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Veterans of Love and War

In a new documentary, New Zealand women remember the passion and ache that came when World War II shook up their lives.

June 02, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

The seven women who star in "War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us," a documentary directed by New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston, are surprised to find themselves the subject of a reporter's attention. None had any previous experience in film, and with an average age of 80, they figured they'd missed their shot at a movie career. Their innocence of notions of fame and performance, however, is key to the charm they bring to this film, which opens Friday at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Simply structured as a series of on-camera interviews, "War Stories" essentially consists of seven elderly New Zealand women talking about love affairs they had during World War II. These being love stories, of course--and particularly love stories set during wartime--they involve death, separation, betrayal, reunion and children.

Meeting at the Brentwood home of the New Zealand Consul General with Preston and her seven subjects--Pamela Quill, Flo Small, Tui Preston, Jean Andrews, Rita Graham, Neva Clarke McKenna and Mabel Waititi--one arrives as the women are wrapping up a breakfast of toast and vegemite. The day before, they were given a tea at the home of comedian Phyllis Diller; today they tackle the Universal Studios tour, and all seem to find Los Angeles quite glamorous.

Though none of the women had met prior to Preston bringing them together for her film, they learned in fairly short order to relate to one another like sisters; they all tend to talk at once, are clearly devoted to one another and disagree with one another often and loudly. One thing they agree about, however, is that the stories they tell for Preston's camera continue to be painful despite being 50 years in the past.

"Time really doesn't heal wounds, nor would we want it to," says Small, who married an American soldier who was killed in the war, as were her two brothers. "The ghastly things that happen to us are part of what makes us who we are, and we wouldn't want those memories to fade because they're precious. Most women love one man. Yes, you can love another--there's just one you really love."

Adds Waititi, a Maori woman who lost several family members: "Being involved with this film brought back so many memories of my mother.

"The men in our family were all off at war so I spent most of my time with her, and I remember her sitting in her bedroom with her prayer book, crying," continues Waititi, who worked in a New Zealand post office for 30 years and had a hand in the raising of 41 children.

"I wouldn't have done this film 25 years ago because my husband was still alive then and I wouldn't want him to hear what I said," interjects McKenna, who was in the military during the war and was raped while stationed in Italy. "My husband would've been horrified to hear about my rape episode--in fact, he never knew about it."

"Nor would I have hurt my second husband by having him hear me talk about my first husband," says Quill, whose first husband was killed in action in England.

One of the most surprising things to surface in the film is the controversy surrounding the presence in New Zealand of American soldiers--a controversy that basically boils down to the fact that New Zealand women loved the Americans, and the men hated them.

"We had real trouble finding women for this oral history who wanted to talk about anything other than the American boys," says Preston, who selected these stories out of 57 war tales collected through word of mouth and as a result of an ad she ran in a New Zealand newspaper. "Just as thousands of New Zealand men left the country to go to war, thousands of handsome, reckless American soldiers with plenty of money arrived in the country.

"New Zealand women loved the American soldiers because they were so much softer than New Zealand men, who were very macho then," continues Preston, whose mother, Tui Preston, is included in the film. "The American soldiers were a liberating force for women, and they created a generation who never returned to the roles they'd played as women prior to the war."

Adds Small: "The worst part for me was after the war--in fact, I considered drowning my child and committing suicide in the years following the war because I was so depressed. I'd married an American, so my mother and I were treated like dirt. I lost two brothers and my husband in the war, but the Americans refused to give me a pension because I was a New Zealander, and New Zealand wouldn't give me one because I'd married an American."

Nor was the anti-American prejudice restricted to New Zealand. "I was stationed in Italy in the '40s, and as soon as we arrived, the New Zealand soldiers there told us they'd knife us if we dated Americans," recalls McKenna, who has a career as a fiction writer.

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