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Kathleen Gallagher – Poet, Playwright, Filmmaker

Kathleen Gallagher & Mike Single on camera, filming the Hurunui River – one of the four principal rivers in North Canterbury – for Water Whisperers/ Tangaroa 

Two things affected me last month. First, the proposal to increase irrigation in Canterbury, a New Zealand region with many major rivers which are depleted and degraded, probably best known outside New Zealand as the site of major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Second, Sandy-the-Frankenstorm that devastated Haiti – where there was also a major earthquake in 2010 – Jamaica and Cuba before it hit the United States. I felt deep sadness first, then a desire to help, so offered support where I could. And I thought it might also help to protest about the Canterbury irrigation, and about climate change, but wasn’t sure what was best to do. So I focused on what I had to do: an essay about New Zealand women directors, the garden.

The next draft of Throat of These Hours, my play about poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980, ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’ according to fellow poet Anne Sexton ) and two women in a Wellington radio station, was waaay at the back of my mind – it’s ten days or so until I start up again with my writing buddy. But then I received an interview with Muriel that I’d wanted for ages. In the interview, from the New York Quarterly, she says
…a lot of things have killed and mutilated people I love. I will protest all my life. I am willing to. But I’m a person who makes, much more than a person who protests…and I have decided that wherever I protest from now on…I will make something – I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something. I think the whole thing must be made again.
So I began to think about the relationship between protest and making, how they make a whole. And that took me back to Muriel’s book The Life of Poetry, where she writes about the fear of poetry, and its capacity to provide a place where all kinds of imagination can meet and change us, change the world. She saw her long prose works as footnotes to her poetry. And she was a film editor, too, who found that working with film was ‘a terribly good exercise for poetry although many [poets] have been seduced away to writing for film’. She also wrote that –
The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.
I began to understand the links between poetry and other ‘making’ and protest; and to think about people who work to make ‘the whole thing’ again, and for whom writing poems is part of that process. And came back to Canterbury poet and playwright Kathleen Gallagher, who makes films, most recently a trilogy – Earth Whisperers Papatuanuku, Water Whisperers Tangaroa, and Sky Whisperers Ranginui, and before that Healing Journeys He Oranga He Oranga about eleven cancer survivors and Tau Te Mauri Breath of Peace about how Aotearoa New Zealand became nuclear free and antiwar.

Kathleen Gallagher

Q: I’ve really compressed Muriel Rukeyser’s ideas and there are complexities and subtleties I can’t begin to understand or to convey, but does this taste of her thinking (always connected to feeling) resonate with you as a poet and a filmmaker. And if so, in what ways? Do you define yourself as an activist and if so, how do Muriel’s ideas fit with that role?

Kathleen: Yes I make much more than I protest – my intention is to utterly surprise into transformation, without even the whimper of a protest – so people say “of course, I always knew it somewhere deep inside of me”/ the changing of an old way of being and seeing, sweep folk off their feet/transfixed/irreversibly changed by being able to be present in a totally different way/ to see things with new eyes.
Thinking, feeling, birthing, recreating, holding, carrying, breathing out into the world – everywhere into every little nook and cranny.

I define myself as a poet, playwright and filmmaker.

Q: Why did you start to make films? Who has influenced you? What keeps you going? How do you fund it?

I began by playing with making a film from a radio drama – Charlie Bloom – that I had written. This wasn’t made in the end. I went on to write a short drama and then to make full length feature documentaries.

I fell in love with the idea of filming outside not working inside like you do in theatre and embracing whatever sort of weather turned up – not fighting it.

After writing radio plays for Radio NZ where you can be anywhere with a change of soundscape – I wanted to play with sound in film also – all of my films you can watch with your eyes closed.

The folk who I have worked with and interviewed have influenced me the most – the peace people, the cancer survivors the earth water and sky whisperers – a joy and privilege to work with over these last twelve years.

What keeps me going?  Folk from this dimension and other dimensions. I feel I have no choice – the work, the words find me, I record them, or film them and edit them, breathe them out into the world. If I don’t do this work and try and do some other job, I just get ill.

Funding? Erratically, chaotically, from a variety of sources, sometimes around the topic – Peace Foundation with Peace film Tau Te Mauri Breath Of Peace, Cancer Society with Cancer survivors film Healing Journeys, UK environmentalists with Earth Whisperers Papatuanuku. Sometimes we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, sometimes it’s fine. We sell our DVDs at screenings and online also.

Q: How does your poetry feed your filmmaking and how does your filmmaking feed your poetry? Where do the plays come into it?

Kathleen: I edit the films like I edit the poems, so in the end the folk sound like they are speaking poetry. The images in the films are poetic, not journalistic or descriptive. Our films are like poetry, not journalistic. They move to the essence of, rather than describe prosaically that which is, talk about the edges of things, that which is unseen and at the heart.

