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Metro Magazine

22 September 2004

Images by Jeanette Gibbs

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Storytelling that matters: the 2004 WIFTI Summit in New Zealand.(Women in Film and Television International)

OVER 200 MEMBERS ATTENDED the 5th Women in Film and Television International (WIFTI) Summit from 21-24 April 2004, including delegations from chapters in New York, LA, Atlanta, Dallas, the UK, Australia, Denmark, and Canada. The biennial event, held this year for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere, was coordinated by WIFT New Zealand, with especial credit going to the WIFT-Auckland chapter for hosting and organizing. The event received extensive New Zealand government support, both financial and moral, including the presence on two occasions of New Zealand's Prime Minister and Minister for Arts, Culture, and Heritage, the Right Honourable Helen Clark. In addition, with Patron Lucy Lawless actively participating, some of Hollywood's most recent industry stars were present during the Summit, with Niki Caro, Philippa Boyens, Ngila Dixon, and others participating in panel sessions.

WIFTI's thirty-five chapters (over 10,000 members) worldwide were not all represented, but attendees ranged from successful producers, directors, writers, new media developers, lawyers, camera and sound technicians, and actors to relative newcomers to the screen industries. The Summit supported WIFTI's objectives of encouraging international communication and cooperation on international projects through its formal sessions and workshops, along with generous arrangements for socializing and networking on a more informal basis. For four days, an almost exclusively female group addressing, supporting, and encouraging other women captured the attention not only of members of New Zealand's burgeoning media industries, but of the country as a whole.

Although sessions were occasionally spiced up by heated discussion, the objective of making quality film and television remained paramount. For example, one major theme considered the importance and responsibility of women filmmakers to tell stories as a way to mirror society and women's role within it. New Zealand director Gaylene Preston's recently released Perfect Strangers was screened at the Summit, giving attendees an opportunity to see the sort of filmmaking that dedicated women have been able to produce by following a passion for storytelling that matters. The next morning, Preston broke the ice at an 8.30 session entitled 'Social Responsibility in Storytelling', with her animated performance of the story of Gerald McBoing-Boing, which she'd learned as a child. She did this, she said, both to demonstrate the power of storytelling as a medium for learning and to create a talking-point for attendees throughout the day, given that the session's early hour indicated that it had been ghetto-ized as 'Worthy'.

She was supported by Maori filmmaker Merata Mita (Patu! [1983], Mauri [1988]), documentary filmmaker Annie Goldson (Punitive Damage [1999]), and novelist Karyn Hay (Emerald Budgies), who all emphasized the importance of telling stories with integrity and social relevance, despite the difficulties such stories pose for filmmakers. As Hay noted, describing choices she has had to make while working in television, moments arise when a film or program maker will face conflicts involving material that threatens to compromise her ideals and/or moral and social responsibilities. This led to a heated debate involving an overseas attendee who referred to legal restrictions that should have covered the particular situation described by Hay, and an increasingly tense attempt on the part of the panelists to explain how working in a market as small as Aotearoa/New Zealand leads to self-censorship and other undesirable consequences.

As someone whose options have been limited in the past by the lack of alternative media outlets, Merata Mita argued that women have internalized social responsibility and that storytelling is part of one's social responsibility. While she reiterated previously expressed opinions about the confused state of Pakeha (European non-Maori) identity and the sorts of films it leads to, what she didn't do publicly, at this or any other session, was to call again for Maori only to tell Maori stories.

Another strong undercurrent of the Summit was the relation of technology to the future of film and TV program making, especially ways in which technology will affect content. New Zealander Ian Taylor, successful founding manager of a small media empire based on computer animation, made a strong case for the importance of New Media in any sort of program making, as younger generations growing up now and in the future have and will have high expectations of what the new media world can offer them. Not only are they educated in the use of interactive programming; to some degree, they can be said to be educating the makers of such programs. Taylor also stressed that in the years to come the media landscape will have to adapt quickly to rapidly evolving technology in order to keep young and fresh audiences. TV, he argued, would especially have to 'catch up' on a continual basis. Jemima Gibbons of UK-based Interactive Know-How added that statistics already show a steep increase in the popularity of interactive or 'viewer choice' shows in and out of the UK.

