Sheilas turn the social tide

By SHONAGH LINDSAY

Looking back can be painful and hilarious, even for those who have been only bit players in society, but much more so when, like the five women in Sheilas: 28 Years On, you have been in the vanguard of social change.

Miriam Cameron, Aloma Parker, Marcia Russell, Sandi Hall and Donna Awatere-Huata - apart from the latter, these names have vanished from the radar of public consciousness.

But in 1976, when they featured in TVNZ's 1976 series Women, they were either famous or infamous, depending on which side of the feminist battleground you stood.

Make no mistake, this was a battle, and given the importance of what was at stake - abortion, equality in the workplace, gay rights - that is not surprising, even if it was fought with ingenuousness, spirit and good humour.

Annie Goldson and Dawn Hutchesson's documentary revisits these five women's lives, ostensibly to track social change but probably just as much because they are so entertaining - stroppy, sassy women then, they're no less engaging today.

It's a film full of fantastic one-liners and anecdotes juxtaposed with revealing past footage.

Marcia Russell, the first woman reporter in the general news section of the Herald, tells us: "They truly thought the tapestry of life was going to unravel when I turned up", while we watch her side-on to camera, long lean frame in slacks, impatiently tapping fingers against hips while she waits for a senior newsman to acknowledge her.

Eventually he does - with a brief aside.

Russell went on to start Thursday magazine, brought out by the New Zealand Herald to fill an obvious gap in the market.

"Everywhere you looked it was wall-to-wall knit your own royal family," Russell says.

These days, it's a bit difficult to describe Thursday's impact, but it certainly wasn't your Woman's Weekly.

At the Auckland Film Festival screening of Sheilas, there was a intake of breath in the theatre when Awatere-Huata first appeared on screen - her past and present selves by far the most discordant of all five women.

Sombre then in her role as educational psychologist, she campaigned to change the negative messages young Maori were getting from the education system as early as primary school.

"Pick which one is pretty," she says, holding up a simple drawing showing two faces, the one on the left Pakeha, the one on the right with Maori features. The one on the left is "pretty".

She is also shown in the film giving a diatribe against western consumerism - its obsession with possessions, with technology, always wanting something more, not happy with itself. But cut to the next shot and she's fuming over the frustrations of her latest hi-fi powerbook not running fast enough.

Miriam Cameron recalls her boyfriend of the time, Tim Shadbolt, who - impressed with the feminist tactics - is found soon after in full demagogue splendour chanting: "Give us a P, give us a E, give us an A, give us C, gives us an E", cameras clicking all around him.

"I ended up in the photos as an elbow sticking out from behind his back."

Present-day footage shows Cameron and her adult son picking their way along an overgrown track to find the remains of the Huia commune she and Shadbolt started, now completely overtaken by rampant native forest. Cameron remarks, in a reference to the concrete-pouring business we see her working in at the film's beginning, "You can see why we loved concrete," she says. "Imagine carrying a month's supply of nappies and tinned nutmeat down here."

A reminder, too, that the battle was as often in the kitchen and the bedroom as it was out in the media maelstrom.

"What do you think people thought a feminist was then?" Goldson asks Cameron.

"A bra-less, hairy, fat hag," she replies.

But, to her, the women were, more than anything else, people "who felt pissed off with always being left out, while men tended to be the folk heroes".

What these women thought a feminist was then, and what young women today think a feminist is, or was, is one of the more revealing aspects of the film.

When it screened in the film festival, question and answer time revealed how quickly past events and impact are forgotten.

Hutchesson, a child in the 70s, says she did not learn about feminism until doing women's and gender studies at university.

The even younger Briar March, whose luminous film Allie Eagle and Me (questioning her friend, painter Allie Eagle, about her feminist past) preceded Sheilas at the festival, says she had some idea but until she made her film hadn't realised how passionate the women were about doing what they believed in, something she misses in her generation.

And the pain. Well, that seems inevitable given the personal risks these sheilas took.

Marriages ended, access was lost to children, careers were sidelined when late motherhood intervened.

But they have remained a sassy lot, and history shows us they really did change the social landscape.

TV One, Saturday 9pm

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