Gaylene Mary Preston

Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film.

Gaylene Preston has spent her life telling other people's stories, including those of Helen Clark, Rita Angus and the victims of the Strongman Mine tragedy.

As a screenwriter, producer and director of both drama and documentary, Preston has made a career out of reflecting New Zealand on screen.


But her own story is equally fascinating. Born in 1947, Preston was born into a generation where women were not expected to harbour any real career aspirations, let alone dream of becoming a film-maker.

Trained as an art therapist, Preston spent seven years living in Britain during her 20s, where she studied drama therapy at Brixton College of Further Education.

In 1977 she returned to Wellington – "the hills had called me", she told Canvas earlier this month – and began working at Pacific Films as an art director. She was the only woman in the crew.

"They called me Bruce. I took that in the spirit in which it was meant – I was in the gang."

That same year, she confided in acclaimed filmmaker Barry Barclay that she wanted to become a film director. He replied: "You better get on with it." So she did.

The following year, she released her first documentary All the Way Up There - the story of Bruce Burgess, a young disabled man who achieves his dream of climbing Mt Ruapehu. The film won special jury prizes at two international film festivals and marked the start of an illustrious film-making career.

In 1982, she took viewers behind-the-scenes of one of New Zealand's most iconic feature films – Utu – directing the documentary Making Utu, before she turned her hand to fiction in 1985, directing her first drama feature Mr Wrong.

The horror film explored the theme of sexual violence towards women and was well-received but it was her 1990 release Ruby & Rata that really cemented Preston's reputation as master storyteller.


The bittersweet comedy won numerous awards and was voted one of the top 10 films at the Toronto Film Festival that year.

Since then, Preston has gone on to produce and direct numerous films, documentaries and television series - often focusing on the female experience and exploring feminist themes.

She has also served on several industry boards, including the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand on Air, and chaired both Creative New Zealand's Film Innovation Fund and the New Zealand Film and Television Awards Society.

In 2001, Preston became the first film-maker to receive an Arts Foundation Laureate Award and in 2002 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the film industry.