Producer Christine Dann talks about No ordinary Sheila, a documentary about an inspiring woman and the power of wonder

“I’ve got books instead of babies” — these were the words of Sheila Natusch, whose cinematic portrayal is coming to the big screens in Christchurch today and tomorrow (Friday 11 and Saturday 12 August).

As the movie proves, it isn’t just books that inhabit Sheila’s world. It’s also wonder and passion for the natural world — plants, animals and rocks. This translates into writing and beautiful illustrations.  The documentary shows so much — her love for the sea and sailing, honeymoon spent in the hut under Mt. Aoraki, the fun of learning Icelandic and swimming with seals, her close and dear friendship with Janet Frame in their formative days as young writers. Got the feeling? Who needs a TV and a car if you can enjoy a night camping under the stars and a bicycle tour from Picton to Bluff?

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Sheila Natusch. Image supplied.

Sheila Natusch greatly contributed to the understanding of nature by writing and illustrating Animals of New Zealand, the first comprehensive reference guide on this subject. She carried on writing all her life, on nature and history. Sheila has her artistic talent (inherited from her mother and grandmother) to accompany her words with convincing yet soft illustrations. In 2007 she was awarded New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to writing and illustration.

Watching the movie, it is not hard to see what compelled producer Christine Dann and filmmaker Hugh MacDonald (Sheila’s cousin) to capture Sheila on film. With premieres rolling out in cinemas from Auckland all the way to Gore, they are both fully occupied these days, but Christine still found some time to reveal the backstory of this inspiring project.

When did the idea to make a documentary about Sheila become obvious and where did it come from?

Director Hugh Macdonald has known Sheila all his life and always wanted to make a film about her, as she is such a fascinating character, as well as a woman of great achievements. I knew about her achievements before Hugh introduced me to Sheila, and as soon as I met her knew she’d be a great film subject.

Sheila is such a cinematic character, her enthusiasm and love for life in all its forms is beaming from the screen. Her story and persona are perfect for a form of a film storytelling. What was your intention in making this documentary, besides portraying Sheila and telling her story (because it also is a film about nature, New Zealand, wonder, curiosity and passion)?

Hugh and I share Sheila’s love of nature and the wild places of New Zealand. We agree with her that they are a source of much joy and inspiration. In making a film about her we wanted to share some of that joy and inspiration via someone who embodies it.

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Love for the nature shines through the warmth of Sheila’s illustrations.

You produced the documentary but also contributed as a researcher and writer. How long did your research take, what were the main resources you used?

The research for the film took about nine months, but that was spread over 18 months in time as it involved going to Dunedin twice, down the West Coast, and to Southland  and Stewart Island. My written sources included Sheila’s letters to her parents in the 1940s, and to Professor Ramsey in the 1950s and 60s, plus all her published work, both books and articles. Of course I talked to Sheila a lot to check things out as needed.

Is there a funny story from behind the scenes, something that happened during filming that you could share with our readers?

There always seemed to be lots of surprises happening, mostly good ones – such as the completely unexpected delivery of a box of chilled mutton birds to Sheila’s place when we just happened to be there with the camera for other reasons  – and that enabled us to shoot the scene in the Bach Cafe where Sheila takes them to her friend Maraea to cook up for them all.

The visit of the Ecuadorian navy sailing ship the Guayas to Wellington in January 2016 was another such good surprise, even though we had to scramble hard to get the filming organised

Sheila made nature and science accessible to New Zealanders in a user-friendly and encouraging way, especially with the Animals of New Zealand. However, she was to an extent criticized by scientists due to a lack of scientific language in her works. Why do you think that happened?

She was writing at a time when the scientific community (especially the Royal Society) was trying to raise the status of science as a profession of experts who communicated largely with each other, rather than the general public. Sheila has always believed that knowledge about nature needs to be shared as widely as possible, and that means writing in non-technical, jargon-free and also lyrical ways.

Sheila is extraordinarily talented in so many different ways: she is an amazing self-taught illustrator as well as a writer, she has a great passion, understanding and an eye for the natural world, she is a researcher and an “outdoor pioneer-ess”. And she managed – it seems like all throughout her life – to nurture and develop all those talents, which must have been quite hard in those days.

Sheila is not only very intelligent, she’s also very determined, so although she was certainly knocked back and excluded from some things she wanted to do, or ways she wanted to do them, she just kept on pushing until she found a way around the obstacle.

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The film focuses on creation of two integral works: Animals of New Zealand and The Cruise of the Acheron.

Which is your favourite motto or a thought from Sheila’s wise yet witty repertoire of thoughts?

