A new film brings to life the New Zealand suffrage campaign, writes Angela Barnett.

Gaylene Preston chose a haunted house as the location for her latest film, Hot Words & Bold Retorts, celebrating 125 years of suffrage. There's a ghost, who apparently still walks the rooms at night. "She didn't visit while we were filming," Preston says, "I imagine she'd probably be pretty stoked to have such a talented bunch in her house."

That talented bunch being Lucy Lawless, Miranda Harcourt, Chelsie Preston-Crayford and Jean Sergeant, all of whom embody the voices of real women who either voted in the 1893 elections or were part of the campaign.

Preston had been racking her brains for how to make a contemporary version of the momentous occasion with no footage or photos.

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"Studio portraits make the campaign leaders look more stiff and starchy than they must have been. My task was to make a short film that that would bring this amazing achievement to life." She had an idea one afternoon after hearing RNZ recordings made between 1947 and 1965 from seven women talking about the election.

"I didn't cast people who looked like the original women, as it clearly isn't them. It's us. We embody those voices, she explains down the phone from Cambridge, in the UK, where she's on a writing residency. "I'm not recreating them, I am contemporising them. I'm being quite outrageous in a historical sense."

Preston loves a moment when Lawless' character, Helen Wilson (1869-1957) says, "It was said that New Zealand women had the vote handed to them on a platter. Not true! There were a great many agitations and hot words and though there was no violence, there was some absurdity. They said women were too sentimental to listen to reason or always vote for the most handsome candidate." Preston quips, "which is of course terribly true, although I'm not sure what happened with Trump."

The film-maker is hot on dispelling the myth that it was easy. Sergent is the voice of Hilda Lovell-Smith (1886-1973), who describes how her 14-year-old brother drove her mother around gathering signatures as she couldn't go unchaperoned. "They drove for miles through mud and sleet, knocking on doors, day in and day out. It wasn't as easy as ticking a box on change.org." Preston paints a story that I didn't know. Initially, Kate Sheppard and her team got 10 thousand signatures but they were rejected, so they went out and doubled it to 20 thousand - yet still it was thrown out. "Undeterred, they said 'we'll be back' - or words to that effect. Finally, with more than 30,000 signatures, the document was rolled around a broomstick and trundled in a wheelbarrow up the steps of the all-male Parliament and into the Chamber, where it unfurled from the back all the way to the Speaker's seat. These days it would be on YouTube - it would have gone viral."

It's a story we'll share with our daughters and I tell her about a children's book we're reading together about the English suffragettes. "But where's our children's book?" she says, and I can feel the heat down the phone. "Why is this so big in the UK? They came 15 years after us. We were the first. We need to make more noise about that. It was a male Parliament - you had to get 51 per cent to agree; women couldn't do it on their own. It's something we should all be very proud of, men and women. The impact is bigger than one man climbing Everest."

Preston questions why the story of Sheppard isn't taught in schools. "It's a bit like, as a Pākehā, finding out about the Treaty of Waitangi and asking why was this taught so grazingly? We know more about the British suffragettes than our own." She's shown her film to friends in LA and New York "who are feminists but had no idea we were the first".

She also says anyone can go and see the petition in Wellington sitting next to the Treaty of Waitangi. It's beautiful, with each weather-beaten piece of paper full of signatures and all meticulously hand-stitched together. Rather than search all 30 thousand signatures for great-grandmother's signatures, Google can help too. Preston says it felt wonderful when she found her father's aunt, Agnes Preston from Bluff.

She hopes her film brings some of the stories to life for this generation. The other voices in the film are Annabella Maktelow (1871-1963) played by Crayford and Ellen Peryman (1868-1947) played by Harcourt.

Lawless' character sums up Preston's sentiment, "The status of women badly wanted raising - they were not supposed to be able to handle money and property.

"We are much more useful to the community than our grandmothers were."

Lowdown

Hot Words & Bold Retorts will screen daily every 15 minutes in the forthcoming exhibition Are We There Yet?, July 6-Oct 31, Special Exhibitions Hall, free with museum entry.
aucklandmuseum.com