Helen Donnelly

Filmmaker / Visual
Communications Designer
BA Art History, Film, English
Intro Cert. Design (Photo)
Foundation Cert. Documentary Film
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NZ European

The strongest drivers in my work are compassion, culture and spirituality.

I was born in Hawkes Bay NZ in the tiny rural town of Waipukurau. To escape the sense of smallness, as a child one of my strategies was to play a board game called ‘Pan Am World Jet Flight’. By playing it, I could fly to any destination in the world just by picking up a card. (Stamps, too, became small windows into foreign worlds). I remember the ‘Beirut’ card, the only Middle Eastern destination and wondering if I would ever go there; I knew there was conflict but to me that sounded exciting.

When, in my 20s, I went to see a Magnum photo exhibition ('In Our Time', 1992) I remember being jealous of the photographers - they were there when things happened; I wasn't.

 

A hobbyist photographer, my father was the one who first put a camera in my hands. He taught me to use his Polaroid camera (with black & white peel-apart film) to take my first photograph. With one of his cameras he gifted me, a 35mm Kodak Retina, I learnt how to develop photographs at high school.

 

In 1996 I graduated with a B.A. in film and art history at Victoria University in Wellington, then studied photography at Wellington Polytechnic. Being introverted and socially anxious, in photography I found a survival method - I could frame the world how I wanted to see it – with emotion, connection, beauty, colour and pattern. It gave me strength and confidence. Documentary became my favoured genre.

 

After another 2 years study for a B. Design in computer graphics at Massey University, while working at Wellington City Libraries as a library assistant I was tasked with making short videos for various promotional initiatives.

 

I already had great fondness for the refugee communities who visited our libraries, but in particular the Assyrians, a Christian minority from Iraq. They allowed me to document them with video and photography; I dived further in to absorb their culture, language and history.

 

This led to visits to Iraq, other Middle Eastern countries and to the diaspora; among many reasons, I felt I needed to personally understand why the Assyrians felt they had to flee their homeland.

 

My last visit to Iraq was in 2014. I was in Kurdistan teaching English when ISIS invaded Iraq and breached Erbil, the city I was living in. I filmed the displaced Assyrians and Yazidis (another Iraqi minority) who fled from ISIS. The experience of being a witness to a humanitarian disaster, and one created by other human beings, was unforgettable. I had achieved my goal; I had seen and felt first-hand the reasons why you would choose to flee your own beloved country, atra (Assyrian language for 'place of origin'), to anywhere that was safe and sane.

With my footage, I am part-way through making a feature documentary about my experience with the displaced/refugees, within the context of the situation for minorities in Iraq.

Having previously collaborated with my cousin Deb Donnelly on a number of arts projects through Whitireia NZ, I was thrilled to join her in forming WIA 2020. It knits together so successfully many of my loves, ethics and abilities: culture, the experience of the outsider or minority, and finding our authentic voices as creative women.

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Assyrian wedding, Dohuk, Iraq 2011

Helen [left] with an Assyrian woman dressed in

khomala (Tyari tribe traditional costume).

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Assyrian house, Tel Kaif, Nineveh, Iraq 2013

Research footage/photos of the Assyrian Christian minority in Iraq. Short documentary currently in production.

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Displaced Yazidi boy, Kurdistan 2014

A small boy rests after his harrowing escape off Singar Mountain, when his family fled from ISIS. 

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Assyrian New Year, Dohuk, Iraq 2014

Iraqi Assyrians celebrate their traditional New Year, Kha B'Nissan (1st of April).

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A Place at the Kauri Table 2019

Helen's place: Wall rosary, Zowaa Assyrian political party keyring, recipe book, map. 

Whitireia NZ - Visual Arts & Design (promo video) 2014

Whitireia NZ Visual Arts & Design Dept teaching philosophies.

Interviews with tutors: Deb Donnelly, Chris White, Owen Mapp and Brenda Saris.

Direction, camera & edit - Helen Donnelly

Fly Me Up to Where You Are 2013

Porirua high school students design prayer flags illustrating hopes and dreams. Social practice art installation by artist Tiffany Singh; one of a series included in four NZ Arts Festivals, the final in the International Arts Festival 2015, Wellington.

Screening accompanying installation/exhibition at Pataka Art + Museum, 15 August - 8 September 2013.

Awarded UNHCR NZ Certificate of Acknowledgement of Contribution Towards Race Relations.

Direction, camera & edit - Helen Donnelly