Julia Parnell: Award-Winning Producer and Filmmaker

  • Julia Parnell

Julia Parnell: Award-Winning Producer and Filmmaker

By |2019-11-14T03:30:37+00:00November 1st, 2019|Arts & Culture, Community, Events, Interviews, New Zealand, Women of Impact|

As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Julia Parnell is an award-winning producer and documentary film director. Her films and television series include The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps, Drug Court, Arranged, Both Worlds, Wilbur: The King in the Ring, Restoring Hope, and Anthems: New Zealand’s Iconic Hits. 

She is co-founder of Loading Docs, which has supported over 100 filmmakers to create short documentary films amassing 9 million views worldwide since 2014.

Currently, Julia is working on a documentary of New Zealand band SIX60

BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG

It has been an interesting year. I just turned 40 in February. I have been thinking a lot about where to go from here. Connecting with you, and reading all these different things, it is such good timing for me.

Transformation is at the center of the Women of Impact program. Having turned 40, maybe you are looking at a transformation in the journey you are on. Can you speak to that? 

I started my production company 10 years ago. I think life goes in seven-year cycles—certainly when I look back on my life.

I have really expanded as a documentary director of feature films. I fought for a long time to get the opportunity to do that and now I am doing it. That opened up so many places in my heart and in my brain and in my inspiration. Now it feels like, where to from here?

It is starting to become almost impossible to remain a producer in New Zealand. The industry is fractured; this week we are all dealing with the fact that one of our major television broadcasters— that I have made a lot of programs for—could possibly go under.

These are fractured and challenging economic environments. Fractured in terms of audiences, economic in terms of…there are a lot of other things we need to be spending money on— fixing poverty, trying to right wrongs from the past, all these things.

Meanwhile, I have my little company. We are trying to make TV programs and documentaries, and to support other people. To make a documentary involves trying to figure out where I sit and at the same time having this transformation of my own sketch self and my own credibility.

You are describing what I am feeling; we are facing this transformation of our world, and of our communities, and then ourselves. As a storyteller, what kinds of stories should we be telling each other? What narratives do we want to promote?

I think there are two paths to that question. There is the sort of academic policy producer side of me that has an answer. And then there is the storyteller, what-story-am-I-looking-to-tell, side.

From the producer’s perspective, especially with Loading Docs, the funding provided supports mentorship to enable other people to tell stories.  It is about creating spaces for people to learn how to grow, from all different perspectives. It is about having courage as a white woman of some influence. And realizing you have some ability to create opportunities for other people. It is up to me, the people around me, those within the funding environment and the government to really stop and say: we can bring the right opportunities to the right people.

We can begin to have different perspectives. We can bring untold stories to the surface or tell familiar stories from new perspectives.  We just had a really big summit in New Zealand about inclusion. A lot of women storytellers, LGBTQI, and indigenous people of color were included. Within a broader context, how do we create space for their voices?

We really need to give opportunities to people to learn. I do not know that you can come in and say I am going to break the platform. It does not change overnight. You have to learn, and learning also does not happen overnight. We have educational opportunities.

You have to remember in New Zealand, the government funds the programs, documentaries, and drama we make in New Zealand.

When I started, it was within a special fund where work was shown off peak, I think 10:30 at night on TV. It was like a documentary comedy. There was not heaps of funding, but it was risk-taking. You do not see those opportunities anymore unless they are online. But you have to make those spaces available, so that people can grow and learn, because there is no particular story we should be telling.

We should tell  the stories that somebody really believes they have to tell. Every time you put an idea, if it really needs to be made, it will get made. There is no judgment.

We have to give a lot of different kinds of people opportunities they haven’t had before.

That is an interesting comment. I think that is a good way of looking at it—there should be no judgment to what story needs to be told.

I try and help people, and I am also looking for my own ideas. I can say that when there has been an application, even though I know that it is a good story: there is a good character, it is telling a perspective on life that maybe should be told, it will not succeed unless it really has someone’s heart in it.

Everything I have had funded is because I put my heart and soul into it, because it has to be made.

You can see it on a page. You can see it when someone has pitched this at you. The stories that get told come with energy. It does not matter who you are or if it is a woman’s story, a man’s story, an LGBTQI’s story, an indigenous story, if you have a good perspective, one that is different. If you have huge energy behind it, the determination to get it funded, and the drive to get it up and finish it, it will happen.

That is hopeful at least.

Well, but at the same time, I also know my own work with Loading Docs. We say, well, why are we not getting applications from the Pacifica communities? While there is a very big Pacifica community in New Zealand, we are not getting any applications.

