Sharon Stephenson talks with film director-producer Pietra Brettkelly whose curiosity about the world has taken her from war zones to the inner-sanctum of the mega-wealthy.
This is a story that starts with custard and ends with one of the world's most prestigious film festivals.
But first, the custard. It's 2015 and film-maker Pietra Brettkelly is on the couch in her Auckland home, eating custard made from scratch (Brettkelly, you soon learn, is the kind of person who'd never tolerate the ready-made stuff).
"I'd just spent two-and-a-half years in Afghanistan, where I'd been making my documentary, A Flickering Truth, about cinephiles who retrieved more than 8000 hours of film footage they'd hidden during the Taliban era," says Brettkelly. "It was a huge project that exhausted me financially, emotionally and creatively."
The plan was to sit on the couch, eat custard and decompress. But the 53-year-old has the manner of someone not put on Earth to waste time.
"I was flicking through my ideas book in search of my next project when I found a note I'd made a few years earlier about Chinese couturier Guo Pei and an extraordinary carved shoe she'd created. I googled her and discovered she'd designed the yellow dress Rihanna wore to the Met Ball."
Even better, Pei didn't know who Rihanna was. "That fascinated me, because she's dressing one of the most iconic women in the world yet she doesn't know who she is."
All thoughts of downtime abandoned, Brettkelly called Pei's Shanghai atelier. When she eventually found someone who could speak English, they tried to dissuade her, telling her Pei was private, that she wouldn't want a documentary made about her.
"I said, 'I'm going to fly over,' and they said, "Please don't.' And I said, 'No, I think I will come over,' because I've learned to trust my gut and if I think something's really interesting, then surely others will too."
Three days later, Brettkelly and her cinematographer, Jacob Bryant, were in Shanghai. It was the start of a two-year project that saw them shadow Pei to Paris and New York, as China's only haute couture designer attempted to break into fashion's inner circle.
The result is Yellow is Forbidden, Brettkelly's fifth documentary, which premiered at New York's Tribeca Film Festival and opened the NZIFF last year. It's one of four Kiwi documentaries being screened by the Rialto Channel for its 20th birthday celebrations.
You'd never guess from its sumptuous production values but, as with all of Brettkelly's films, it was made in as low-key a fashion as possible: she inserts herself into her subject's life without the help of translators or a security detail, stays in low-rent accommodation and often finds herself at the business end of hardship.
"If it isn't hard, then it's probably not going well," she laughs. "When we were filming in Afghanistan, for example, we didn't have any security even though there was fighting going on, because that allowed us to build trust with our subjects. I'm interested in the purity of the story, of building a relationship with my subjects."
At least that's what I think she says, because we're chatting by WhatsApp and Brettkelly's voice is fading in and out. She's currently in Indonesia, sitting in a patch of bright sunlight and unwittingly taunting those of us stuck in wintry New Zealand (I'm wearing two pairs of socks, a scarf and beanie during our interview).
But Brettkelly isn't in Indonesia to sunbathe: she's mentoring a group of young film-makers she's worked with for five years. "I can't tell you about the project, because it's not my story to tell but I can say that I encourage them to take risks, to explore their storytelling boundaries."
They're one of many recipients of Brettkelly's largesse, often given for free. Others are in India, the United States, New Zealand and Afghanistan. "So many people in my life have given me a break and I believe in doing the same."
Brettkelly was born in Whakatane, the youngest of four. Her parents – father from Manchester, mother with Irish roots – were descended from a long line of "curious adventurers". Her paternal great-grandfather, for example, once walked from California to Argentina - because he could.
They weren't particularly poor but weren't particularly rich either – her parents ran fruit shops and motels – but Brettkelly says they encouraged their children to be curious about the world, to travel, read and experience life. "If we wanted to do something, they somehow made it happen."
There was no slacking off either, with each of the siblings achieving well in their respective fields: brother Tony is a former professional squash player who now works as a property developer in San Francisco, sister Jody is a lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-author, also in San Francisco, while sister Sharon is a RNZ journalist.
For her part, Brettkelly entered film-making through a narrow doorway: the Wonderful World of Disney.
"Every Sunday night we'd watch these Disney documentaries on TV and when I was about 12, I realised that was what I wanted to do."
Back then, there was no film school in New Zealand and the careers adviser at Whakatāne High School wasn't terribly helpful.
So Brettkelly headed to Victoria University to do a law/English degree ("Mum dropped us off at the main road and we hitch-hiked to Wellington").
After a year, she realised it wasn't for her, so switched to a journalism diploma. She didn't finish that either.
"My parents were volunteering in Papua New Guinea at the time and they said they'd either give me money to have 21st party at my flat or a plane ticket. Naturally, I picked the plane ticket."
She spent a few months in Papua New Guinea, eventually returning to a 10-month stint reporting at the Rodney and Waitematā Times. There followed six years of work and travel in Europe and Australia before Brettkelly eventually found her way back to Auckland.
