Kathy Dudding (1961-2010)

Kathy Dudding
Festival Director Bill Gosden remembers Wellington filmmaker Kathy Dudding.

The day in May after I watched Kathy Dudding's Asylum Pieces she called me, as anxious filmmakers sometimes do, before I could call her. I told her immediately how impressed I was by her film and invited her to show it at the Festival. Then she told me what she'd called to tell me: she'd learnt that treatment for a collapsed lung in the previous week had revealed something much more serious. She wanted me to know that whatever else happened the film would be pushed through post-production and ready for July. Thanks to her determination and the inspiring industry support rallied to the cause by Glenis Giles, it was.

Kathy, an inveterate arts-world party-goer, made it to the opening night of the Festival in Wellington. She held court, as pert and straight-backed as ever, radiant with the pleasure of being there. At the premiere of her film several days later the evidence that she was reaching the end of her road could no longer be ignored, and filled all who knew her with apprehension and sadness. She was too weak to make it to the Auckland screenings, where her 20-year-old daughter Amohia told a small audience "For the last two years Mum has put her heart and soul into this film." Kathy's decline after the screenings was fast. On a brilliant frosty morning last week a large crowd of friends, Film Archive colleagues and Wellington arts-world contemporaries joined Amohia and other family at the Wainuiomata marae for her funeral service.

After that Auckland screening several people asked me to pass on their admiration to Kathy, or requested her address, but one man, ignorant I think of the filmmaker's illness, upbraided me on a misleading catalogue description and told me that he found the long-held images of deserted mental health facilities uniquely unedifying. Brannavan Gnanalingam has called Asylum Pieces "one of the finest documentaries this country has produced", but Kathy's work was always tentative in spirit, never created with an eye to the mainstream and never likely to find a place there.

The Return and Asylum Pieces, her last two films, are observational essays, at once intensely personal and coolly circumspect. I sense both irony and yearning (for fixity and significance) in the studied tone of academic neutrality with which she presents the material of her films as objective, attributed and annotated. Meticulously counterpointing image and sound, her films are very consciously about looking attentively and listening, about inferring meaning without ever allowing it to be imposed.

In Asylum Pieces she orchestrates many voices and images around the subject of mental illness and its treatment, but the voice that ultimately speaks through their synthesis is that of her own, carefully weighed experience. Her grief and anger at the death of someone she loved are distilled and invested in a remarkably long view of history, sociology and politics. Societal annihilation of individual struggle is lamented with a quiet, cumulative power that both incorporates and transcends the personal. The tragic vision of Asylum Pieces seems bound to endure long past the season of mourning and celebration that began so suddenly for all of us here at the Festival in May. The insistent sadness of this film would have been just as hard to bear if Kathy had lived to make another dozen.
The Film Archive, where Kathy long worked as a researcher, plan a comprehensive programme of Kathy's films in due course.

- Bill Gosden, 31 August 2010