and falling in love with one of the contestants.
I was in a bar in London waiting for a friend and started talking to the guy sitting next to me. He told me about these guys he knew, these Lebanese brothers who had been asked by Colonel Gaddafi to create a campaign to change international perception of Libya because the UN sanctions had just been dropped. Gaddafi wanted to show the world that Libya was safe and happy, to attract business and tourism. They felt that holding a beauty competition and inviting the international press was a good way to do that. And I thought, that has so many crazy elements, doesn't it?
So I hung around in London living on a friend’s couch for two months, pestering these guys for access. One day I even flew to Italy, as they said there was someone there to meet (this turned out to be the designer Roberto Cavalli). I chased many leads because I was determined.
The beauty competition was only for international contestants. We were flown to Libya on private jets out of London and Paris, with the young women, their agents, and some really cynical journalists. It was the craziest group of people, a very strange mix.
When we landed into Tripoli, they took our passports, and we didn't get them back until we left. Waiting to meet Colonel Gadaffi was a crazy experience. While we were there people got really paranoid. Miss Austria ran away to the Austrian embassy and insisted she needed to leave. Miss Sweden thought they were poisoning us through the swimming pool. There was all this paranoia going on because Gaddafi was known as the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’ and Libya were supposedly the West’s biggest enemy. So to be there at that time was really fascinating.
The beauty contest became the context for a greater story. Gadaffi fell in love with the American contestant Teca Zendik. He bestowed on her the title Bird of Peace and he flew her back to Libya seven times, where she opened malls and hospitals. So my film followed that strange relationship.
How do you make ends meet as a documentary filmmaker?
I've done some really bad reality TV! After filming Beauty Will Save the World (that was the slogan of the Libyan beauty competition, by the way) I went back to London and asked myself how am I going to fund editing and post production? I thought, maybe I can get some work here to fund filming more trips that Teca Zendik was going to make to Libya.
So I signed up to do some drug testing to get some money together. Then this friend of mine told me about a reality show that needed directors. This was in 2003-2004, the early days of reality TV, and she made it sound like a documentary.
We were filming in this villa in Ibiza for a month. It was called There's Something About Miriam, or maybe The Truth About Miriam. Both titles were used at the time and I can’t remember which one they finally went with.
When they told me the scenario, I thought, this is so dodgy. So I called my Aunt Paula. She's passed away now, but she had a strong moral compass, she was a good person to run things past. She was a Catholic nun who had dealings with the Prostitutes’ Collective, worked with the AIDS Foundation and the Human Rights Commission. I called her up, and said, “here's the scenario, what do you think?”
The concept was six British males spend a month on Ibiza with Miriam the model to woo her and win her heart. Miriam was Miss World Trans, but they didn’t know. This was 15 years ago, a less enlightened time, and I felt this could be horrendously exploitative of her.
My aunt said, “you've got to have some time with Miriam, to see if she knows what this actually is all about and how she truly feels about it”. So I said to the producer: “As the only female director on the crew, I'd like to build a better relationship with Miriam. I wonder if there's some time that I could spend with her without her agent or the other directors?” She said: “Well, she needs to think about her wardrobe. Do you want to go with her to do some shopping?” Well I hate shopping, I can't stand it, so I was: “Yeah, that sounds great!” While we were shopping I asked Miriam what she understood of the TV programme, we ran through it, I checked she was being paid, I asked her what she wanted the outcomes to be for her. And I thought, okay, she knows.
So the programme turned into a shit fight. The whole thing was horrendous. It was a hideous experience, and it ended up in court. The six guys sued the production company because they believed they were misled. We had been told we always had to refer to Miriam by her name, or "they", we were never allowed to use "she" or “her”. That was a legal requirement, but it wasn't because of the labelling that Miriam had chosen. she wanted to be called she. Perhaps the production company thought using female pronouns would leave them open to claims of misrepresentation. Anyway, they settled with all six guys, they all got considerable amounts of money to agree that the show would go to air.
I said I wanted the right to not put my name on the credits in case I didn't want to be attached to it. But because of the situation nobody remembered that I was supposed to be contacted about this. So my name is on the credits and until recent years it was the most publicity I'd ever got and the most successful thing I'd ever done, it sold all over the world. I thought, really, is this how my career is going to be defined? But thankfully I have made other work. Nothing's ever sold like that. But publicity has improved.
Do your subjects bring an alternative truth?
