PIETRA Brettkelly says being awarded the Arts Foundation 2019 Laureate and receiving the Dame Gaylene Preston Award for Documentary Film Makers is “beautiful encouragement” of her work.
Born and raised in Whakatane, Brettkelly is a leading documentary film-maker of international standing, and her work confronts challenging and unexpected subject matter.
Her films have been featured in the Sundance, Berlin, Venice and Toronto film festivals.
Her most recent documentary, Yellow Is Forbidden, premiered in a competition at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2018 and has enjoyed international success.
The film is based on Chinese designer Guo Pei and her journey to become part of the world of Haute Couture in Paris. Most famously, the “forbidden dress” was worn by Rihanna at the Met Gala.
The Arts Foundation recognises 10 exceptional artists with a $25,000 award and this year the awards were celebrated at the New Zealand Arts Ball, recently held at Auckland’s waterfront.
Brettkelly told the Beacon the award was very unexpected.
“This is just the most beautiful encouragement for me that I am on the right path and other people feel there is a value to the stories I am capturing because I believe in them so implicitly … I believe in the truth being told, especially now more than ever,’ she said.
“And as an artist it is a continuing struggle to raise finance, so when somebody says not only have you been made an Arts Laureate but there is money attached, that is like two Christmases in one month,” she laughed.
“I do see it as recognition of all the films that I have made and not just me, but everybody in front of the camera and behind the camera … to my parents who live over at Ohope and all my friends in Whakatane who believe in me.”
Brettkelly is working on her sixth documentary and is in talks about another film but is not revealing much yet.
“I began a film about a year-and-a-half ago and I think that film will take me five to seven years to make.
“I keep my stories quite quiet because I like to discover them at my own pace and the minute that I start to tell people something, people start putting ideas in my head.
“I am quite a purist so I think this film has got to be my film, it can’t be somebody else’s film and so I try to keep things quite low for some time, and then when I have to go for funding or I have to find some backers, then I go public.
“I believe in a story revealing itself over time, I don’t rush things, I prefer to film in cinema verite, fly on the wall, observational film-making, so they do take years to make. I am patient in that regard.”
Brettkelly said the work she did was quite solitary, and she was a huge risk-taker, and she has filmed in remote and dangerous regions, including Afghanistan and Libya.
“I just go ahead, and I just make my films beyond the boundaries of the conventional story-telling platforms, television networks, funding bodies, and so it always surprises me that anybody else is interested in what I am doing.
“When I make my films, I don’t have translators or security, it is just me and my cinematographer and I keep it really simple and calm and see what happens.”
She acknowledges the success that Yellow is Forbidden had gleaned.
The film was submitted to the Oscars for two categories –- best
documentary and best foreign language film.
“It screened all over the world at numerous film festivals and it has now been bought by a number of television networks and is currently screening on rialto channel in New Zealand.
“It is having fantastic success and I was in China last month for a screening in Shanghai, so I got through the censors there, which is a relief.
“In the end, I want people to see my films, I want them to think of a different story to see somebody else’s life to be exposed to a different way of thinking, or living, or being, or communicating.
The film-maker said she was thankful that she had the career she did.
“The most amazing thing of all of this is I love every single day of my life … I know that this is a real gift that I have, and that people continue to allow me into their lives. I would let anyone make a documentary on me.”
Brettkelly said she was able to gain such unrestricted access to people’s lives through trust.
“Because without that trust you don’t have access and without access you are not going to get a depth of somebody’s story.”
With Yellow is Forbidden, Brettkelly said she clicked immediately with Guo Pei “yet neither of us spoke each other’s language. Yet we could communicate, and we really got each other. It’s amazing what you can learn from people without speaking language. And if we needed to, Guo Pei and I would WeChat and translate the conversation through the app.”
Her first feature film, Beauty Will Save the World, released in 2003, Brettkelly filmed in Libya, and is about Colonel Gaddafi holding a beauty competition and falling in love with one of the contestants.
“The beauty contest became the context for a greater story. Gadaffi fell in love with the American contestant Teca Zendik. He bestowed on her the title Bird of Peace and he flew her back to Libya seven times, where she opened malls and hospitals.
“So my film followed that strange relationship.”
Brettkelly is based in Auckland but visits her parents in Ohope.
“I travel a lot and I come to Ohope once a month and that is really important to me, to reconnect and go for a run in the bush and walk in on the beach.”
THE Arts Foundation 2019 Laureate Awards have kicked off Aotearoa’s first Arts Month, 30 days dedicated to celebrating, acknowledging and exploring the arts in our communities.
During September, the Arts Foundation wants New Zealand to show them what art is to them. Arts Month is a month-long conversation about what art is, uncovering what creativity means to New Zealanders, and exploring the value the arts bring to our society.
Head to www.artsmonth.co.nz and get creative with the pencil, paintbrush, text, image, or spray-paint icons, then hit “post” to share your definition with the nation.