My Year with Helen, Director: Gaylene Preston

My Year with Helen takes an in-depth look at former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s bid for Secretary General, the top job at UN, where she has headed up the Development Programme for six years. For those who have followed Aunty Helen’s impressive career trajectory, it’s a warm and personal step into both her personal and professional life.

There’s the politician at work – arriving prepared for every meeting, gracefully tending to her constituency whether it’s a New York board room or a thatched hut in Botswana, handling her own social media or rewriting a speech. She is on top of it all, with no sign of nerves or stress. Then there’s the personal side – she rings her 94-year-old Dad every night and when she’s home in NZ, she cooks and freezes hundreds of meals for him to enjoy while she’s away.

But director Gaylene Preston also takes a step back and analyses the whole process of how the Secretary General is elected, the world-wide movement to elect a woman for the first time, the straw vote balloting and the duplicitous politics going on behind the scenes. Here is the real eye-opener of the film – and the irony of Helen Clark running as not only a woman (there were several other women contenders), but as the most qualified candidate, when the reality is that it’s a political position that has always gone to the candidate least likely to rock the boat, much less implement change. A serious woman candidate would need to meet the same mild-mannered, congenial politician-who-does-nothing criteria that previous male Secretaries General have met.

The other striking issue that emerges is the ongoing cry for equality and true representation from women around the world. Women are not just victims of war and victims of rape, which is the UN’s primary concern. Women need to be part of the process, part of the machine and have a voice in decisions affecting both sexes. It’s a heartfelt plea, but one that, as a feminist of a certain age, I found disheartening as this same battle cry has fallen on my ears for nearly half a century. And as Helen Clark’s bid failed to a congenial male politician from Portugal, with a total of three vetoes from the permanent members of the Security Council (just one is required for a candidate to fail), it’s seems the battle is all but hopeless.

While some might find this documentary a bit dry, especially compared to the more common emotionally-driven doco, I found its direct, fact-based approach refreshing. And if I walked away disappointed in the real life outcome, I also learned a thing or two.

My Year With Helen is playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Click here for showtimes and ticket sales.

Veronica McLaughlin