No Ordinary Sheila
Toby Woollaston views a film about one of NZ’s lesser-known but more interesting figures, and emerges from the cinema with a deeper understanding.
I went into No Ordinary Sheila not knowing anything about the titular Sheila Natusch. Thankfully, her cousin and the film’s director, Hugh Macdonald, knows a thing or two about film-making, so within no time I was hooked into the life-story of this natural historian, illustrator and writer who has lived a life less ordinary.
This documentary tells the story of Sheila’s life, from her early years growing up in the deep South to the present day in Wellington. The film is littered with fascinating anecdotes: her friendship with Janet Frame, cycling the South Island top to bottom and climbing multiple mountains. It illustrates an admirable woman who has sucked the marrow out of life and can easily be considered a genuine slice of Kiwiana. There is a veritable nostalgic vibe to Macdonald’s film that sits perfectly with a life that is rooted firmly in New Zealand’s great outdoors.
Interviews by Kim Hill, Susan Hamel, Dinah Priestley, Shaun Barnett, and Ken Scadden, among others, provide the structural backbone to Macdonald’s film, all of who seem content to gently prod the nonagenarian for stories. I suspect she could have handled some tougher prodding, though, as it is apparent that Sheila possessed a defiant skill of stoically holding emotional responses at bay. Throughout her interview, she remains guarded when pushed on sensitive subjects such as her brother’s death, her ailing health, or being that last surviving member of her family. Her response can only be described as consummately practical: “…Oh, you just get on with it.” And her thoughts on going into a rest home? “Bugger that … double bugger that!”
The homegrown amateurish nature of Sheila’s artwork and research appropriately comes through in the film. Thankfully, Macdonald does not get too caught up in the artifice of filmmaking and lets Sheila’s story gently spill out through her interviews and some well-researched archival footage.