In addition to the diverse larger sessions, the Summit sometimes concurrently offered smaller streams on WIFTI itself (organizing and developing chapters, fundraising for activities, and so forth) and on doing business in different parts of the world. Yet another stream, the 'Birds of a Feather' sessions, offered Summit participants an informal get-together in small groups to discuss specific areas of shared interest, such as documentary, or animation filmmaking, drama, dance and children's TV. Along with these sessions, participants had the opportunity during session breaks to interact on a more individual basis, and as the conference progressed, small groups could be seen taking advantage of newly-made contacts and the venue's large foyer to begin discussions of co-productions and other joint work.

The Summit's 'doing business' sessions themselves presented opportunities to gather information about co-production and business networking with the UK, Australia, Canada and Asia. A relatively large contingent represented the UK; fifteen women had been subsidized by UK Trade and Investment, and the British Consulate-General hosted a Cocktail Event in facilities originally built for the America's Cup defence in Auckland. The Canadians included several representatives of First Nations people, along with Ina Fichman and Carol Whiteman. The latter produced a 'Women in the Director's Chair' Workshop for the Summit. There was also a session on the role of film festivals in the market, featuring presentations by Marian Masone of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Catherine Wyler, artistic director of the High Falls (Rochester, NY) Film Festival.

The 'doing business' stream kicked off with a session on Indigenous filmmakers. Moderator Rhonda Kite (New Zealand producer of award-winning documentaries and TV drama) tried to set a pragmatic framework by stating that 'business is not culturally specific' and that therefore Indigenous filmmakers should look at themselves in terms of 'suppliers' responding to demand. Perhaps so straightforward an approach might have worked later in the Summit, after Indigenous filmmakers had had a chance to speak about the cultural aspect of their filmmaking. However, the panel's two Indigenous Canadian men, along with the two Indigenous women from Australia and New Zealand, felt much too strongly about the cultural aspects of their material to go directly to the economic aspects of working as Indigenous filmmakers. Nonetheless, Jeremy Torrie and Richard Story agreed that they had been able to make progress in their endeavours by working cooperatively with non-Indigenous filmmakers. For Kath Akuhata-Brown, who is probably most widely known through her writing contributions to the internationally successful New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street, a genre exists that can be called 'the Indigenous genre'. Maori film, specifically, 'is about struggle' and identity; Indigenous language is non-linear and spiritual. For Romaine Moreton, a poet and filmmaker in Australia, simply being made by Indigenous people does not make a film Indigenous; it must also reinforce Indigenous identity. The starting point for Indigenous Australiana is the body, and a perpetual conflict between time and timelessness exists as a result of innate characteristics of the medium. That is, because the medium is linear, Aboriginals cannot tell completely Indigenous stories, since for them land, body, and story are holistically connected--a belief that has often led to their association with timelessness.

Attendees at 'The Challenge of Foreign Language Films in the International Market Place' agreed to change the title to 'Non-English Speaking Films' in response to an audience member's pointing out that Maori is not a foreign language within Aotearoa/New Zealand. The representative of Rialto Entertainment expressed his regret at the difficulties facing producers of non-English language films, but asserted repeatedly that audiences just aren't there for anything but mainstream fare. Challenged on this point by the observation that various cinemas throughout New Zealand do very well with non-English product, he remained unpersuaded. Romaine Moreton also participated in this session, along with the Attachee Audiovisuelle Regionale of the French Embassy in Australia and Waihoroi Shortland of New Zealand. Shortland, among other roles, both acted in The Piano and functioned as a cultural consultant for the film. But, he says, 'We were just those interesting buggers carrying the piano all over the place'. Nor does he see Whale Rider as reflecting Maori culture. He added that he's 'dying to see The Passion of the Christ' because he wants to see if Jesus Christ is still white. Yet in the midst of his understated critique of mainstream cinema, he omitted comment on his having taken a role in Kevin Costner's Rapa Nui, which was not at all well received in New Zealand, leading to negative comments about the Maori actors who appear in it.

It was only to be expected that Whale Rider would figure largely in sessions at the Summit. The irony was not lost on panelists at 'The Indigenous Voice in the International Marketplace' that Whale Rider was being screened concurrently, as Maori actor, producer, and educator Don Selwyn noted. A day later Niki Caro herself spent the afternoon on the dais, first in a session facilitated by Carol Whiteman that included costume designer Kirsty Cameron, casting director Diana Rowan, and DP Leon Narbey, followed by that afternoon's 'An Interview with ... ' session. Within Aotearoa/New Zealand there has been some controversy over a non-Maori directing a Maori story, despite the fact that Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider's author, along with the village elders where the story is set and was filmed, all approved Caro as director. She herself said that she 'quite selfishly ... took the opportunity' to make the film because it would take her 'inside Maori culture'. She even drew the parallel between her struggle for acceptance as director of the film and Pal's to be heir to rangatira (leader) status in her community.

