Monday 31 May 2010

Herstory: Merata Mita

I had planned on writing this first Herstory post about a different incredible woman who has made film history but instead I would like to begin this series paying tribute to one of New Zealand's indigenous women filmmakers. Merata Mita (Ngati Pikiao, Ngai Te Rangi) died yesterday suddenly and of yet unknown cause.

Mita was one of New Zealand's leading filmmakers and the first woman in New Zealand to direct a feature length documentary, Patu!, recording the clashes between protesters and police during the 1981 Springbok tour. Mita was also the first woman in New Zealand to write and direct, and only the second Maori woman to direct a feature film, Mauri (1988), which won the prize for best film at the Rimini Film Festival. Her latest achievement was the co-production of Boy,  a smash hit at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, and at the New Zealand box office alike. Merata received a New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Years Honours list earlier this year.

As a woman, Merata told stories through the eyes of women. As a Maori woman, she told stories from a Maori perspective and in a Maori way. As a woman story teller Merata faced the same prejudices about the merit and value of her stories as other women the world over. As a Maori woman she also faced a cross-cultural dilemma. Her stories, in particular Mauri, employed concepts of life and the world non-existent in Pakeha (white NZ) culture or at least very different from that culture. Her storytelling was different from the mainstream not only because she was a woman writer and director but because she consciously rejected Pākehā traditions of storytelling, focusing on the oral traditions of layered storytelling so inherent to Maori cultures. She once said that "These are differences that Pākehā critics don't even take into account when they're analyzing the film." Similarly, women storytellers in general are faced with analyses of their films by mainly male critics. Mita has argued that Pakeha are 'not qualified to assess' her films. Perhaps men aren't best suited to assess, analyse, critique women's films and stories either? Men will continue failing to understand and see the inherent value and the economic potential of women's stories* until they learn to empathise with women, to look at the world from women's perspectives.

Meryl Streep in her recent commencement speech at Barnard College, Columbia University, made an interesting observation. One of the first characters Streep played, Linda in The Deer Hunter, 'a lovely, quiet, hapless girl' was often mentioned to her by men her own age as their favourite of all the women she had played. Streep went on to say, 

'Now, as a measure of how the world has changed, the character most men mention as their favourite is Miranda Priestly, the beleaguered totalitarian at the head of Runway Magazine in The Devil Wears Prada... They relate to Miranda... They can relate to her issues... This is a huge deal because as people in the movie business know the absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman protagonist to feel themselves embodied by her. This more than any other factor explains why we get the movies we get and the paucity of the roles where women drive the film. It's much easier for the female audience because we were all ... brought up identifying with male characters... There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that persona is a she. But things are changing now... Men are adapting... for the better of the whole group. They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred and the door to this emotional shift is empathy.'

Merata Mita asked of her audience not that they liked her films and her stories, but challenged people to view her films with an open mind.  She knew that to really understand a film, it isn't so much important to view it with your intellect but to view it with empathy.

Rest in peace Merata.


*Oh the cries of surprise at the huge economic success of Sex and the City: The Movie and MamaMia!?, two films predicted to bomb at the box office because they were targeting a mainly female audience.

See here what Wellywood Woman has to say about Merata. 

Sunday 30 May 2010

Herstory: Women in Film

Over the past few days I have been reading quite a few blog posts on women in film, particularly on women writers and directors and feature films, and the nagging question (or questions of) why there are so few of us.

In a recent post on her blog, Wellywood Woman,  Marian Evans, New Zealand's recent first woman to graduate with a PhD in Creative Writing, noted that 'women wrote only 16% of the films that the NZFC funded for production, from 2003-2009, and participated at a low level in other NZFC initiatives, with some notable, occasional, exceptions.' She also writes that only 9% of all features made in New Zealand over the past seven years had women directors or writers.

Writer, director, and blogger Kid in the Front Row blogged about the 'Missing Voice of Women in Film'. He notes 'I think, as an industry, we marginalize women - and, in the main, give them fluffy rom-coms to make. And we have a tendency to think that, if it's a big franchise or an 'important' movie, we give them to the men to make. I think this is wrong.'

