My Year with Helen
I once saw a picture of Helen Clark in the back of a car as she arrived to work in a bulletproof vest. She was smiling through the open car door as though she was wearing a new power-blazer, and not potentially about to be assassinated while doing her job. Classic Aunty Helen.
If you’re not as obsessed with Helen Clark as I am, I’ll help you out by saying that she was the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand and now works for the United Nations. She’s kind of a big deal.
How does one become so brave, so determined to succeed, so invincible? I was hoping director Gaylene Preston would give us some idea in My Year with Helen.
The documentary follows the journey of the ex-Prime Minister on her quest to win the top seat at the United Nations as Secretary-General – basically to become the most powerful person in the world. She’s already ranked pretty high up there, having the number three job at the United Nations as Development Programme Administrator.
Spoiler alert: if you weren’t following the United Nations campaign in 2016 and don’t know the outcome, then I’m about to ruin it for you.
As the story unfolds, we find out what a complicated process running for Secretary-General is, and how skewed the system is in favor of appointing men to the role. In 80 years, there has never been a woman appointed. We also see a little glimpse of what makes Aunty Helen tick, what keeps her so relentless in her quest to bring good to the world, and how she does it.
Basically, this sounds like a superhero movie. But the movie has a lot more politics and way less action. A lot less. “This is more exciting than the Olympics!” a woman from feminist lobby group She for SG exclaims, “for those of us with an interest in international diplomacy” she adds. This elicited a laugh from the audience.
I actually followed Clark’s campaign for Secretary-General. I knew the outcome of the movie before it began. And somehow I wanted things to magically end differently. I wanted to see that Aunty Helen had made a mistake somewhere along the way, that she could have had a proper chance, if only she had done something differently. But alas, as time wears on throughout My year with Helen, we learn how flawed the election system for Secretary-General really is; how even with all of the right qualifications, experience, and popularity, it’s nigh on impossible for a woman to get the job.
The movie explains that things are better than they once were. Apparently, the election process is a lot more transparent than it’s ever been. But all of the feminists in the audience (let’s face it, the entire audience) were rolling their eyes and furrowing their brows at the frustrating and complicated election. The system is “clunky” in Helen’s words. Clunky. Such a New Zealand-ism.
My affection for Helen grew as I watched. Throughout it all, she remains so focused on the campaign despite depressing odds and multiple setbacks as she Snapchats, Tweets and Facebooks her supporters. She’s so tech-savvy, our Helen. Follow her on Snapchat (@helen4sg), if you’re a fan of airport runways and squiggly finger drawings. Gahd, I love her.
It’s fascinating having a sneak peek into the UN headquarters but my favorite bits of the movie were the parts involving Clark’s relationship with her 94-year-old father. On trips home to New Zealand, Clark fills his freezer with single portioned home-cooked meals. This high flying UNDP Administrator is still as down to Earth as her wholesome pottle of chili-con-carne.
Looking at My year with Helen as a superhero flick, (cos let’s face it, she is basically Wonder Woman) we’ve got the high stakes, the race against time, the adverse odds and all of the nail-biting ingredients. But cinematically, have we got the other essentials? This was one of the disappointing elements for me.
The visuals were slick and the editing was all there, but the music. Oh dear. The repetition of the quirky sliding choral theme throughout the two-hour film felt extremely tired and irritating by the end of the movie. Even after two or three repetitions, I was starting to sigh. Ok, I have to admit that I’m biased since I’m a professional film composer, but I really think that if the movie had been scored as epically as the Zimmer-esque trailer, the dramatic arc of the story would’ve packed more punch. Saving the world doesn’t actually look like Wonder Woman throwing a mega punch against the God of War. It looks more like a bunch of people in suits in a fancy building arguing, so it needs a little bit of help, cinematically.
Director Gaylene Preston (Home By Christmas, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us) is no stranger to cinema. As one of New Zealand’s most respected filmmakers, she capitalized on her personal relationship with Clark to get this movie made. A year of being followed by film crews is no small commitment. But did it pay off?
Preston had a particular way of asking the questions we all wanted to know, in simple everyday language. I got the feeling that Clark enjoyed having her around. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering if the most insightful moments happened off-camera, in the unofficial conversations or time outside the office. But maybe that’s just Helen Clark. Maybe no one sees the real her.
Throughout the movie, her feelings are closely guarded behind her fierce wit, intelligence, and professionalism. She lives and breathes work. Her smartphone is an extension of herself. And maybe this is the full woman. In the end, maybe no matter the moment, she always puts on a smile and delivers a philosophical response in any discussion. Well, good on ya Aunty Helen. No matter what you pursue in the future, we believe in you.