Leanne Pooley has argued that a good documentary shares many features with a good fiction film — including "characters that you identify with", and a story that encompasses shifts in tone and pace. Pooley could have added to the list 'finding fresh ways to show what happened'. She has used 3D recreations to portray Edmund Hillary's conquering of Mt Everest, and animation to portray real life soldiers at war. Her hit film about entertainers The Topp Twins merges concert movie with decade-spanning documentary.
Born and raised in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Pooley emigrated to New Zealand in 1985 after meeting her future husband. Her first experience of directing documentaries was on TVNZ's First Hand series in the early 90s, which set young filmmakers loose with their own video cameras. Pooley's work included episodes on prison chaplains, struggling farmers and mental health care.
Pooley really "found herself as a filmmaker" after relocating to Britain. Over five years she worked on projects for the BBC, Channel 4, and various American networks. Based in London but often on assignment, she directed documentaries which screened in 100+ countries, covering everything from genetics to papal elections. Six-part series Deadline went behind the scenes of an English regional news channel. Eyewitness - Pond & River was part of an Emmy Award-winning nature series co-produced by the BBC and PBS.
In 1997 Pooley returned to Aotearoa. A year later she launched company Spacific Films. The first Spacific production, Relative Guilt, was named Best Documentary at the 1999 Qantas Media Awards. It examines the abuse experienced by the family of convicted murderer David Tamihere. Pooley was also producing work by other documentarians: Kiwi Buddha, Peta Carey's portrait of a Buddhist High Lama, Keith Hunter's heart disease documentary The Man Who Has Everything, and in 2012, Robyn Paterson's autobiographical doco Finding Mercy.
Haunting Douglas (2003) was Pooley's feature-length portrait of Kiwi dancer Douglas Wright. She'd long been keen to make "a film about what it meant to be an artist". Variety reviewer Ronnie Scheib was one of many converts. He called the documentary "expertly crafted". "Pooley savvily incorporates conflicting agendas: He was only interested in showcasing his art, she was intent on uncovering his bio." Haunting Douglas was named Best Documentary at Sydney's 2004 Reel Dance Awards.
The following year Pooley won attention with The Promise, about imprisoned euthanasia advocate Lesley Martin. Normally no fan of so-called 'topic' films, Pooley was fascinated by "the sort of person who's willing to sacrifice everything for a cause". The Promise was named Best Documentary at the NZ Screen Awards. Try Revolution looked at how the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand impacted South Africa; it was a finalist in 2007 for Best Director and Best Documentary. The same year Pooley directed Being Billy Apple, about the conceptual artist who trademarked his own name (for TV One's doco slot NZ Festival).
Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (2009) would score more than 20 festival awards. Back home, its $1.85 million box office take catapulted it into the list of the 10 most successful local films. The documentary is built around a live concert in which Kiwi comedy and music icons Lynda and Jools Topp share stories about their career. Pooley talks extensively about Untouchable Girls in this video interview; she argues that the film is also a chronicle of change. "Every really important social change that's happened in New Zealand over the last 30 years, the twins have been part of — and in some cases provided a soundtrack for."
In October 2009 Pooley took Untouchable Girls to the Toronto International Film Festival, where her parents were in the audience. Releases in Australia and the United States followed — plus Best Documentary and Audience Favourite awards everywhere from Toronto to Hamburg and Melbourne.
Pooley was attracted to her next project because it marked her first "big epic, dramatised action film". Based on a 1914 expedition to the Antarctic, telemovie Shackleton's Captain stars Craig Parker as Frank Worsley, the Kiwi sailor who navigated a lifeboat on a rescue mission across 800 miles of ocean. Made with German and Kiwi funding, the result was nominated for Best Feature/Drama Documentary at the 2012 NZ Film Awards. Pooley wrote Shackleton's Captain with her longtime editing colleague, Tim Woodhouse.
Another film inspired by real life adventure followed. Beyond the Edge recreates Edmund Hillary's 1953 ascent of Everest via archival, 3D and dramatised footage, some of it shot on Everest itself. After its September 2013 debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Toronto Star called the film "gorgeous ... thrilling and dramatic". Pooley was awarded a Moa Award as 2013's Best Documentary Director.
25 April (2015) saw Pooley taking on another fresh challenge. The animated film tells the story of Gallipoli through the eyes of six ANZAC soldiers — it even contains animated interviews. Pooley began her research by reading hundreds of accounts from New Zealanders who went went to war. Animation allowed her "to tell the story in a more imaginative", and "palatable" way. Pooley cites scenes of blood turning into poppies as an example of how animation allowed new storytelling possibilities. April 25 was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Moa Film Awards, and Pooley for Best Documentary Director.
During the final stages of 25 April Pooley was battling breast cancer. After regrouping, she got busy on two feature-length documentaries, which would be released within months of each other. Debuting online in April 2020 after Covid-19 closed cinemas across the globe, We Need to Talk about A.I. explores where artificial intelligence might take us. It utilises a mixture of talking heads, graphics, and narration by actor Keir Dullea (who faced off against a very unhelpful computer, in classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Also debuting in 2020 (at the NZ International Film Festival) was The Girl on the Bridge. The documentary follows suicide survivor and mental health campaigner Jazz Thornton, as she seeks a way to tell the story of a friend who didn't make it.
Among Pooley's 30+ awards and accolades, she was named a New Zealand Arts Laureate in 2011 (included was a $50,000 grant to further her artistic endeavours). In 2017 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to documentary filmmaking. Active in industry affairs, Pooley has spent time on the executive of the NZ Directors Guild, and been a judge for the International Emmy Awards; she is also a member of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation behind the Academy Awards.
Profile updated on 25 May 2021
'Leanne Pooley on making docos and Untouchable Girls' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Loaded 3 April 2009. Accessed 23 May 2019
Spacific Films website. Accessed 23 June 2020
Keith Barclay, 'Toronto books 25 April', Screenz website (broken link). Loaded 19 August 2015. Accessed 23 May 2019
Linda Barnard, 'TIFF 2013: 39 films reviewed' (Review of Beyond the Edge), The Star website (broken link). Loaded 28 August 2013. Accessed 23 May 2019
Sarah Barnett, 'Leanne Pooley' (Interview) - The Listener, 2 September 2006 (issue 3460)
Jill Graham, 'New angles of view' - The NZ Herald, 20 March 1993, page 20
Shawn Moodie, 'Leanne Pooley Discusses Her Boundary-Pushing Documentary, '25 April'' (Interview) The Speakeasy website. Loaded 11 April 2016. Accessed 18 June 2020
Ronnie Scheib, 'Haunting Douglas' (Review) - Variety, 20 February 2004
'Shackleton's Captain' (Interview) - Take magazine, issue 64