Annie Collins: Forging her own path in film industry

Toi Mai celebrates inspirational women for International Women’s Day.

Film editor Annie Collins has been single-minded and determined in her nearly 50-year career as a Kaiwāwāhi Pikitia, which has seen her work on diverse projects such as late Māori filmmaker Merata Mita’s Patu! and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Annie is both sensitive and tough. When asked to talk about a highlight of her career, she becomes emotional and says: “there have been the times when I have cut tributes for friends’ funerals, including my brother’s, and for me, those are terribly important uses of my skills because they have raised profound feelings in people I care about.

“Some of the films I have done still make me weep, I can’t watch them without weeping. Patu! [about the 1981 Springbok Tour] is one, and the reason I weep is for the courage of people.”

While, she has succeeded as a woman in a tough industry, Annie doesn’t have much time for feminism. “My driving force, besides wanting to be the best that I can be, is te Tiriti o Waitangi, it is not feminism because that is a white privileged concept in this country – and I have little time for it.”

Annie attributes her strength of character and ability to take risks to her mother, who would never let her children call it quits: “. . . that is what drives me when my desire takes me to a certain place and leaves me on this f***ing cliff!”

Going it alone

Married at 20, Annie, the seventh of seven children who achieved in their fields, came to realise that she needed to prove herself and felt that she couldn’t do that with “the shelter” her husband gave her. “He was a VERY good husband, but I wasn’t a very good wife,” she laughs.

She enrolled at the School of Design at Wellington Polytechnic (now CoCA, Massey University) and discovered a love for editing when making a short documentary for a visual communication paper.

In those days, TVNZ, the National Film Unit and Pacific Films offered career pathways, particularly in editing for women: “In NZ, women have been viewed as being good at editing because we have nice delicate hands!” but Annie wasn’t able to get a job.

Her tutor Pat Cox was just starting the first independent film editing service in Aotearoa and offered to train her if she could support herself.

“He didn’t have any money, but he had an editing bench for film, and he’d hired a room. I worked three jobs and he trained me during the day. About 18 months later I was laying tracks on Sleeping Dogs [1977],” she recalls.

Women in film

After working on several feature films, the early 1980s saw the beginning of a productive working relationship with Merata Mita and Annie’s love of documentaries blossomed.

“I’m very passionate about documentaries because they are not scripted. A documentary documents what is happening at that moment in front of the camera. And if a director hasn’t really thought about why they are making the film and the different levels within the subject, then they cannot actually be in the right place to roll the camera at the right time.

“It’s something that I think Merata was superb at – she was totally committed to the subjects that she made films about. She was also an extraordinarily driven individual, because the kaupapa that you work with in a documentary is nation-changing, and there’s a huge responsibility that goes with it,” she explains.

Annie was thrilled to mentor the editor on Hepi Mita’s documentary about his mother: Merata: How Mum decolonised the screen. She says the film illustrates the toll the industry takes on relationships – particularly for mothers.

“Women didn’t have opportunities as directors – Gaylene Preston coming through shortly after I started had to really scramble for that. In terms of balancing family and career and really having to carve her way in it, she’s a better example than I am.

“I didn’t have any children and in many ways I have reached the position in the industry that I have for two reasons: I have no children and I only ever had a $20,000 mortgage and Lord of the Rings paid the last of that off. In many ways in this industry, it’s very difficult to make your way in it unless you are single-minded and very driven.”

Changing world

The film industry was a different world when Annie started out in the 1970s and learned the trade through her apprenticeship and hands-on experience. She says the industry is crying out for skilled people, but currently they don’t have the skills required to hit the ground running.

Which is why she is working on the Government’s Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) Screen Industry working group.

“This year with RoVE, I’m working towards getting apprenticeships in place across the industry. We desperately need good on-the-job training. In my area we are short of very well-trained assistant editors – it’s highly technical and they’re in really short supply, ” she concludes.

For more about Annie Collins, see Annie Collins | NZ On Screen.