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Career

The story behind journalist Amanda Millar's stunning tribute to social advocate Celia Lashlie: Celia, the documentary

Amanda - with the help of her daughter Tennessee Mansford - had the task of capturing the heart and soul of Celia Lashlie in just 100 minutes of screen time.

There were two productions that changed the life of former 60 Minutes reporter Amanda Millar in 2018, and one of them is asleep, wearing a pink tutu.
Tiny Augusta Smith, at four weeks old, has run the gauntlet of emotions available to newborn babies during the course of her Australian Women's Weekly photo shoot: rage, sleep, adorableness.
Held in the arms of her mother, Tennessee Mansford – Amanda's 28-year-old daughter – throughout the shoot, Augusta's arrival in December was the bookend of a momentous, brave year for Amanda, who made her big-screen directorial debut for the documentary Celia, about the life, work and unexpected death of her good friend and social justice advocate Celia Lashlie.
The documentary became the hit of the New Zealand Film Festival late last year, referred to as "compulsory viewing" by one critic. But it was something of a miracle it was made at all.
At the end of 2014, Celia, a tireless campaigner and something of a New Zealand icon was, at just 61, diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. She was given, best case scenario, 12 to 18 months to live. But life doesn't always deliver a best case scenario. Shortly after her diagnosis, Celia contacted Amanda, whom she had met some 15 years earlier when Amanda interviewed her for 20/20 about her work in women's prisons.
The pair had formed a lasting friendship. Celia, a private person, allowed Amanda into her inner circle and Amanda became dedicated to Celia both as a friend but also a force for change, someone who had the ability to shine a light on New Zealand's darkest realities with a combination of clarity, hope and never, ever judgement.
So it was only right that the pair would reunite for what would be Celia's final extraordinary work.
Celia planned to dedicate January 2015, the month after her terminal diagnosis, to spending time with her beloved family: her grown-up children Rebekah and Gene, and her five grandchildren. After that, she and Amanda would start filming a documentary of the last year of Celia's life. But Celia's condition deteriorated rapidly; she was exhausted, in pain, swollen from cancer and the strong drugs she was on. It looked unlikely that any filming would ever take place.
Then on February 14, 2015, Amanda got a call from Celia's daughter Beks: "Get here, and bring a camera."
Social justice advocate Celia Lashlie, who died in 2015.
What would follow was a remarkable piece of footage lasting just an hour and a half, where the social rights advocate laid bare not only the joy behind her life's work, but the toll it had taken on her. It was the final interview she would give; the following day, Celia was too sick to be interviewed and then on the night of February 16, she died.
Looking back, Amanda believes Celia knew on the day of their interview that it was going to be her final opportunity o speak.
"I didn't allow myself to think 'this is the last time,'" Amanda recalls.
"I thought, 'She's a strong woman, who knows? She could be here for another week, another two weeks, another month.' But I know now, in retrospect, that she was so determined to have that opportunity to say what she needed to say, that this was the very last thing she needed to do on this planet, in this life, to know that she had delivered and fulfilled the wish she had to make that film."
The Celia documentary, and its timely message about the power of the matriarch, would also be one of the biggest projects that Amanda and her daughter Tennessee would work on together.
In 2011, after more than 30 years working as an award-winning investigative current affairs reporter, Amanda set up her own media communications company. It was around then that Tennessee had first started in journalism, a career choice Amanda initially warned her off taking, because the times were changing.
"I love the industry, I think journalism is an amazing opportunity for anybody and I knew Tennessee would be very good. But I could see that if she wanted my lifestyle, if she wanted the opportunities that I had, she wasn't going to get them."
"I'd seen Mum on the road with 60 Minutes and 20/20 where she would get to spend weeks, months, sometimes even years at a time on a story," Tennessee recalls. "And she was absolutely right – that was not the landscape I went into."
As a young journalist, Tennessee did very well. But the ever-dwindling resources found in modern media meant that the time to do long-form investigative reporting was almost non-existent.
It was while covering the 2014 rape and murder of Auckland mother-of-three Blessie Gotingco that Tennessee found herself increasingly unable to leave the grim details of her day job behind her when she got home each night. She had also just completed a yoga training course, where part of the learning was about listening to her body.
"I realised I was absolutely exhausted and very unhappy… so I said, 'Stuff it, I'm done.'"
Amanda, meanwhile, was "suffocating", as she puts it, running her own business. She had plenty of work coming in, but not the people to help manage it. Her husband John – "always a very wise advisor" – suggested she put together a job description of what she was looking for and Amanda quickly realised that Tennessee, who she knew was unhappy in her current role, ticked all the boxes.
The deal was done – the mother and daughter, who are very close, were suddenly working together. They are both quick to point out that at the start it was a learning curve for both of them.
"There were moments in the first year, where I would look at Tennessee, and she would look at me – we've both got very transparent faces – and I would know that I had really pissed her off, or vice versa," Amanda says.
"And there were moments where I would have to say to her" – her voice drops to a low, mildly terrifying register – "'I won't always be your employer but I will always be your mother.'"
The pair joke as they retell this, with Tennessee adding that during those initial months, she was also living at home – so mother and daughter were together basically 24 hours a day. Quite the test for any relationship, but once they sorted out their new workplace dynamic, they were away laughing.
"It's been amazing," Amanda says. "I think about it a lot, because I don't think many mums and daughters could work together. And I know that I'm not easy…
"I'd been on my own as a journalist for so long. I'm so in my head, I forget to articulate the information to the people I'm working with. But a couple of months after Tennessee came on board, we did the whole rebranding thing, we got a website… it was very grown up!"
