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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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Me-khloola copie3.jpg

Assyrian wedding, Dohuk, Iraq 2011

Helen [left] with an Assyrian woman dressed in

khomala (Tyari tribe traditional costume).


Assyrian house, Tel Kaif, Nineveh, Iraq 2013

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 5.30.11 PM cop

Displaced Yazidi boy, Kurdistan 2014

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


Assyrian New Year, Dohuk, Iraq 2014

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


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

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