By Corazon Miller
Walking into the front yard of a house on the side of Christchurch’s Cashmere hills, I find Kathleen Gallagher, peace activist, poet, playwright and environmental film director lying stretched out across her sofa.
Situated in an ideal setting, under a small alcove beneath her house, surrounded by the untamed shrubbery and a shining sun – it’s the perfect image of someone living the story she tells.
It is clearly evident this successful documentary maker immerses herself in nature, in reality, just as much as she does on the films she makes.
Kathleen who is Christchurch born and bred began her rise to prominence as a film maker in the early 2000s. In recent years her films have taken on a strong environmental focus that challenges the norms we have come to accept in modern living.
The first in her series of environmental films began with a unique poignant look at 10 New Zealand cancer survivors. He Oranga He Oranga; Healing Journeys, which received a commended accolade at the Lucknow Film Festival in India, shares these survivors’ stories and looks at how they drew strength from their natural environment.
Her subsequent films, Earth Whisperers: Papatuanuku and Water Whisperers: Tangaroa delved deeper into this environmental theme collecting their own share of accolades.
Kathleen’s latest film Sky Whisperers: Ranganui, released earlier this year, follows along in the same vein. Filmed in New Zealand’s beautiful natural setting, Kathleen and her team use simple filming techniques that create an on-screen beauty; a breath of fresh air in an industry that is full of grandiose special effects and animations.
Sky Whisperer’s starts with a haunting combination of music and swooping imagery that carries you on a journey through the earth, sky and stars. As the film continues Kathleen introduces us to a mixture of scientists, ecologists, celestial navigators, writers and astronomers, from a Canterbury academic and mechanical engineer, Susan Krumdieck, to the Nobel Prize Winning scientist, David Whitehead and the more controversial “Moon Man”, Ken Ring; who all give their view on the environment.
The film challenges us to look at the impact we’re having on the planet and urges us to make real changes to how we live and reconnect with the environment.
It is a mixture of science and what some would label as astrological mysticism – it may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it is undeniable that there is plenty of food for thought in this environmental tale.
Corazon Miller talks to Kathleen about her inspiration, the challenges and the rewards of the job.
What inspired you to look into environmental documentaries?
“Over the years the environmental theme has grown and is more implicit in my work now. I am digging deeper with it, trying to understand how to get to where we need to. We are facing too big a shift to get to the point where we are no longer poisoning the water and the air – What do we need to do to shift?
“New Zealand is fantastically poised to be green and sustainable compared to others as we have a small educated population.
“I think the government needs to try and reduce the fossil fuel consumption by 10 percent; all governments and cities should commit to this. We can make changes by designing wind and solar forms of energy at an adequate price.
“We have got all the technology we need. It is not hard, yet we still keep building the motorways. We all know that with traffic when we build more roads we get more traffic; why don’t we build more cycle ways in order to get more cyclists on the road?”
What is it that we, as individuals, can do?
“I think at the moment we have to interact more with the environment. People do live in different ways, but most of us can see the sky; it gives us a sense of wonder that things are bigger than us. Beauty can be found in the unexpected. How we can interact and protect the beauty of the environment?
“Try not to use petrol, bike to get where you are going, on the way you will be able to see a lot that you don’t see from the car. Wander through the forest and the mountain, watch the clouds.
“Pick something to grow, grow what you like to eat, learn how to grow pumpkin.
“We are often inside cars, houses, staring at screens. We don’t walk into the environment as we should, we don’t watch for changes in our environment. We rush around relating to people but we have lost touch with the earth, even when it comes to simple things such as the basic gardening.
“I think it is difficult to change, unless we change our paradigm – that is what these films I make try to do – show us how we can change.
“I wanted to find people who watched [the environment] and I did; I found them.”
What messages are told in Sky Whisperers?
“Sky Whisperers begins with a relationship with air, with people who discovered the ozone hole, with those who are working to stem climate change. The first part of the movie dealt with the problem of air pollution and what others are doing in regards to it.
“The second part is about the relationship that we do have on the land and the effect it has on our air and how we treat our forest.
“We are the last kids on the block so to speak, so we should respect what came before us [nature].
“The third part of the film looks at astronomers and celestial navigators. Celestial navigators are those who make their way across the sky by reading stars in the sky; currently there are nine celestial navigators in the Pacific. When they start on this journey they have to learn 260 stars; they go out every night to learn to read the sky.”
What were some of the challenges and rewards you faced in making the film?
“It was a challenge working while dealing with all the earthquakes because we were all dealing with it in different ways while making the film.
“But it was most satisfying to bring together scientists, businesses and people. There was such a diverse range of people – listening to them and filming them has been a privilege.”