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No Ordinary Sheila – Hugh MacDonald Q+A

Hugh Macdonald and Christine Dann’s No Ordinary Sheila is a heartwarming documentary about an extremely practical woman who might just inspire you. Sheila Natusch has cycled from Picton to Bluff, climbed numerous mountain peaks, and authored dozens of essential natural history books. She’s the sort of the lady that makes for a great documentary. Paul Berrington asked a director Hugh Macdonald a few questions ahead of No Ordinary Sheila screening at New Zealand International Film Festival.

How did you come across such an interesting character?   

Sheila is my late father’s cousin and I am therefore Sheila’s first-cousin-once-removed (but that is too hard to follow for many people).

So Sheila is your relation; she must have been a bit of legend within your family growing up?

Sheila and her husband Gilbert were well known for their conservationist views and spartan lifestyle within the family, and I was aware of Sheila’s prodigious writings and illustrations (as was my producer Christine Dann, I later discovered).

How much of Sheila’s story did you know before undertaking research and starting the documentary?

About 10 per cent.

How much time goes into researching a subject like this?

Six months on the written material and photographs, six months on Sheila’s incredibly wide range of interests and her friends with whom she celebrated these passions, disciplines and sciences, and six months on the archive films.

At what point did you realise Sheila’s story could be inspirational to all New Zealanders?  

As soon as Christine Dann and I started working together on the project in 2014. I had wanted to make a film about Sheila for many years, and she was now 88 so it was now or never.

The archival footage in the film is incredible, how did you go about collecting this imagery and information? And where did it come from?  

In January 1962 aged 18, I started at the National Film Unit (NFU) as a production trainee. I left the Film Unit in 1985 to go free-lancing, but I took with me a reasonable knowledge of (and an affection for) much of the Film Unit’s earlier work. This knowledge was supplemented by Christine’s research on NFU films held by Archives New Zealand. From this came considerable relevant material from NFU Weekly Reviews of the 1940s and the Pictorial Parades of the 50s and 60s.  One item I knew well was in Pictorial Parade 107 in 1960, showing Sheila swimming with large bull seals at Sinclair Head on Wellington’s south coast.  I had always wanted to use this footage- and this was the perfect opportunity.

Other archive silent film footage of Stewart Island and its people came from film shot over many years from the early 1930s by George Turner, an avid 16mm cine photographer of the Island’s wildlife. This footage has never been shown in public outside of the Island itself. As a child on holiday at Stewart Island, I had often heard of these films, but did not see any of them until quite recently. (They are now in the Grant Foster Photo and Film Archive).

What strengths do you see in Sheila’s character do you think are valuable for women growing up in New Zealand today?

Determination, independence, an ability to survive knock backs and still triumph, and awareness and appreciation of the natural world and its many wonders.

Where else will the film be shown after the festival?  

General release in selected cinemas through New Zealand.

As an experienced filmmaker what are the best tips you can give students learning the ropes at university?  

Begin by making as many short films as you can, and take all the roles (camera, sound, writing, editing). Pay special attention to the editing process. It is there that all cinematic skills are revealed, from framing shots to story content, the appropriate use of rhythm and tempo in making cuts, through to the use of music and effects to enhance the audience’s emotional involvement in the film’s narrative.  Study the masters and emulate them until you find your own voice and style.

What’s next for you and your team?

We haven’t got to specifics yet – but we have some dreams…

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