One night while playing touch rugby, she found herself chatting to Phil Keoghan (now the US presenter of The Amazing Race). He told her about a show he was doing at the then-new TV3 and would she like to join him?
It turned out to be a weekly kids' sports programme where Brettkelly got to dangle her feet in the directing pool. This eventually led to gigs at arts programmes and her own company, the TV Set, which she ran with two mates for five years.
She was in London in 2002 when she got chatting to a guy in a bar ("I talk to everyone, from bus drivers to the poor sod on the plane next to me - it's a great source of inspiration") who told her about Libya's first ever beauty pageant.
"He said he could organise an interview with Colonel Gaddafi, so I hung around London, sleeping on a friend's couch. After two months I'd almost run out of money and was about to head back to New Zealand when I got a call telling me to get to the airport and onto a private jet to Libya where I spent five weeks making my first solo documentary, Beauty will Save the World."
Since then, there have been films about Sudanese twins and an Italian artist, a brilliant Māori teenager from Hawke's Bay who enrolled at Yale University aged 15, the brave Afghani film fans and Pei. It's taken Brettkelly from Russia and Brazil to Europe, the US and the Middle East, from war zones to the inner-sanctum of the mega wealthy.
When you spend more time out of New Zealand than in it and when some of that is in places not recommended by TripAdvisor, you might expect the odd hairy moment or two. Such as having your car break down in Taliban-infested territory.
"We were stranded for hours and the driver told me to put on my burka and get in the car, because he was worried what would happen if they found us. I knew I'd willingly put myself in that situation so if something happened to me then it did, but I didn't want to cause trouble for the locals who worked with us."
And then there's the time Brettkelly was in Kabul and the bullets started flying. "They told us to turn off the lights and lie on our beds, so I put my passport and all the cash I had in my pocket and hid on my bed while the fighting went on and on. It was terrifying but now it's just a dinner party story for me, whereas for those who live there it's an everyday reality."
If there's a theme to Brettkelly's films it's a sense of isolation. "I'm attracted to how people find themselves in an isolated situation and how they respond to that."
The way she sees it, isolation is a positive, something she's not only felt keenly throughout her career, but also turned to her advantage.
"I'm often asked why I'm not based in New York or LA but it's New Zealand's isolation that feeds me, that's allowed to me achieve what I have. I don't have a degree, I didn't go to film school and I'm from this small nation at the bottom of the world, so it can be intimidating moving among the international film world. A funder at an Amsterdam documentary festival once said to me, 'Why would we give you money when you're just going to disappear to that small Pacific island and we'll never see you again?' But that sense of isolation, of coming back to my parents' house at beautiful Ohope Beach, is what makes me the film-maker I am."
Self-funding her work is another. "Oh God, it's so difficult," she admits, rolling her eyes so hard she almost strains them.
"It's important to me that my work doesn't become affected by other people's views and perspectives. The minute you write funding applications or attend pitching forums or meet with network executives, that's when other people can affect the purity of how you tell your stories."
Which means running every hustle in the book – from funding parties to selling Afghani jewellery – to finance her films.
"I will apply for funding from people like the Gucci Fund and the Sundance Fund, but only when I've completed most of the filming and only from people who will be gentle with my work."
This month, Brettkelly learned she is the recipient of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand's $25,000 Dame Gaylene Preston Award for Documentary Film-making to be spent on anything of her choosing (ten other laureates will be announced next weekend).
Brettkelly is currently working on two projects, one she started more than a year ago about a Kiwi based internationally and the other about the Christchurch mosque attacks. Naturally, she can't/won't tell me anything more, apart from the fact that both are keeping her busy and happy.
What she is keen to talk about, her words falling over themselves in their eagerness to get out, is the avalanche of quality content available these days in our living rooms. Does she, a film-maker, feel threatened by it, or worry that people will stop attending the cinema?
"Hell, no. I think some of the stuff available now is amazing quality and the fact you can film something on your phone makes film so much more accessible. But mainly, it's a chance to educate people about what to expect and how to value good quality."
Besides, Brettkelly believes, "If you help others rise up, then we all rise up."
But that doesn't mean there aren't still speed humps that film-makers, particularly women film-makers, must face.
"Are women getting 50 per cent of the funding or screen time? No - and it's exhausting because I've been staying this stuff for years. But I really want to be part of shifting the imbalance so my priority is mentoring female film-makers, telling mostly female stories and working with as many female crew as possible."
Brettkelly has also put her hand up to be New Zealand's representative on Free the Bid, a US non-profit organisation that advocates on behalf of women directors for equal opportunities in the global advertising and film industries.
"We need to ask ourselves why the film industry is short of female representation and short of indigenous representation. Because shouldn't film be about showing us different lives? Without that, we're just making more of the same – white men's films about white men."
Yellow Is Forbidden screens on Wednesday 28 August, 8.30pm as part of the Rialto Channel's 20th celebrations.