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No ordinary Sheila


Sheila Natusch was no ordinary woman.

So, it isn’t surprising that a documentary made about her life is no ordinary film.

Directed by her filmmaking cousin Hugh Macdonald, the feature-length documentary is set to screen at Masterton’s Regent 3 Cinemas on Sunday September 17, and Monday September 18 in conjunction with the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF).

Sheila Natusch was born in 1926 on Stewart Island to the Traill family.

She died a week after the film on her life was premiered at Soundings Theatre, Wellington at the start of August, but two days before, she had managed to see the completed film on a big screen at the Paramount with the support of an oxygen bottle.

The capacity audience gave her a spontaneous ovation when NZIFF rep Lindsay Shelton announced that Sheila was present.

Sheila will be remembered for her success as a New Zealand writer, illustrator, historian, and naturalist.

Macdonald, who will be coming to the Masterton screenings to be involved with Film Talks Wairarapa, said one of the challenges in making the film, No Ordinary Sheila, was collating and finding some of the best of many activities and achievements that Sheila did in her lifetime, “and sorting them out into a form which would play in under three hours – because she has done so much”.

Producer Christine Dann, an experienced researcher and writer, spent many months putting together Sheila’s life story from her published works and letters.

Macdonald said growing up in the deep south led to an adventurous resilience in Sheila, which saw her climb multiple mountains, cycle from Picton to Bluff, and write dozens of ground-breaking natural history books, including her magnum opus, Animals of New Zealand.

Featuring historic footage of the lower south in the 30s and 40s, his film offers fascinating glimpses into Sheila’s life as one of few female students at Otago University, and covers her friendship with Janet Frame and their subsequent and unsuccessful foray into teaching.

Sheila lived until very recently, without car, TV, lipstick, or alcohol, planning to “get the last bit of fun out of life that there is.”

Macdonald said the best advice he could offer budding filmmakers in Wairarapa was to simply get started.

“If somebody wants to make films, the best possible thing they can do, apart from going to some good film schools, is to actually start on their own films,” he said.

“It could be a little documentary on how your sister’s guinea pig died when it had only been in the house for two days.

“The most important thing is to have a really good story that can be turned into something very interesting on screen.”

He offered up another piece of advice which was to avoid being “put off by naysayers and people who can’t see the vision you have”.

“Just keep going until you’ve got what you like.”

Macdonald said he started filming as a high school student on 8mm film.

“I was practicing doing all kinds of things including stop motion, animation through single frame exposures… but nowadays it’s so much easier, because everything is there and it’s instant.

“The film doesn’t have to go away to be processed in a laboratory.

“Just get in there and do it.

“If you have some talent and imagination, you’ll find something happening.”

No Ordinary Sheila will screen at 3.30pm on Sunday, and 3.45 on Monday.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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