Too hard to choose! But in the film you’ll hear her say several times that you have to ‘keep on keeping on’ when challenges arise, and that’s a good advice.

I was very delighted, when I realised that Sheila quotes Walt Whitman in her introduction to Animals of New Zealand (his poem The beasts, which talks about the animals). I wonder if she ever in your conversations revealed her fondness for any other authors and who were they?

She has a big library of books on ships and sailing, and likes novels and poems about the sea and life on it. She can remember a lot of songs and poems from her early years with a sea theme, such as John Masefield’s Cargoes. She’s pretty good on Shakespeare as well.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about Sheila and your movie?

It has been very rewarding for Hugh and me to share our enjoyment of Sheila, and her enjoyment of life, through this film, and find that is (as we hoped) resonating deeply with other people.

Sheila’s story told through the camera lens is full of curiosity and wonder for nature and great outdoors that surround us. It proves that those who observe and see, will be rewarded greatly – with life-long beauty and content. Make sure you see it!

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New Zealand International Film Festival 2017

Today the Christchurch programme for the New Zealand International Film Festival was launched.

Every year the New Zealand International Film Festival screens a range of films. It’s Christchurch’s turn from 3 August to 20 August.

Literary films at the Festival

If you like movies based on books — or want to read the book before you see the movie — there are plenty of films for you at the 2017 Christchurch leg of the NZ International Film Festival. Thanks to the Film Festival organisers for providing us with some of the following information:

CoverA Monster Calls
A story-telling monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) helps a sleeping boy with his waking-life nightmares in this adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, spectacularly realised with lavish CGI and painterly animations.
Based on the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

A Woman’s Life (Une Vie)
A literary adaptation of a story by Guy de Maupassant styled with striking immediacy, Stéphane Brizé relates the tragedy of an adventurous young 19th-century noblewoman harshly judged for an unfortunate marriage.

Bill Direen: A Memory of Others
A documentary about New Zealand musician Bill Direen.
Find books and music by Bill Direen in our collection.

Call Me By Your Name
This gorgeous and moving adaptation of André Aciman’s acclaimed novel, directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), stars Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet as lovers in sun-kissed northern Italy.
Based on the book Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

CoverCitizen Jane
A documentary capturing the showdown in the 1950s between the activist Jane Jacobs and the trumpian urban planner Robert Moses: as she fights preserve urban communities in the face of destructive development projects.
Based on The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

CoverEthel and Ernest
This animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic memoir of his parents’ lives is both humble and profound, with gorgeous renderings of Briggs’ justly famous lines. Featuring the voices of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn.
Based on the graphic novel memoir Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Heal the Living
A catastrophic accident leaves one family in ruins and bestows another with precious hope in a hospital drama immeasurably enhanced by the delicate sensitivity of Katell Quillévéré’s script and the poetic force of her direction.
Based on Mend the living by Maylis de Kerangal

I Am Not Your Negro
A documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, exploring the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders.

Lady MacBeth
Florence Pugh is mesmerising as she transmutes from nervous bride to femme fatale in this bracing British period drama based on the 19th-century Russian classic by Nikolai Leskov – Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

CoverThe Lost City of Z
Charlie Hunnam makes a commanding flawed hero as British Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett in a sweeping giant screen epic, filmed with rare intelligence by writer/director James Gray. With Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson.
Based on the novel by David Grann, The Lost City of Z

No Ordinary Sheila
A documentary exploring the life of New Zealand writer Sheila Natusch who has written over 30 books including Animals of New Zealand, The Cruise of Acheron, Hell and High Water and Wild Fare for Wilderness Forager. No Ordinary Sheila is a documentary about her life, times – and places.

CoverStalker
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece, like his earlier Solaris, is a free and allegorical adaptation of a sci-fi novel, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.
See also the book about the movie Stalker – Zona: A book about a film about a journey to a room by Geoff Dyer.

Swallows and Amazons
Four children (the Swallows) on holiday in the Lake District (UK) sail on their own to an island and start a war with rival children (the Amazons).
Based on the book Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

To Stay Alive: A Method
This Dutch documentary film is based on Michel Houellebecq’s 1991 essay To Stay Alive, about struggling artists, the role of the poet, and mental health problems. It features marginal artists as well as Houellebecq and the rock singer Iggy Pop.
Read books in our collection by Michel Houellebecq

Una
A young woman arrives unexpectedly at an older man’s workplace looking for answers as to their shared past in an abusive sexual relationship.
Based on the play Blackbird by David Harrower

More information