Although the audience included Maori figures, such as Mita, who, on the basis of past expressions of opinion, might have been expected to challenge Caro about the appropriateness of her directing the film of such a story, Caro came out of both sessions unscathed. As the afternoon drew to a close she began discussing her upcoming projects. The first, A Class Action (working title), will star Charlize Theron, and will be filmed in the States. Caro is working with Joan Scheckel on adapting New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck for her fourth feature. (Her first was Memory and Desire [1997].) Details on casting and location for that project remain tentative, although Caro doesn't rule out shooting at least part of it in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The New Zealand Film Commission, represented by its CEO, Ruth Harley; New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, represented by the former CEO of Te Papa (the controversial national museum located in Wellington) and current Sector Director of Creative Industries within NZTE, Dame Cheryll Sotheran; Film New Zealand, represented by its chair, Sue Thompson; NZ on Air, represented by its Television Manager, Neil Cairns; and Investment New Zealand, represented by the Investment Manager responsible for screen industries activities, Paul Voigt, had a rockier time than did Caro. They were on stage for the 'Showcasing New Zealand' lunch, held on the Summit's second day. Their presentations were framed by the Film New Zealand promotional DVD aimed at attracting potential offshore productions to New Zealand, and the New Zealand Film Commission's promotional DVD aimed at potential buyers and distributors of New Zealand films funded by the Commission. When the speakers began, it became clear that they had a slickly coordinated PowerPoint presentation that imposed a sort of uniformity of style broken only by Neil Cairns' performance, who eschewed technology and thereby came out sounding the most natural and personable.

Not all attendees were dutifully impressed, however. Two speakers from the floor noted that the presentation had omitted reference to the second largest funder in the country, Te Mangai Paho, as well as the presence of significant numbers of Bollywood filmmakers who work primarily on their own in the South Island. Te Mangai Paho, according to its web site (, 'is a Crown Entity established to make funding available ... for the production of Maori language television programmes'. It has also funded Don Selwyn's The Maori Merchant of Venice (2002). (The difficulties of getting Maori Merchant screened in New Zealand were discussed at the session involving Selwyn.)

Investment New Zealand's Paul Voigt responded to the mention of Bollywood filmmakers by noting that their shoots are largely self-contained, and that the government's involvement with them is largely limited to contact in New Delhi when the filmmakers apply for visas. With that observation it became clear that there were at least two currents, sometimes at odds with each other, operating throughout the conference: one looked for the production of works of quality and integrity that come from a grassroots desire to make films despite mainstream objectives; the other looked for the production of works that can achieve critical and financial success within the mainstream.

And then there was Julie Christie, controversial general manager of Touchdown Productions, who has been the successful developer of several internationally accepted television formats. Although she received one of the WIFTI/WIFT-NZ 'Women as Leaders' awards at the final luncheon, attended by the Prime Minister, at the afternoon session she expressed her anger and frustration over the low status of television relative to film both within New Zealand and at the Summit. She was also only one of many who criticized the official funding structure for film and television production within Aotearoa/New Zealand.

For example, Philippa Boyens, co-writer of The Lord of the Rings, attacked the New Zealand Film Commission for letting producers take four-fifths of the funding provided for script drafts. This criticism has become part of a heavy-weight assault led by Peter Jackson against the Film Commission. Apart from this sally, the session was a happy affair. It included costume designer Ngila Dickson, Academy Award-nominee for The Last Samurai and winner for The Lord of the Rings. Both women retain their enthusiasm for the work they have been doing and were happy to share their experiences and insights with the audience. Boyens, for instance, freely admitted that she, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh 'overwrote hugely' because they didn't know what they were doing when they started on the Rings script. Dickson was at pains to acknowledge that her Academy Award represented the work of a team without whom she couldn't do her job.

Interviews with Dame Cheryll Sotheran, Niki Caro, and actor Lucy Lawless gave very different insights into their lives and work. Two film screenings, several receptions, tours of local filmmaking facilities, as well as practice-oriented pitching and mentoring sessions rounded off a successful four days of interaction and exchange.

Harriet Margolis is a Senior Lecturer in the Film Program at Victoria University of Wellington and a former member of the management committee for Women in Film and Television Wellington.

Havva Focali, a postgraduate student in the Film Program at VUW, is a current member of the management committee for WIFT-Wellington.

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