The plays – I love the plays and working in theatre. I worked with Womens Action Theatre in Christchurch from 1985 – 1993, we produced a play a year beginning with Mothertongue in 1985. We devised, wrote, and toured these plays around the country. We produced a book, Mothertongue, of four of the plays, which we still have here for sale.

The plays are full of poetry and mime which is poetry in motion, and song.

Q: What inspired your trilogy? How did it start? Did you know at the beginning that it would be three films? How do you find/ choose the participants? Is there another film in the series to come?

Kathleen: Each film inspires the last – they flow out of each other. When we worked on Healing Journeys, I found that as cancer survivors recovered their health they became more and more in touch with nature – surfing, tramping, gardening, tree planting… and I wondered who the folk were who were already deeply in touch with nature. That was the beginning of Earth Whisperers Papatuanuku. And when you become intimately involved with Earth/Papatuanuku – you realize that water is critical and that’s how Water Whisperers Tangaroa came into being. When you talk with folk who spend a lot of time out in the ocean and on water, you find that they know a lot about sky, because they spend a lot of time on water and in sky – they are very reliant on sky and watching and observing sky, and so was born Sky Whisperers Ranginui. I guess it’s feeling like Fire Whisperers Te Mahuika is the one to come, not sure where the funding will come for that one.

Re participants - we work around a theme and wander the country listening to folk, reading, putting it together, sometimes folk just wander up for a chat, and you know that they are the ones.

Q: Have you a sense that the films have helped make change? Can you imagine doing updates?

Kathleen: Definitely. I think open discussion and korero after folk have watched a film together can facilitate huge change and inspiration in a community. Time and time again I have seen it – in both urban and rural settings - and each time it suprises me. It’s good coming together and experiencing vision together and then seeing what more vision and change can come out of that.

Updates – further/deeper exploration of the themes.

Q: What does protest mean to you? How does it fit with activism? Are your films a kind of protest? If so, can you identify where and how they fit on the making/protest spectrum? Is this different than for poems and plays?

Protest – to protest against something rather than for something. I guess my work is about changing the status quo moving forward to a new vision.

I guess during the ’81 Tour when I was arrested here in Christchurch – the first play I wrote was The Song of Killidoo – about the tour and how we lived it and breathed it and helped change the world of apartheid. [The 1981 Springbok Tour to New Zealand sparked mass civil disobedience. More about it, in relation to Merata Mita's film PATU!, about the tour, is here.]

We were making new ways to be together. It was the beginning of the Maori Renaissance. Feminism was about protesting the oppression of women but about so much more than that – it was for women wherever whoever we were. Maybe protest is the first initial response – this can’t be right! – but then it evolves and flowers into a new way of being.

I feel that my work is not a protest against, it is rather a stand for a vision, for a way through, that everyone can walk – challenging, enlightening, an opening for everybody to move through. Making new again, co-creating.

This is no different for me in poems plays and films. Though with the films I have tended to use documentary rather than drama to make the transition, and let other people speak rather than write all the voices as in a drama.

Q: All your films have bilingual titles and foreground indigenous interviewees. Are you Maori? Every so often I come across indigenous filmmakers from outside New Zealand, like Leena Manimekalai who made Sengadal which shows how the ethnic war in Sri Lanka had affected the lives of fishermen in Dhanushkodi. And there's Clearwater, a documentary from Tracy Rector and Lou Karsen at Longhouse Media, the story of the unique relationship between tribal peoples and the waters of the Puget Sound. Indigenous filmmakers make films about all kinds of things and in all kinds of ways (of course) but I wonder if you think that indigenous voices and indigenous filmmakers have a particular place in environmental work, and if so, what is that place, or what are those places?

Kathleen: I don’t know if I have Maori in my direct whakapapa. Quite a few of our people are dark and I have always felt at home on marae from an early age and with te reo Maori, waiata and haka… we also have many tribal affiliations – in my family – Ngati Kuia, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Porou, Tuwharetoa…

Indigenous voices – those who know intimately the place where they stand throughout many many generations – need to be implicit and always listened to in any environmental work that folk undertake. Without ancient whakapapa spiritual understanding of place, of rivers, mountains, trees, oceans, birds, sky… – the intrinsic interconnectedness of all - it is difficult to proceed and to make sense of our world and our place here.

Q: I find it frustrating to know that there are probably people like you, making films with similar themes but it’s sometimes quite difficult to access the films. Have you considered putting your films online somewhere like Indiereign? Or maybe they’re already there?

Kathleen: We are not sure at the moment with whom to put our films online as we continue to sell the DVDs online. We are just in the process of sorting this.

Q: What’s your next film?

Kathleen: Got two or three wandering around in my head – maybe Fire Whisperers Te Mahuika, or Soil Whisperers Te Whenua or a drama on the transformation we are currently undergoing here.


Earth Whisperers

Water Whisperers

Sky Whisperers

Sengadal, the Dead Sea

Longhouse Media & Clearwater


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