Gaylene Preston’s My Year with Helen delivers a fascinating portrait of Helen Clark on a mission – and a laconic account of the exasperating circumstances wherein she hit the glass ceiling at the United Nations.
Early in the film the former PM spells out her primary professional objective: find herself a job where she can “do a power of good.” Keen to discover what that might look like in 2015, Preston followed Clark to Botswana in her third top-ranked position at the UN, heading up the UN Development Programme. She didn’t know that in the year that followed Clark would also be campaigning for the position of secretary general.
The election of the UN’s top official had once been so secretive that not even the candidates knew they were in the running. For 2016 the UN announced that the contest would be much more transparent. Considering the organisation’s remits around gender equality, the time felt ripe for the first female secretary general in its 80-year history. Clark was one of seven women to announce their candidacy.
The media love a horse race, and politicians, diplomats and feminist organisations were immediately abuzz with speculation and opinion. Shuttling between a forthright Clark and official UN briefings which reveal nothing, Preston singles out a wealth of clued-up commentators and shrewdly observes multiple angles to the story. Nothing anyone has to say is intended to convince you that this was a transparent process, or even, in fact, a race.
Clark is dignified and resilient in the face of loss. She can always congratulate herself on having had Preston on hand to mine her disappointing experience and discover in it the fuel for future fire.