20 Apr 2017

Gaylene Preston: My Year With Helen

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:28 pm on 20 April 2017

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is signing off after eight years at the United Nations.

Online tributes have been pouring in marking her two terms as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Filmmaker Gaylene Preston and her team spent a year with Clark at the UN making the documentary My Year With Helen.

Preston says it was good luck more than anything that meant they were filming when the race for Secretary General was on, which also gave them an insight into how Clark “spruced up” the UNDP.

“The tributes to Helen all point out how she had reformed the organisation made it more efficient. She’s clearly been effective within the UNDP.”

Preston says that was evident from spending long workdays with Clarke.

“If you spend time in anyone’s office, you can tell whether it functions or it doesn’t. Helen runs a very functional good-humoured, working office.”

Gender parity is another of Clark's achievements, Preston says.

“Now down the line, all the areas, top to bottom are 50 percent. Helen is rigorous in terms of systems.”

Preston says her film crew captured Clark’s tilt at the top job and the arcane processes surrounding the election.

“We filmed three tribes – the diplomats, the press and the civil society groups – all with very different kaupapa, rubbing along together, trying to get a handle on what’s happening.

“Everything was transparent to a certain point, then it went behind a wall of secrecy where the process became almost papal.”

She says of Clark’s campaign: “We see what resilience really is.”

“I hope we get out of this documentary a discussion about what does it take for women to become global leaders?

“Because it seems to me that once women are in the leadership seat everybody settles down, and they seem to be good leaders and they seem to last for quite some time.”

Despite this, of the UN’s 193 members only 22 are women and the UN itself is falling some way short of its own gender parity standards, says Preston.

“We just keep seeing men in suits. It’s crazy, it’s not doing our species any good.

In the last contest [for secretary general] 50 percent [of the candidates] were women, and as soon as there were straw polls the women were at the bottom of the heap. Helen wasn’t the only hugely qualified woman, but she was the most qualified, and the most high profile, and the one the staff at the UN voted for. But they gave it to the best man.”

Preston says My Year with Helen is due for release mid-year.