27 Mar 2019

Review: Celia

From Widescreen, 1:29 pm on 27 March 2019

The documentary Celia is a fine testament to one of New Zealand‘s most direct and powerful social communicators, says Dan Slevin.

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Photo: supplied

On the drive in to the city to watch a Sunday morning screening of the documentary Celia, my companion and I were discussing how rare it is for people to speak directly to each other in our workplaces and how directness can be mistaken for rudeness when it is often quite the opposite. The writer Brené Brown says that being unclear is not a kindness and that directness is one way to avoid being unclear.

Watching Celia, I was reminded over and over again of that conversation and how Celia Lashlie, the social activist and campaigner, was New Zealand’s Queen of the Direct – and how so often that directness was taken (by people who should know better) as an attack rather than the passionate expression of necessary truth.

Amanda Millar’s film is a testament to Lashlie’s directness, as well as the abundant aroha that guided her activism. Centred around a single on-camera interview shot only two days before Lashlie died of pancreatic cancer in February 2015 and there’s an urgency about her even as her powers are fading.

Millar’s filmmaking choices often betray the 20/20 slash 60 Minutes style of storytelling that she is rightly renowned for but I was very taken with the moments of visual lyricism that occur – especially the regular recurrence of the visual motif of birds or the observations of ordinary life continuing outside Lashlie’s window. Some of those choices might have been made because of a lack of material but they provide respite from the very heavy subjects that Lashlie demands that New Zealand wrestle with.

Celia Lashlie in Amanda Millar's documentary "Celia"

Celia Lashlie in Amanda Millar's documentary "Celia" Photo: Supplied

It’s very personal project for everyone concerned. Millar knew Lashlie since 2001 and the film features others, including family, who were touched by her, although I suspect that someone watching this film in ten years time will want more of Lashlie’s voice and less of the evident mourning that shrouds so much of it.

The statistics that punctuate the film are horrifying and alone should be a call to arms for the New Zealand public but they don’t appear to be – we continue to need a Celia Lashlie to wake us up to them. Who is going to take up that challenge?

Celia is currently screening in selected, mostly independent, cinemas across New Zealand (and if word-of-mouth means anything these days should be around for a while longer). You can hear more of Celia’s voice in this RNZ collection of interviews with Kathryn Ryan.