Amanda Robertshawe intentionally uses film to challenge prejudice and conventional stereotypes. “To be able to use film to do that,” she says, “presents challenges and also responsibilities”.
Since leaving state television in 1990, Robertshawe has directed documentaries, educational and corporate campaigns, plus commercials for both broadcast and the web. In each medium she has often bypassed conventional voiceover narration, in order to let the talent tell their own stories. Though Robertshawe finds working without a script a much greater challenge, she likes “the resonance which comes with the more intimate results.”
Robertshawe studied journalism at Wellington Polytechnic, then began three years of in-house journalism training at the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, including working on the network news and regional shows like The South Tonight.
The value of keeping the camera rolling while a story unfolds became clear to Robertshawe one hot afternoon in 1976. Rushing between TV1‘s Christchurch newsroom and the Gloucester Street studios, she noticed a policeman peering into a pet shop window. Robertshawe grabbed a film crew, returning in time to capture an altercation between the shop owner and an SPCA officer, over heat-distressed animals. Assault charges followed. She argues it was the first time film was used as evidence in a Kiwi court case. The experience taught her to always keep her eyes open for potential material, and that “actions can speak much louder than scripted words”. The item went on to win the Television News Award for that year.
Robertshawe really began learning about film direction after moving to TVNZ’s General and Special Interest department. Three years as a reporter/director on Country Calendar further opened her eyes to how pictures can be used to tell a story — “although, these days I would say I’m a sound-driven director!”
Her storytelling skills were also honed crafting news stories for the young audience of junior current affairs show The Video Dispatch. In 1990 she won a Media Peace Award and Medical Journalist Award for a Video Dispatch segment on ostracized, HIV-infected child, Eve van Grafhorst.
Robertshawe followed this by winning awards in the U.S. for two safe sex projects. The second, Is There Anybody Out There, combined a humorous script by Michael McDonald and Alan Brough, with interviews from mature tertiary students, passing on their wisdom to the younger target audience. The film screened at tertiary institutions for more than a decade.
Acclaimed 1999 documentary My Name is Jane is a project she won’t forget. While making a video for the Mary Potter Hospice, Robertshawe met cancer sufferer Jane Devine (who both appeared in the video, and composed music for it). Robertshawe and director of photography, Wayne Vinten, recognized her potential as a documentary subject, but thought Devine too ill to commit to a film.
However, Devine herself suggested making a film before she died. Lacking time to secure a broadcaster or a budget, the project was given support by the local film industry, enabling the crew to record the last months of Devine’s life (NZ On Air funding later aided the film’s completion).
My Name is Jane won two repeat screenings within four months of its debut; internationally, specialist festival Input voted it one of the 100 best public television films of 1999, and won a prize a medical film festival in New York. Robertshawe also received an NZ TV award for best documentary director.
The Dark Side of the Moon, which screened on the Inside New Zealand slot in 2001, traces the story of a former heroin addict whose middle class profile refused to fit the stereotype of drug addicts living on the wrong side of the tracks.
Robertshawe was a director of production company Ultimate Productions for more than a decade, alongside producer/director Michael McDonald. There, alongside other projects, she co-produced doco Lyn of Tawa - In Search of the Great New Zealand Male. Both with Ultimate and her own company, Teacup Productions, Robertshawe has continued to use her editorial expertise to create and direct documentaries for corporate campaigns and TV commercials. Among them are projects for the Retirement Commission, and 60 x 30 second commercials for Quitline. “It is possible to make 30 second documentaries,” Robertshawe says, “however, it’s very exacting and the restrictive duration can be exasperating at times.”
Robertshawe feels her skills enable people to tell their own stories on-screen. “I feel the words are more potent, and poignant, coming from the talent themselves, so why would I write words about them?” Memorable imagery helps make difficult topics more palatable.
For Robertshawe, film involves collaborating with “some very talented colleagues”. She is keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with the job. “It’s highly subjective: the subject matter and the talent we choose, the crew, the interview questions we ask, and most of all, the decisions at the editing bench — all these components result in a highly subjective process.”
Keith Harrison, ‘Jane’s final tribute sad and moving’ (Review of My Name is Jane) - Otago Daily Times, 24 April 1999
Michele Hewitson, ‘The shattered respectability of an addict’ - NZ Herald, 27 June 2001
Paul Thompson, ‘Jane’s story an intimate tear-jerker’ (Review of My Name is Jane) - Waikato Times, 24 April 1999