Words Mika Austin
Like her or loathe her, ex-prime minister Helen Clark is arguably one of this country’s most famous faces and has propelled New Zealand into the international diplomatic community, as depicted in Gaylene Preston’s documentary, My Year With Helen.
Capturing Clark’s bid for the top role at the United Nations, the film charts the course from the heady promise of her early campaign, to the grinding machinations of the UN vote and veto process.
Ranked by Forbes magazine among the top 25 most powerful women in the world, Helen Clark was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 until 2017, overseeing its support for developing nations and leading the UNDP’s emergence as the world’s most transparent development agency.
In tracking the race of her life, My Year with Helen captures Clark’s resilient, matter-of-fact style; her connection with millennials around the globe; and her deft use of social media.
From unequivocally setting out her expectations of fair play and transparency at her first meeting with senior UN advisors, to her formidable command of the emoji, Clark’s personal brand is on show in Preston’s film. On making six month’s worth of meals for her Waihi-based father while simultaneously campaigning for the top peacekeeping job in New York, Clark notes with typical self-deprecation, “Well, I just plod away at it”. Indeed.
With Clark’s recent appearance at the Labour party’s conference beside “youth-adjacent” and (gasp!) female leader Jacinda Ardern, the film’s release couldn’t be more timely. Had she succeeded in her bid for Secretary-General, she would have been the first woman to hold the top role in the organisation’s 70 year history.
While Clark’s U.N. fate is now known, the film still manages to draw in the viewer, as the steep climb faced by women in the international political landscape comes into sharp relief. As one passionate U.N. staffer put it, “ It is more interesting than the Olympics! At least for those of us who care about multilateral diplomacy…”
And then there are the supporters. While Clark herself did not seek to rely upon gender as a feature of her campaign, the fervent desire amongst her champions to see a woman finally (finally!) take the top job is the film’s defining leitmotif.
Cameos abound, from the smart, capable, hopeful young women, giddy with the excitement of a retweet from Aunty Helen herself, to the tireless campaigning of seasoned academics, desperate to see a woman (seriously, ANY woman) in the role of Secretary-General.
The story is exhaustingly familiar and the frustrations of Clark’s co-stars, trying valiantly to even get women on an equal footing as their arguably inferior male counterparts is writ large. Still, we have not learned our lessons.
Through it all, Clark squares her shoulders, is sanguine through setbacks, and plods away.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but, for the heroines of Preston’s film, the summit is still maddeningly out of reach. As the house lights came up, glum faces and overheard, muttered frustrations suggested My Year With Helen is a rallying cry, or a sharp kick in the guts. See it. Either way, you’ll feel something.