Why is that?

Because they probably do not think that they can. They have not seen themselves telling stories. It is just a small handful.

How would they even learn? You mentioned being prepped for it and the importance of education. How do they even have opportunities? Through schools?

There are schools and there are some good industry organizations that run specific programs. But you have to go into some of those communities. The Maori community and the Pacifica community are very different.

So we have to go out and find them. Reach our hands out and say, here, I have got a space for you to tell your story. I will give you some advice. I am going to tell you if you have got a bad edit; ultimately, you can do what you want. There has to be a bridge film. That is what I mean in terms of us producers. We can not just say, hey, you can just tell a story because you are a woman. We have to say do you have any ability to tell the story? If not, how can I help you tell it?

Tell me a little bit about what story are you still looking to make, personally?

Until now everything has really been in service to making something in a way I felt made us better and made a better society. That has not changed at all.

I look at what is the point of making this? As I seek bigger audiences, I think back in my massive catalog, and I think about how many people have actually seen my work. Right now, I am in an edit on my most commercial work ever.

I have never made anything as commercial, but it is about New Zealand’s biggest band. Because music is a big thing for me. The band is SIX60. They are like the [rugby team] All Blacks of New Zealand music. Five guys: an interesting package of people where sport, and music, and extremely driven ambition all come together. They were not very connected as to how to be better people, even though they had lots of time. 

What is the status of the film?

I am putting an edit on it right now for at least the next year. It has been quite hard. I remember when the opportunity came along. I had to really pitch and battle to be the person who got to tell that story,

The band sold out the biggest stadium in New Zealand: 50,000 New Zealanders came to watch them play. Ed Sheeran is doing that. In New Zealand, there would be about five other international artists who would come to New Zealand and sell out.

How did you land this gig?

I have been doing music stories quite a bit. It is news, actual music. It is just one of the driving forces of my life. I am fascinated by lyrics. I find artists and musicians fascinating, because of the way that you have to express yourself through a song by going on stage. What that means to create.

Music is the embodiment of creativity, because it connects so directly with the listener, straight to your emotion. As a narrative storyteller, I can use music really well to communicate.

When you show a musician’s story, it can be even more powerful. Some might even say that I might be the preeminent music documentary maker.

But I do not like sports. I do not like pop music. Nobody asked me if I liked SIX60. I have yet to really listen to their music much.

But you do now, I am sure?

[Laughs] But now I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.

Part of the reason I was chasing it is because, apart from Lorde, they are the only big, big, big, New Zealand music story I could tell.

In doing that, I was researching and developing it; I started to get fascinated by these guys. Suddenly I realized that they have a lot to say about what it means to be a man in New Zealand.

What it means to try and figure out how to communicate. What it means to have really high goals, but to try to stay humble. What it means to try to care about other people when you are actually ego-driven.

I can make this feature film that potentially a lot of New Zealanders will want to see.

Well, at least 50,000.

[Laughter]

I could maybe play a part in the film in a changing society where men are willing to communicate how they actually feel. Now, that seems pretty exciting.

I really think that is part of the problem too. That it is very hard to be a guy nowadays, because their roles have changed so dramatically in society.

It is hard for men to find their place. I actually feel that there are more resources for women than for men, and there are not good role models when we switch on the mainstream media.

I agree. And this whole all blacks thing, this rugby culture is through the whole film. In a way this band was founded on the rugby field. That very macho, committed to this drinking and comradery, that is where they come from. It has evolved out of that environment.

The last two, three films I have made have been about men. I am choosing to do this. My gift is to engage emotionally and bring something out of people that they would not have usually said, that is probably my gift. I can present male stories in a way we have not seen before.

Vulnerability.

What have you learned, from especially following the band SIX60, about yourself?

Interestingly, because they are so driven, they did the 50,000-concert sell-out. They then announced the next 50,000 in a concert and have gone on to sell that one out too. Just being around people who are so committed to having an authentic voice in their art, to consider how they can do things better and who have goals, which are worldwide, has really pushed me to think about the scope and the potential for what I could do in my life.

Which is kind of coming back to what I said at the very beginning about t transformation. Once I got to this stage, is there any reason why I can not start to make films internationally? What is the pathway to moving out of what I have been doing all the time?

All of the steps are not yet in front of me and I am not sure what the future will look like. But SIX60 really made me think about how to fulfill my true potential, because that is what they talk about all the time. I hope that is what the audience takes away from it as well.

Where do you think that that is coming from for them?

