New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Kicks Off Inclusion Summit With Call to Action

Courtesy of the New Zealand Film Commission
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Power of Inclusion Summit

The world's youngest female head of state — famously a working mom, too — also gave a brief shout-out to local hero Taika Waititi while championing New Zealand's leadership role on issues of representation.

New Zealand's inaugural Power of Inclusion Summit got off to a rousing start in Auckland Thursday morning with an opening keynote speech from the country's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the world's youngest female head of state.

Ardern, a hero to progressive thought leaders at home and abroad, took the stage to raucous applause from the assembled audience of 600-plus screen industry professionals from around the world.

"Our world is rich and diverse and we need to see that reflected in both of our industries, and we need it reflected both onscreen and behind the screen as well," she stated. 

The two-day Power of Inclusion Summit is set to feature over 60 speakers from various areas of the entertainment industry, many of them people of color, women, inter-faith, indigenous, LGBTQ+ or people with a disability. Some of the bigger international industry names brought together by the event include Oscar winner Geena Davis on behalf of her pioneering Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, director of Disney's upcoming live-action Mulan; Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard; Gen Z activist and Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi, and Philippa Boyens, the Oscar-winning co-writer and producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; among many others.

Prime Minister Ardern began her event-opening address by acknowledging that her professional experience is rooted in a field outside the realm of entertainment — i.e., politics — but that the problems all arenas are facing are often the same.

She shared an anecdote from her first year as a member of New Zealand's Parliament, when she attended an event alongside male colleagues and was presumed by the organizer to be an assistant, and then was asked to prepare tea for the all-male group.

"It's fair to say that that is actually one of my tamer anecdotes," Ardern added, "and the one that makes me cringe the least of all when I think back to that time."

"We all have such yarns," she explained, "but what we need is to get to a time and a place when they are just that: stories confined to history books, where our industries are places we would never hesitate to tell our kids to be and to work, because we know they will be valued."

"That surely is our collective aspiration and our collective goal," she said.

The PM then shared a quote from U.S. activist and writer Rebecca Solnit: "We are as a culture moving onto a future with more people, more voices and more possibilities. We live in a time when traditional modes of storytelling and content production are being disrupted, and ultimately that is happening because we need that disruption."

Ardern followed the quote with a hat-tip to a hometown hero.

"There's perhaps no better example of this than the fact that a film in which an actor/director of Maori and Jewish descent playing Hitler recently received standing ovations and won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival," she said, referencing New Zealand indigenous filmmaker turned Hollywood heavyweight Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), whose latest feature JoJo Rabbit, from Fox Searchlight, has emerged as an early 2019 Oscars favorite.

The prime minister noted that the New Zealand Film Commission has made myriad improvements in supporting female filmmakers and Maori storytellers onscreen — the country's representation statistics consistently exceed international averages.

"But I would be doing everyone here a disservice if I don't acknowledge that we're coming off a low base," Ardern added. "As we all know, there are still many barriers to women entering and thriving in your industry, and I'm sure there'll be much discussion here around how to create a fair and equitable playing field for all."

"That does need to start with the notion of safe working environments; addressing unchecked power imbalances; and the basic principle of everyone being treated with respect," she emphasized near the end of her remarks, drawing more applause from the crowd.

"As with most industries, we should also speak frankly about the issue of the gender pay gap," Ardern said. "While the New Zealand film sector has one of the lower gender pay gaps in the world for full-time workers — at 9.3 percent — any pay disparity is unacceptable and, frankly, completely unjustifiable."

The Power of Inclusion Summit is hosted by the New Zealand Film Commission and Women in Film and Television International, with support from The Walt Disney Studios, the Motion Pictures Association, and others.

The international speakers and guests attending the Summit were welcomed Wednesday by the Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei, the Maori tribe whose ancestral land is mostly located in Tāmaki Makaurau, the site of present-day Auckland. The Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei are close collaborators with the New Zealand Film Commission on the hosting and organization of the Summit. Maori language, songs, greetings and customs are interwoven throughout the event in a frank and equitable manner. 

The event's keynote speakers — including Yara Shahidi (Grown-ish), Magda Szubanski (Kath & Kim, Babe), Niki Caro (Whale Rider, Mulan), actor and director Rachel House (Hunt of the Wilderpeople), and Hollywood's Franklin Leonard — were among the guests treated by representatives of the Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei with a pōwhiri, a Māori welcoming ceremony involving speeches, dancing, singing and finally the hongi (the traditional Maori greeting performed by two people pressing their noses together). The pōwhiri was held on the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei's marae (traditional meeting ground), which overlooks the stunning green coastland of Waitematā Harbour.