Three generations: Amanda, Tennessee and baby Augusta.
And then, of course, came Celia.
The pair worked tirelessly to get the documentary up and running; Amanda as the producer and director, Tennessee taking on a variety of roles, including production manager, actress, publicity and marketing.
"I could not have got through the biggest experience of my life without her," Amanda says. "It was an incredibly emotional process."
The exhaustion and relief of not only completing the documentary, but having it be a critical hit, still feels raw for Amanda. There are occasional tears during our interview, which she chastises herself for – "Stop it! Half a glass of rosé and look at me…"
The documentary is both beautifully uplifting and also very, very intense – and that's only as a viewer, not as the good friend and journalist who had the task of capturing the heart and soul of Celia in just 100 minutes of screen time.
Watching someone who knows they are dying talk about their life and regrets makes for extraordinary and almost uncomfortably intimate viewing, particularly when Celia admits she believes she brought her cancer on by not listening to the warning signs it was giving her: "I've learnt, but I've learnt too late. My body is broken."
"That was Celia in a very rare moment of vulnerability," Amanda says.
Amanda and Celia's friendship spanned 15 years, after they first met for a television interview.
It is a difficult moment to watch, but offers something we rarely see – the cost of being a crusader.
"She never, ever stopped," Amanda says.
Because of her constant, ground-breaking work with prison reform, at-risk families, domestic violence and raising teenage boys, Celia was inundated with correspondence from New Zealanders seeking advice for their own situations – and she would personally reply to every single one.
"I would say to her, 'You can't do this!' I knew that giving that much to everybody would be a consuming and counter-productive thing. But that level of loyalty, generosity and wisdom she had – she wanted to help every single person. She felt it her responsibility."
This became a mantle Amanda took on by not only agreeing to make a documentary, but then having to turn one interview into a full feature.
It was an incredibly intimidating prospect.
"I had this tiny piece of film; what the hell was I going to do with it? Where was the money coming from? The networks didn't want the documentary I knew Celia wanted to make; they wanted it to be all about raising boys and middle-class families."
Amanda and the team at work on the documentary
Celia's mission had always been simple: turn to the mothers.
"At the heart of my being is the plight of women," she says early on in the film.
Because when it came to raising children, or helping reduce New Zealand's hideous domestic violence problem, Celia believed we were too busy judging or talking over women instead of listening to them and asking how to help.
The documentary had to reflect that, as well as showing Celia's deep love for her own family. It was a tall order, made even more challenging when the subject of the documentary died about a year earlier than anyone expected her to.
"Putting a big-screen production together was completely outside my comfort zone," says Amanda. "There was a moment where I just looked at it and thought, 'I can't do this. It's not working.' I hit a wall – I was tired and emotional."
Amanda reached out to some independent film-makers for feedback on the documentary and where she needed to take it.
"The universal reaction was: 'This is an amazing story, Celia's incredible… but you have to tell the story as a friend, not as a journalist.'"
It was, Amanda says, a hard shift to make.
"Right up until that time, I'd gone into default mode, thinking, 'I'm the journalist, I'm going to tell it this way and I'm not going to be involved.' But I realised I had to listen to these people; they know what they're talking about. So I completely redid the cut and started shooting more stuff. And that's how we managed to finish it."
Before Amanda showed the film at the New Zealand Film Festival – "I think Celia was the last film they accepted, we worked right up until deadline to get it in on time" – there was an even more high-pressure screening to attend. It needed to be seen by her financial backer.
Amanda had gone on Radio New Zealand in 2017 to talk about the project and had mentioned that they needed funding. One of the listeners was millionaire businessman Garry Robertson, a father of four sons who had been heavily influenced by Celia's best-selling book, He'll Be Ok: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men. After a conversation with Amanda, he decided to bankroll the entire documentary.
"Garry's support was fundamental to me and throughout the whole process he kept saying, 'This has got to be f**king powerful, Amanda. You have one chance to do this; I've never done this before, I've put my money into this.'"
On the night of the screening, Amanda was so nervous she sat as far away as she could from Garry.
"I don't think I breathed for the full 100 minutes," she laughs. "At the end there was this silence and I, like some kind of frightened five-year-old, asked, 'Garry…?' He took this big inward breath and said, 'I asked you to make it powerful, but I had no idea. I am so honoured and privileged to be a part of this.' I could see the tears on his face and I just started sobbing… I knew I had done what I needed to do.'"
For Tennessee, watching her mother spend night and day for years on end working on this project was both incredible and challenging.
"I had never seen someone work so hard, and while it was super inspiring, there was a part of me that was like 'slow down, listen to what's happening'. It looped back to that final quote of Celia's [about not listening to her body]. I'll never forget that quote."
But it was Celia's message about the power of mothers that really resonated with Amanda and Tennessee. For all her accomplishments and the social change she brought to oft-ignored parts of New Zealand, the roles Celia was most proud of in her life were those of mother and grandmother.
"It was quite an emotional thing," says Tennessee, "because I was pregnant and about to become a mother, and I was touring the country with my own mother. It was so special, and something I'll definitely tell Augusta when she grows up."
"It was so tumultuous, getting the film out there, into the film festival and seeing the response," Amanda agrees.
"But what made everything the best it could be was the lid Tennessee put on it by giving birth to Augusta. It was like the two biggest productions and they all moulded into one. This little baby was the best way of ending such a year… I couldn't have dreamed of anything greater."

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