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Interview Journalist, filmaker Irene Chapple

Flagstaff Team

The one-night, short-film event at the Victoria Theatre later this month will be another high point in what’s been a very good year for Devonport storyteller, journalist, television producer and filmmaker Irene Chapple. Her award-winning work To Laugh, To Live is top billing in the line-up of five short films on the programme of To Laugh, To Live & Other Great Shorts, on October 17. But it’s also part of a story that just gets better and better, both for Chapple and her film subject David Downs. The 12-minute film follows the incredible tale of Devonport identity Downs, who is now in total remission from a terminal cancer diagnosis after managing to gain a place on a US trial of ground-breaking cancer treatment. Downs was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2017, and after the many rounds of chemotherapy that followed that year, was told to prepare for the end of his journey. He’d run out of options for treatment in this country. But within a year, and after many costly trips to Boston for treatment on the clinical trial for CAR T-cell therapy, Downs got what he calls the “fairy tale” ending.

The well-known comedian was a very happy man, and Chapple, who’d been capturing his story on camera, was soon to have even more reasons to be very happy, too. To Laugh, To Live won the June round of the New York Film Awards for best short documentary. It has had mentions in other international awards, and when the Flagstaff caught up with Chapple at home she’d just heard that it has now been nominated for best short film of the year in the New York awards.. To the fledgling filmmaker this has all been “pretty thrilling news, when the competition are far more experienced people and they’re already successful filmmakers”. Making this short film represents a change of direction that’s turned out very well for Chapple, in a fast-evolving career through print, television and public relations at home and in London. And the story of how the film came to be made (with a few twists and turns) has not a little to do with her own personal journey, and the arrival of her daughter Evie. When Evie was born in 2014, Chapple was nearly five years into her “dream job”, based in London with CNN Television. She headed CNN’s digital business team, driving high-impact coverage of the big news of the day, and sometimes fronting her own stories. Then along came Evie. Chapple took a year’s maternity leave, and looks back fondly at those early days of motherhood, cruising around London with baby and pushchair, her return to the newsroom a happy, hazy prospect somewhere in her future, not quite in focus yet. And then the New Zealand Herald tapped her on the shoulder.

They wanted to bring her back from London to be their digital editor, and Chapple figured maybe home was beckoning. In late 2015, that job offer and the realities of raising her young daughter as a single parent, brought her home. Chapple was in that senior, high-pressure job for a year, but at the same time she was feeling pretty stretched, with the added role of motherhood. She switched to another high-pressure job, this time in public relations, before a few home truths about her circumstances forced a rethink. “I guess that while I was on maternity leave I didn’t really realise just how tough it would be to be working hard in senior roles with a child,” she says. “Until you have a child of your own, you just don’t understand how it is for women trying to juggle it all. But it was totally clear to me that Evie was my priority and that I was going to have to make some changes to the way I worked and lived.” Much of the solution lay with her parents Miriam Beatson and journalist Geoff Chapple, who were to play a huge role in raising their little granddaughter, filling the gaps for her hard-working mother. “I just cannot sing their praises enough. Without them and their incredible support for us there’s no way I could have done what I have in my career since my child was born. By being so much a part of bringing up Evie, they have made it possible for me to do what I do.” The formidable endeavours of mum and dad aside, Chapple knew a portfolio career of contracting work to match her experience would be the way to go for that all-important flexible working life, if she could get it all together.

So where others might have been daunted by any further pressures, Chapple threw filmmaking into the mix of things she wanted to do. Last year, she graduated from an honours-level film course at the University of Auckland, completed in tandem with her day job. As a local, she already knew about the plight of David Downs and was able to get his agreement to be the subject of her first short film. “Of course, I know that I was very lucky to have such a compelling story and such a charismatic person for my first effort,” she says. In a poignant coincidence, she notes that she handed in the completed work at the end of her university course last November, on the one-year anniversary of Downs’ terminal diagnosis. A year when so much had happened for both her and her subject.

“Until you have a child of your own, you just don’t understand how it is for women trying to juggle it all. “

Chapple grew up the middle child in a very creative Cheltenham household, where bold and colourful plans could be hatched and sometimes realised. Geoff, her father, is the founding father of the popular Te Araroa Trail – a national walkway – while brother Amos is now an internationally renowned photographer. So it was little surprise when the pull of a great yarn, well told, drew her into journalism school. She started out as a newspaper reporter, but quite early in her career she took a sidestep out of big newsrooms into a law degree. After 18 months employed as fresh young lawyer, she began to feel that journalism was her first love, and returned to writing stories. From her job as political editor of the Sunday Star Times, she began looking for new challenges and international media opportunities, and she headed for London in 2007. Her first job there was in business journalism, writing about the complexities of institutional investment. She moved on to breaking news in the Financial Times group and from there to the Dow Jones news services. Sometimes her work would be part of the daily content in the Wall Street Journal. That was when CNN offered her the sort of break she really wanted. Her time in television gave her a taste for telling stories through moving pictures.

After eight years in London, she returned to New Zealand with skills and options that would make juggling parenting and career success more viable. These days, she makes her living through public relations and contract production work for TV3’s The Project. This summer, she will complete her masters degree in film, with a project focusing on children who are born to parents from two different cultures. This, she acknowledges, has parallels with her own story. Evie’s father is British but now lives in Sydney. Wherever her filmmaking may take her, Chapple had wanted a local showing of a local story. To pull together the event at The Vic, she first had to curate the line-up of other short films. “That was the way to make it all happen here at home,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity.”

This article originally appeared in the October 04 edition of the Devonport FlagstaffDownload PDF.