It frightens me how there is this growing perception that life is so black and white. I think there is such complexity in life and this complexity is what fascinates me. I suppose I also like to celebrate the extreme, people who take risks, extremists, because extremists are going to help change, shift the focus.
It's outrageous how people will wipe out a whole people, or culture, or gender in one sentence. Making the film on Guo Pei, the number of racist comments about Chinese I heard. We're talking about, you know, 1.4, billion people.
Or filming in Afghanistan, the number of people who said to me, “gosh, that must have been so hard for you as a woman, I bet they treated you poorly”. Yes it was difficult at times to work there and observe what was happening. But I knew what I was going into. I knew what I had ahead of me and overall it was the most interesting experience. I've been to nearly a hundred places in the world and Afghanistan is the one that I would go back to in a heartbeat. It's an extraordinary place filled with the most remarkable people. The resilience that exists there is incredible. There are so many issues within that one place, sadly, it's possibly in a worse place now than when we entered into that war. But I found the people so welcoming, very accepting and really supportive.
In the end, I have built a relationship with my subjects. I'm never going to trash anybody. I'm also not going to change the truth as I saw it, I know the truth is my truth. My name is always at the front of the film, because I'm saying, this is a documentary film, but this is through my eyes, it's my perspective. I would never say it’s 'the truth' but rather it is my truth and my perspective of that time.
I think I'm addicted to documentary filmmaking. I've got this licence to delve into the minds, the lives, the complexities of such fascinating people. It's a different kind of an intimacy I have with the subjects, not a conventional friendship nor a work relationship. It is a relationship like no other.
Are your films high value for other people involved?
There’s a downside to everyone’s work and here’s my struggle. I work in a conflicted industry – it celebrates passion when it comes to the filmmaking but in other areas of the process when I’ve stood up for what I believe in, I’ve been called difficult.
One of the issues I have with partners in my films, or possible partners, is when I have to remind them that this is a real person’s story, these are not actors, this is not a script, so we need to respect the story and the access the subjects have given me. I don’t give away editorial control to a third party and that has cost me money from funders who say they need that as a guarantee.
I have also sometimes found it sad and angering how some treat the documentary after the release, in the publicity and the sales. I believe there should be a certain protection around a real person’s story, albeit of course my interpretation of their story.
With my international filmmaker friends it’s acknowledged that as filmmakers we take huge personal, financial and career risk. Filmmaking is expensive - I need crew, editors, travel, post production equipment. Usually partners come on board after the majority of risks have been taken. I’ve never begun a film I didn’t finish and all my films have premiered internationally at significant festivals and gone on to remarkable success. So my career has shown I deliver.
But I challenge anyone in any industry to ask themselves, if they had to pay to go to work, then pay for those they’re at work with, then pay for the product, then strangely when money starts coming in they’re still not the first person to be paid back, would they do it? Would they believe it? That is the so-called business structure of independent documentary filmmaking. My brother-in-law who is in financing, says it is no kind of business. So the question remains, do people see a value in the films I make, do other partners, does the community at large?
There are some partners who are extraordinary, so empowering. There is such incredible support in the local and international documentary community. I think documentary filmmaking is the most captivating arts medium today, I’m so excited by the films and ideas of other filmmakers: the elements, the creativity, how people are weaving in other forms of art. It's also influencing other art forms, like the number of narrative films that now are shot in documentary style, with documentary rules, either through the limited crew, or handheld, or in more cinéma verité style.
My favourite narrative filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski made what I think is the perfect film, a film called Ida. I once went to a panel discussion he gave. He started out as a documentary filmmaker and somebody asked him, how does your work now relate to your documentary work? He said: “Everything I do is documentary. I have a very small crew, I feel what is happening today, what is the truth of today, the atmosphere, the actors, how I’m feeling about the script, I react.” He said: “My crew have this joke that if I want a shot on the other side of the bridge, I'll make everybody walk through the river rather than across the bridge, just in case there's a better shot in the middle of the river.” And he said, “all the time, I'm thinking in a documentary way. I react.”
That encouraged me because I’m a very reactive director - not that I am equating myself to him at all. I know what is happening now, how it might fit into my film, the shots I need, the impact of each scene. I’m very instinctual. I'm editing in my head as I go and I know that's my amazing talent. I have a friend Justin Pemberton, a fellow New Zealand filmmaker, he has a film in the NZ Festival this year called Capital in the 21st Century, and he has a phenomenal ability to make essay films. Now I'd be absolutely crap with an essay film.
