In recognition of her impressive canon of work, including an Academy Award nomination for Jojo Rabbit, Chelsea Winstanley is a finalist in the 2020 Ngā Whetū o Matariki - Matariki Awards for Arts and Entertainment.
My parents were teenagers when they first had kids, and I came along when Mum was 23. Mum was going really well at school and was offered a job at a bank, which was quite big for a Māori girl back then but, when she got hapū at the start of sixth form, she didn't have the options we have now, so they started a family. Mum was just 16 when she had my sister, and I often wonder what her life would've been like if she'd continued with her education and her career, because they were just kids having babies.
Mum is Māori and Dad is Pākehā. Mum was one of 11 so I had lots of cousins and even though Nana had so many mokopuna, she'd always make a big deal over our birthdays and turn up with a massive oven-tray cake. Mine was always chocolate. I didn't know Dad's family, his parents were gone before I was born, and I always associated myself more strongly with my Māori side, where I felt most loved, and most connected.
My parents split when I was about 8. My older sister went to Auckland with Mum, and not long after my brother went to boarding school. I stayed in Mt Maunganui with Dad.
I'm a survivor of childhood rape and because it happened on the Pākehā side of my family, I've disassociated myself a lot from anything to do with that side. I didn't process that intellectually at the time, I was just trying to survive. For so long I had no idea how that trauma influenced my life, but the flow-on effect, because you don't know what to do with that sort of thing when you're little, you just bottle it up. I've had lots of therapy since, and I did write to the person once. I found out where they lived and delivered a letter but I don't know if they ever read it.
Part of my coping strategy was the creation of an imaginary friend. There was a lot of loneliness, especially when my parents separated, and Kak was there to fill that loneliness. In my mind Kak was totally there. She felt like the only person I could trust. My family did make fun of me, but they also entertained it, like setting a place at the table for her. I often think about when she left and why she left. As an adult I sometimes think about finding her again, and reconnecting with that inner child, with that little person who was traumatised, and maybe finding forgiveness. I'm making a short film about it.
When I was a teenager, I went to live with Mum, who was studying psychotherapy. Coming from Mt Maunganui, when I got to Auckland Girls Grammar, I turned up on my first day wearing roman sandals with my skirt to my ankles. I didn't know how people would dress - everyone else was tailored, with pencil skirts and hems above the knee. They were all so cool and I wondered where the hell I was, but I met some incredible women who took me under their wing. I also had serious body issues including bulimia, and Mum went out of her mind figuring out how to help me – I've unpacked a lot of that stuff as I've got older, and I know it's part of my story but it doesn't have to dictate the next chapter of my life.
For a long time I didn't trust people, I didn't allow others to get close to me. I put up a lot of shields. Now I'm 44, and I have three children, I see how important it is to be open, so my own kids don't go through anything like that. You have to be fearless to be vulnerable. One of the biggest things is lifting the shame; you go through life carrying this shame, this anger, but then you realise it's not yours to carry.
Women are naturally child-bearers but, when you do have kids, your career tends to be put on hold, then you're constantly saying, "I'm here" or you feel like you have to prove yourself twice as much as men do. In general, men walk through life with assumed privilege, white men especially, the world is pretty much made to suit them. They haven't had to work to fit in, because they already fit; but as women, being female in most industries, it's a constant battle to be heard, to be visible, while always having to punch above our weight.
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A lot of women produce because we know how to get a lot done with little resource. It's a bit like community service, either underpaid or unpaid, undervalued, you're with the project from beginning to end. A producer is like the mother of a project, the nurturer. You care for talent, the entire crew and cast. Those are values I learn from my mum and my Nan - manakitanga, whakawhanaungatanga.
I've definitely encountered racism and sexism at work. I was once sexually harassed on a shoot about 10 years ago. It was horrible, almost paralysing. At the time I didn't recognise the gravitas, I was just trying to be taken seriously. I didn't want to be this crazy lady, all those labels women are given when they speak up, but people should never feel afraid or manipulated or unsafe at work.
I did speak to the producers – both men - they asked me if I wanted the person fired. That's a cop-out. Men need to step up. If a woman says 'I am being harassed' don't think of your budget and how firing someone might affect the shoot day, support your female colleagues, get rid of the crew member and make a stand for all women on your crew so they know they are working in a safe environment. This would never happen to me now because I have the confidence to not withstand such treatment.
And racism. Trying to convince funders of the importance of telling positive, uplifting stories about Māori isn't easy. For a long time Māori had to be poor, at the bottom of the heap, or there's domestic violence in the story. Or they're one of those "exceptional" Māori. Down-and-out or exceptional, those two extremes were the only ideals perpetuated to non-Māori audiences, you have to be one or the other, with nothing in between. That's why it's always been my focus to tell positive, convincing stories of Māori self-determination, but the hardest part is selling the idea to someone who doesn't get it.
Being nominated for an Oscar was pretty surreal. This fancy package arrived by special courier and I was like "oh my God". The package was filled with slick black envelopes sealed with stickers of gold statues. Then there are the invitations, the ceremony - I took Mum as my date.
Some people make a big deal about where my career has gone, although I don't look at it like I've done anything individually. I'm here right now partly because of timing, because hundreds and thousands of women before me have chipped away at the wall of patriarchy and racism. They've chipped away for so long, and finally the wall has started to crumble. I don't see it as anything I've achieved on my own; everything I've done has been a collaboration. Filmmaking and storytelling is collaborative. It's really important to acknowledge that, and I want to keep making inroads for my daughters, and the other women around me who want to take ownership of their stories. We're not in an equal position by any means and I'm part of a movement that's still happening. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
• Watch the Matariki Awards ceremony live on Māori Television, August 15 at 8pm.