They all watch films about their background. We spend time with their families. There is something within each of them that made them recognize they wanted something more than the circumstances from which they came from. There was something from their families. I think their families each gave them sort of permission in one way or, either challenge them, or had expectations of them.

I think I identified with that.

In what sense? Can you give me an example?

It is a feeling, not really specific. It is a feeling of not quite. Success comes in many different forms. Some people are more driven to push to the edges.

They are interested in understanding that in themselves. They probably feel their failures, and failures drive them to learn more in order to have more success. I am one of those people as well.

Who has made an impact on your DNA, the way you tell stories and are an entrepreneur?

I am an only child from my mother and father. My father has had two boys since me, but my mom brought me up by herself. So it was just mum and me.

She gave me a lot of room to be myself, just had no judgment, and really encouraged me. But that is not entirely it, because I thought I would be a producer or production manager. Nobody would have ever said that I would end up being a feature film director and an entrepreneur.

Why not?

We would have to ask them. I do not think anyone expected a lot from me. 

Why was that?

I was not very good at school, and I did not go to university.

School do not corrupt your creativity. That is a good thing!

[Laughter]

I can not spell very well. I thought I was a good organizer. My mum and dad are really good organizers. My dad, he is British, is quite entrepreneurial in some way. He seemed to be a bit of an adventurer. I was born in Kenya and he lived in Africa for most of my life. Now he lives in Turkey.

I had an opportunity to travel. Other people do not have the opportunity to travel in the ways I did. I was able to go to Africa and experience that, which obviously opened my mind to other ways of living.

That made a big impact.

My husband is really important in terms of inspiring me, because he is in the music business. He has allowed room in our lives for me to pursue this work. Pursuing the work has often meant six-day work week, lots of 12-hour days, and lots of time away.

Especially when you are an entrepreneur, it is so hard to ask for help. But you can not succeed unless you have that network of support.

I think about that a lot, because I do need a lot of support. Also the people who work for me, they need a lot of support too. The balancing act of being a good boss who is providing the space for people to be their best selves, but also the framework for the best quality work. Then at the same time battling through my own existence to create.

What advice do you have for filmmakers who are starting out or people who are very interested in storytelling?

It is good to remember it is not about you, it is about the people letting you enter their world. As documentary makers, 99% of it is about the people being open, letting their guard down enough.

As a documentary maker, you can fish out their emotions, their secrets into their world. I say it at the Loading Docs filmmakers; do not be embarrassed about asking a question. Because you just do not know what answer you are going to get. You have got to be brave and keep asking why.

Why is the most powerful tool that we have as documentary makers and maybe as humans, right?

They do not need to like you. They just need to be respected and to know you are genuinely curious and dedicated to making the film. The most important thing is to be humble; again, it is not about you.

It is about the work, and it is about the people. Making documentaries is an ill-advised career really, so your heart better be in it!  [Laughs.]

It is the lowest budget; it takes ages. Most of the time you are just fishing. You know you are there trying to catch the best shot. You have to really appreciate that privilege.

We as documentary makers have the opportunity to tell stories that give our audiences an opportunity to understand the world or understand the many, many different people and perspectives of the world. That is the key thing at the moment.

Do you have a documentary that changed you?. I’m wondering what the ingredients are for a story to make people not only think but take action?

I really do have a moment when things changed for me. It was just a television documentary on TV One,Saturday afternoon. It was a refugee story about Tampa off Australia in 2001. The Australian government refused asylum to Afghani refugees. This was before things really blew up with what we are at today facing the overwhelming displacement of people.

The television documentary was not flashy, but it broke my heart. Then I found out that you could volunteer to be a refugee support person. I started working with a family from Burma; that was over 15 years ago. The family is still very much in my life; we had a lot of ups and downs.

But their journey, that experience somehow told me that I should really commit to telling stories. I suddenly went from thinking I am the producer to wanting to be there, to catch that story and tell it with my lens.

That was the moment. I have told so many migrant and refugee stories.

I have connected with Achmed, a Sudanese New Zealander. He really wants to tell his own refugee story. He came to me and I thought, he is having trouble getting it out, and I think I can help him.

But I apologized to him in a way because I was doing it over the last ten to 15 years. I was able to do it with a little bit of naivety, which we can’t afford now.

Also because he is still learning, there is no room for him to take time to do it softly. He needs to push even further than I ever had to. He should have been the one telling that story. So hopefully he is somebody I can help to do it in a novel way.

It is what they say: you get more out of it than you give, don’t you?

You do not know where things will take you, which is why you have to keep pushing back.


Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8, 2019.

impactmania’s Women of Impact program received a U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.

For more information: [email protected].

 

 

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