Zoje Stage guest-blogged on Kid, saying 'The history of humanity is based on gender inequality and the intentional suppression of women. As time has gone on, things have changed in many parts of the world - creating the illusion that, for the most part, men and women live in an equal-opportunity world. But in reality, this just isn’t the case.' She continues, 'The structures that define human civilization were designed by men, to better, praise, or entertain other men... Everything about how we - men and women - live is dependent upon us all accepting that the male-created models are what we can and should strive for. In addition, there has been a systemic injustice done to women across the centuries in that, even when women were able to accomplish significant things in fields not truly open to them, the historians of the day dismissed their efforts - and subsequently, much of the history of women and their contributions have been erased or forgotten.'

These are all interesting, highly relevant and important observations and arguments but in this post I don't wish to enter this discussion. Suffice to say that my life experience as well as my university research regarding discrimination/equality and women's economic status and rights, have taught me that all these statements have very real merit. If we (women in particular) would truly examine the world we live in, instead of being as complacent as we are most of the time, we would see these truths in our very own lives, everyday.

Instead of going deeper into this matter, I would like to take this opportunity to start writing about the contribution women have made to the film industry since its very beginnings. Please bear with me, time for research and writing is scarce at the moment but I shall do my best to do these incredible women at least a little justice. These women should be celebrated, as much as their male colleagues are, and I hope that their journeys will be an inspiration when we, female or male, feel weighted down by the obstacles we face when pursuing our dreams of writing, acting, directing; telling our stories through film and theatre.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Dare to dream anyone?

I was on imdb the other day, looking at an actor's biography. It said he had trained with a teacher named William Esper and I thought, 'I wonder if he teaches Meisner!' just because of the kind of performances I have see this actor give. One google session later, there it was! The William Esper Studio for Acting, New York. Sign me up for that please!

Just look at the kind of actors that have trained at this place,

Kathy Bates
Aaron Eckhart
Patricia Heaton
Robert Knepper
David Morse
Herald Perrineau Jr
Sam Rockwell

Those are some pretty great actors if you ask me. Can we please win the lotto on Saturday?!

P.S.: Check out this interview with William Esper.

Tuesday 25 May 2010


Last night I was talking to my teacher about the auditions that I had done lately and how I had not heard back from anyone. We both agreed that getting auditions in itself is a success already but I couldn't help but feel a little weird about not even getting a message saying I didn't make the cut.When auditioning for paid jobs this is the norm. You will most likely only get a call if someone wants you for at least a callback. But since most of my recent auditions were for unpaid work, I expected it to be different. So, I was a little surprised that no one had gotten back to me with any news.

I guess you gotta get over things like that fairly quickly. Maybe that's part of letting go of an audition after you've done it. Whether you feel you did well or not, you can't carry an audition around with you or it will drive you nuts. You don't want all these nagging little questions popping up in your head. Should I have done this? Could I have been better? Or: What could possibly be a reason for them not to pick me?! If you are expecting to hear back (with any news) it doesn't help the letting go process.

So, I've decided I'm going to not worry about hearing back from people any more. When I do hear back (hopefully with positive news) I'll be happy if not I won't worry about it.

And what can I say, just as I had made my resolution, I got home to two messages waiting for me! Both short films, both positive. I'm a lucky girl!

Keep your fingers crossed that both films actually get made. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday 23 May 2010

Repeat, repeat, repeat!

I love Meisner! This acting technique may not be for everyone but I just love it!

A couple of years ago I took a six month class with Barbara Woods from the Actors Studio and have missed the training ever since. Two weeks ago I finally started a new class and so far it's a blast!

This is how the Wikipedia article on the technique sums it up, 'Meisner students work on a series of progressively complex exercises to develop an ability to improvise, to access an emotional life, and finally to bring the spontaneity of improvisation and the richness of personal response to text.' So Meisner technique teaches actors to discover, strengthen and use their intuition and instincts to achieve presence and emotional truth in a performance.

The basic exercise is called 'repetition'. It is a form of improvisation in which two people are repeating observations made about each other, at the beginning some physical trait for instance ('You're wearing a green sweater.'), later what they understand emotionally about each others behaviour and emotional state. For me this exercise is just so much fun! Even on a bad day, maybe even particularly so, I can come to class and work, and leave energised and grounded at the same time. On the other hand I can understand why people would hate this exercise. From my experience though, most people who do are simply trying too hard to understand the point or goal of this exercise. Since there is no point or goal to achieve, this would be a little frustrating.