What is an essay film?
An essay film is based on a topic, sometimes a book. The director would probably write a script, and be clear on who they need to interview to create the script, how they would get the elements and what those elements are. It's pre-written to a large degree. Those aren't my skills. I could do it but it would only be a good film, whereas I know my films are great because of the reactive skills I have.
What is up next for you?
I started a film a year ago, a long-term project. It’s about the waxing and waning of life told through two remarkable women who have very different journeys. I’m falling in love with this film, it’s suprising me.
Also I began filming immediately after the Christchurch terrorist attacks, like many artists reacting to that event. I’ve filmed a number of scenes and hope that film will continue to grow. But there are some obstacles that I’ve never encountered before in my work… so that’s going to be a challenge.
I'm about to go to Indonesia to mentor these young people. The fact I know I'm going to the same office for many days in a row is a little too much for me. I'll know the walk I'll do every morning to the office. I mean, I love a risk. I love an adventure. I love unpredictability. My happiest moments are when it's toughest.
Once we were in snowed in on the Tajikistan border in the Hindu Kush, the start of the Himalayas. It was the middle of winter, we’d spent days on horseback to get to this little village. I managed to convince this aid worker in Kabul, who had a little plane, to fly up. He asked is there a runway and I lied, I said yes. Then I went to the local warlord and asked him if we could get every worker in town to clear the side of the mountain for this plane.
The guy crashed the plane when he landed, he jumped out and he swore. He said, ‘I found Christianity many years ago, I haven't sworn since then, but you have made me swear. You lied, there's no runway here.” It took him three days to fix the plane before he could take off again and he would only take one person out at a time. I volunteered to be the last to go after my team.
So I was left with all these villagers on the side of a mountain. The weather was changing and the pilot said: “You'll only know if I can come back when you hear me”. I had a Plan B - I was going to get a horse, go overland across the border illegally to Tajikistan to try to find a way out. So when I heard the plane a few hours later, I was a bit disappointed.That would have been an amazing adventure. Those kinds of things I love.
What is the impact of the Laureate Award for you?
I can't explain the impact of even one person saying, that was a great film. So for a group of my peers to have said we want to acknowledge you, makes me quite emotional. This work can be quite solitary and, as I’ve said, risky. I make films acknowledging a story for myself. For others to recognize value in that is encouraging. I’m so thankful. It's a big thing. It's a really big thing.
I truly believe in my work. I love it every day, even the tough days. There is nothing about my life that I would like to change. I’m so grateful to have come upon this career, I have this weird thing of if it isn't tough enough it's not going to be a great film. I don't ever believe that I can't do anything. So going back to your original question around the impact of getting the Laureate, that acknowledgement is phenomenal. Because it does spur me on that what I'm doing has value.
There are two films I'm really interested in doing - there is a really interesting photographer in Saudi Arabia that I've been in contact with for a couple of years now. We're trying to work out when is the right time for me to go and do that film. I'm always thinking, how can I make money to pay for these films, because to make my films, I pay around half the budget. So I defer all my fees. Most times I never get paid. I have run up to five mortgages on my apartment at one time – the upside of entering the property market when my flat was cheap – I do some paid mentoring and consulting work on other peoples’ films. So getting this chunk of money is a little bit of breathing space on my two current films.
It's a calling, I suppose. It is bloody hard. I feel like I rip out my heart with each film. I hold it in my hand and offer it to investors, to supporters, to the first audience at my first screening. It is the most exposing thing, more exposing than standing up nude, because what I'm saying is, this is a subject that I think is important. Any creative thing can be pulled apart, because creativity is so subjective. And of course a team has helped me make it, giving their love towards my goal.
The other day, I was saying to a woman that I mentor, “I feel like in filmmaking I’m trying to hold water in my hands”. It's impossible to keep water in your hands but there's always something that seeps into your skin, something residual. So elements of the film, possible scenes, other storylines, funding, opportunities of release, might slip through the fingers, but there is always something that remains. So keep pushing, keep filling up the hands with more water, more avenues for your film to go down.
I mentor a number of young filmmakers around the world, and I’ll ask them why they're going into this profession. I say: “It's the most remarkable life, the most extraordinary life. But if you are not up for really tough times, real financial hardship, real struggles, facing criticism, putting belief in the story, in your film above all else, it’s not for you.”