Pietra Brettkelly’s globetrotting documentaries have become regulars at festivals the world over. Her work has screened at Sundance, Toronto, Venice and Berlin, and received numerous accolades.
Growing up in a family of storytellers and travellers, "an appreciation of other peoples and other worlds" was instilled early on. Pietra's mother’s family were Irish; her father’s family had links to both England and Bahrain. After studying journalism at the age of 20, she set off overseas. In the 1990s Brettkelly began freelancing for TV3 and TVNZ, and by the middle of that decade she'd begun directing on numerous shows, many arts related, including the magazine-style For Arts Sake. By the turn of the millennium she was on the road again, helming episodes of travel.co.nz, and heading to East Timor and Tibet for Intrepid Journeys.
Brettkelly was in a London pub in 2003 when she heard a beauty contest was due to take place in Libya. Her ears pricked up: the result was her first feature-length documentary, Beauty Will Save the World. Brettkelly tells the whole extraordinary story in this video interview. On location, filming a group of often terrified beauty contestants, the story got wilder when Libyan leader Colonel Muammar-al-Gaddafi offered American entrant Teca Zendik the job of honorary consul to the United States. Calling the film fascinating and briskly-paced, LA Weekly praised Brettkelly for tracking "the pageant with a sharp eye towards its implications".
In 2004 she was on location in South Sudan with Paul Henry, for an episode of Kiwis abroad series Ends of the Earth. It was there she met Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft. Visiting Sudan for an art project, Beecroft decided to attempt to adopt twins from a local orphanage. Over the next 16 months, Beecroft allowed Brettkelly to follow and film her story — although as Brettkelly recalls, there were situations when in the interests of self-preservation, she and cinematographer Jacob Bryant felt it safer not to shoot certain scenes.
The result was self-funded film The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. It premiered in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Irena Dol won an award for her editing. The film went on to win Best Director and Best Documentary at New Zealand's Qantas Film and Television Awards, plus further gongs at festivals in Canada, Switzerland and Korea. Variety reviewer Peter Debruge described it as "not a straightforward artist’s profile, political commentary or domestic drama, but a poetic fusion of the three". Vulture writer Logan Hill found it "brutally effective because it lets Beecroft hang herself with damaging quotes and appalling behaviour".
From 2007, Brettkelly worked on a series of New Zealand projects. Two-parter The Rescue of Iani focused, like Art Star, on adoption. It followed a Kiwi nurse who was ordered by the Romanian Government to return the six-year-old orphan she'd adopted in Romania five years before. A bureaucratic battle ensued. Brettkelly also produced Kim Webby’s October 15, an account of the police raids of the Tūhoe community of Rūātoki.
Māori Boy Genius was developed (and successfully pitched) during workshops at Amsterdam development centre the Binger Film Lab. The documentary follows Ngaa Rauuira Puumanawawhiti, a Māori teen from Hawke's Bay, through adolescence, time studying at Yale University in Connecticut and subsequent political activity back in Aotearoa. Originally commissioned for Māori Television, it was expanded into a feature after it became clear how much material was available.
The film was her first to get a wide theatrical release in New Zealand; ironically Brettkelly feels that she pulled her punches more than normal, fearing criticism. Reaction was positive, with Flicks' Frances Morton rating it four stars and saying of the film’s 'star': "he’s such a magnetic character that I’m already hanging out for the sequel". Māori Boy Genius also screened at both the Sydney and Berlin Film Festivals, and won Best Film at the 2012 NZ Film Awards.
The same year saw the debut of Inside Outward Bound - The New Zealand Journey, Brettkelly's documentary made for the organisation's 50th anninversary. It screened on Prime Television and included interviews with a wide range of people who had taken the course, from ex All Black Gary Whetton to actor Sara Wiseman.
In 2015 Brettkelly released A Flickering Truth, uncovering the story of three men who archived Afghanistan’s film history against the threat of the Taliban. Early on, Brettkelly tried to gain access to a near-mythical bunch of sheds in a heavily guarded section of Kabul. She is thankful for the "openness and trust" gifted to her by locals during the shoot. Brettkelly followed a team at the Afghan film archive on and off over two and a half years, as they uncovered films, some over 90 years old, preserving forgotten elements of local culture. A Flickering Truth has shown at festivals around the world, including Toronto and Venice.
In 2015 Brettkelly began production on Yellow is Forbidden. It follows "delightful" Chinese couturier Guo Pei, who hit fame after her expansive gold dress was worn by pop star Rihanna at New York's high profile Met Gala. The documentary was selected for New York's Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 (the first Kiwi film to screen in the main competition). "It’s crazy to think I’m now launching into another film where I don’t understand the language of my main subject," said Brettkelly. "I’ve done this numerous times … my mother says 'why can’t you find the person next door interesting, here in Auckland'."
Brettkelly was awarded the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate for documentary filmmakers. A year later she won an Award for Achievement in Film at the Women in Film and Television (WIFT) NZ Awards, for "creating unique, intimate, beautiful cinematic works that open a window into another world."
Profile written by Simon Smith; published on 24 March 2022
Pietra Brettkelly website. Accessed 24 March 2022
'Pietra Brettkelly: Making thoughtful international documentaries…' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 23 November 2015. Accessed 23 November 2015
Peter Debruge, ‘Review: ‘The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins’' - Variety, 21 January 2008
Logan Hill, ‘ ‘Art Star’ Vanessa Beecroft: Slammed at Sundance’ (broken link) Vulture website. Loaded 18 January 2008 Accessed 23 November 2015
Frances Morton ‘Review: Māori Boy Genius’ Flicks website. Loaded 2 May 2013. Accessed 23 November 2015
‘Pietra Brettkelly: A Kiwi in Afghanistan’ (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 6 September 2015. Accessed 23 November 2015
The Big Idea Editor, ‘TBI Q&A: Pietra Brettkelly’ The Big Idea website. Loaded 18 July 2015. Accessed 23 November 2015
Unknown writer, 'An interview with Pietra Brettkelly', The Arts Foundation website. Loaded 31 August 2019. Accessed 4 December 2020.
Review of Beauty will Save the World - LA Weekly, November 2003