Repetition is about being instinctive, present in the moment, and about listening. If there is a point to repetition it is to strengthen just these skills. My teacher compares the exercise to a physical workout in which you strengthen your muscles, only in our case we are strengthening our 'instinctive muscle', the ability to get out of the way of ourselves, out of our heads. An actor, acting on instinct and freed of any inhibitions is able to access a great depth of emotional life instead of 'acting' emotions. An actor who has the ability to listen and pick up on others' emotions, subtext and subtle details and to let them affect him/her, has the ability to 'live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances'.

Meisner is also about training your imagination, not from a place of intellect but from a place of emotion. Unlike Method Acting for example, for Meisner actors it isn't necessary to go back to prior experiences to find emotional truth. For a Meisner actor there is little need of having experienced particular situations and emotions to be able to live them in an imaginary setting. I find this idea very liberating! I actually really don't like the idea of 'affective memory' taught by Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg. Firstly it creates a need to have experienced or to experience situations and emotions in order to feel them in a performance. Secondly, I can imagine that you would get desensitised the more often you use a past experience until eventually that situation is 'used up' and doesn't work for you any more.

A well-trained Meisner actor on the other hand only has to access his imagination and ask himself 'What would have to happen to me or to my loved ones in order for me to feel a certain way?'. This kind of imaginative ability of course requires very accurate self-knowledge but which acting technique doesn't? The rest is listening - to your scene partner and to your own gut response.

It will take a lot of practice and hard work to get to a point where this technique, as with any other I'm sure, is innate to my performance. For now I am exited to do the work, strengthen my intuitive muscle and get the hell out of the way of myself!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Bad blogger

I'm a bad blogger. It's not that I don't have any more to say. In fact, there are quite a few things that I would like to talk about but alas my life has taken a bit of a crazy turn and today is in all actuality the first time since the last post I have been able to even visit my blog!
I wish I could say that I was cast in an amazing play or a major motion picture but my current insane business revolves mostly around minding babies (which is great!) and trying to make a living (not so great). On the acting front there have been three different evening classes, the V48Hours Furious Filmmaking competition, auditions, including my first professional one, and and a whole lot of nothing regarding preparations for my drama school audition.

In light of tonights grand final, let me share my 48Hours experience. V48Hours is a shortfilm competition in which the participating teams make a shortfilm in, you might have guessed it, 48 hours. From a Friday at 7pm in seven locations all across New Zealand films up to seven minutes long are written, shot, edited and (hopefully) handed in on Sunday by 7pm. Crazy? Just wait! Before the furious filmmaking can begin teams are allocated one of ten genres, in my team's case that was 'femme fatale'. All teams are also given the name of a character and his/her trade (Syndey Manson, a fabricator), a prop (a broken toy), a line of dialogue ("When you look at it that way.") and for the first time this year a camera shot (the dolly zoom) that they have to incorporate into their film.

All films that are handed in on time are then screen in a movie theatre in heats of 12 films each. The audience votes for their favourite film in each heat and an expert jury selects the city finalists in this year 23 categories to be screened again and awarded prizes after the heats have finished. The city winners in each category go on to the grand final which takes place in Auckland later tonight. The best films in each genre were also screened by C4 on the telly and the grand final will be a 90 minute special on the same channel.

Until Thursday night before the start of the competition I didn't even know that I would be participating. On Friday after the announcement of genres etc the whole team got together for a two hour brain storming session on femme fatale, film noir, love and betrayal, sex and violence, the aesthetics of film and the rudiments of a storyline. By Saturday midday my furious filmmaking experience was in full swing. Wardrobe, make-up, learning a couple of lines and then mainly waiting around in a rediculously short skirt and high heels, and watching the creatives and tech people at work until my scenes were shot in a very dark and cold warehouse. I LOVED it!

Due to technical problems my team was unable to hand our short on time to be eligible for judging but handing it in before the extended deadline (Sunday 11pm) meant that the film was still screened at the cinema during the Wellington heats. Despite sinking very low into my seat and decorating my team mate's arm with five small round bruises, it was an awesome, slightly surreal experience watching myself on the big screen. After an awful experience two years ago, our film, Femme Noir, far surpassed my expectations and I am actually really really proud. Going out afterwards for my first pint since my son's birth was the perfect icing on the cake.


Check out finalists and other entrants at the Screening Room!