If you watched the news during peak-Covid era, you’ll probably recognise Siouxsie Wiles. The pink-haired microbiologist was a very public face during the pandemic, deconstructing the science behind the virus for those of us who didn’t know what a genome was. She did over 2000 media interviews in two years; made graphics for The Spinoff with cartoonist Toby Morris that were seen by millions on social media; won the Supreme Women of Influence Award in 2020, and the New Zealander of the Year Award in 2021.
Now she’s the focus of a documentary about it all. Ms. Information, directed by Wellington-based filmmaker Gwen Isaac, is a series of encounters between Isaac, Wiles and Wiles’ family across a two year period – starting before most of us could imagine we’d be stuck inside for the next few months.
It’s a time capsule of sorts, one that sits you down alongside the scientist as she experiences the wave in real time. You’re there as she runs a makeshift call centre from her home, and builds a Lego haunted high school in lockdown with her daughter. You’re there when she’s accosted by conspiracy theorist and failed politician Billy Te Kahika Jr in a hotel, and when she becomes the target of abuse and death threats.
“Being the subject of a movie wasn't really on my bingo card for life,” says Wiles. Making a movie about Wiles wasn’t on Isaac’s cards either. In early 2020, the filmmaker was Tokyo-bound to film a short documentary on an MMA fighter. Then the murmurs of Covid started, the Japan trip was cancelled, and Isaac had to find a new subject. “It was suggested to me that I check out this pink-haired woman with dimples who was predicting a pandemic coming our way,” she says.
Wiles’ prediction wasn’t based on a whim. She’s got a PhD in microbiology, and has spent years studying infectious bacteria by making it glow in the dark. She’s also dedicated a huge portion of her life not only to scientific research, but the communication of it. Wiles has blogged about science, made art shows about science and was Radio New Zealand’s science correspondent. “My research doesn't end with a jargon-filled, peer-reviewed publication,” she explains. “My job ends when everybody who can benefit from understanding that research understands it.”
“I just knew that Wiles was a worthy subject for a cinematic feature,” says Isaac on the decision to keep the cameras rolling, and turn her short film into a full length one. “As a filmmaker, you've got to fall in love with your subjects, because – especially in documentary – you're looking at three years of quite an intimate relationship of trust.”
This trust was born from a few parallels in their lives. They’re both the same age, both mothers, and crucially, both excelling in fields dominated by men. “It's very hard for women to get the breaks to be creative leaders in filmmaking. It's really stacked against us,” says Isaac. This resonated with Wiles, who’d experienced similar barriers. “I could appreciate that, being a woman in science. So I agreed to do it,” Wiles says.
Half the reason trust is so necessary is the physical practicality of letting someone in your house for extended periods of time. “I'm not a fly on the wall, I'm a sentient being,” says Isaac. “I’m in her house, she's feeding me, I'm using her toilet, and probably breaking her toilet,” she says, laughing.
Arguably the harder part is relinquishing control of the story that’s told. “No self-respecting documentary filmmaker involves the subject in any aspect of the making of the film,” Isaac says, “because that's where you get Taylor Swift documentaries and puff pieces.”
Instead, Wiles had to let go. “You hand yourself over to somebody,” she says. “I didn't know what the film was going to be, I guess, as Gwen didn't know what the film was going to be either.”
The film that emerged is often harrowing, with Wiles becoming the target of extreme and weaponised misogyny. She talks to a lawyer about videos featuring threats to knock on her door and “start crushing these f....rs,” alongside images of a spit-roasted pig. Her email, address and phone number are leaked online. She’s targeted by alt-right YouTubers, conspiracy theorists, people who take personal offence to a woman having pink hair.
“As a woman who's used social media, I've come across haters before. But nothing, nothing like what has happened here,” she says. “I just can't unsee some of the stuff I've seen online directed at Siouxsie,” adds Isaac. “Some of it's just too awful to use in the film.”
Wiles is quick to point out that the abuse extends beyond just social media. “When we just think of it as an online issue, we're doing ourselves a disservice,” she says, pointing to the recent election campaign, in which Te Pāti Māori candidate Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke’s house was broken into twice in one day. “The question is, at what stage do we try and intervene?”
Another question is how to intervene. “We need to be talking to the people around us who are becoming more angry, and potentially more violent,” says Wiles, also noting that countries need to put legislation in place “so that these platforms are not able to do what they're doing, which is driving wedges into society.”
As Isaac says, “Every one of these abusers – they're part of our community. They're in our world. And we're responsible for sorting this out collectively.”
It’s no secret the pandemic – and vaccines and lockdowns – spawned a lot of hate and anger. But Covid didn’t invent misogynists and abusers. It did, however, contribute to a climate that emboldened them to be very loud, very aggressive and very blatant – Wiles is astonished that so many people targeting her signed off with their real names, or used work email accounts.
“I thought this was our time to really expose that darkness that's inherent – or was bubbling under the surface before the pandemic – that the pandemic gave them the reason to really get stuck in,” says Isaac. “It's a story for our times, really, because – Siouxsie is unique for sure. But she's not alone in being attacked for being a woman, and for not presenting as a traditional authority figure in a crisis.”
Wiles was, after all, not the only woman to get abuse for their role in the pandemic. A recent study found that Jacinda Ardern “faced online vitriol at a rate between 50 and 90 times higher than any other high-profile figure.” At least eight people have appeared in court for making death threats towards her. And while there’s a place for critical thinking and discussion about some people’s hesitancy around vaccines and lockdowns, this kind of abuse goes far beyond that. If anything, it negates the opportunity for nuanced conversation.
“We're hoping to convey a sense that Siouxsie’s a professional,” says Isaac, “but it's definitely more than any human should have to bear, being accosted like that online, with the threat of it extending to [someone] maybe entering your home.”
For Isaac, making the film painted a picture much bigger than the pandemic. “It's really catalysed for me that we're not the progressive, gender equity-driven nation that we think we are in New Zealand,” she says. “We're just as susceptible and vulnerable to bullshit narratives that make people afraid of women being in power.” She did her research, too – flying up and down New Zealand during the two years of filming, interviewing a huge range of people across the country for the documentary.
Still, it’s not all bleak. Many people are extremely grateful for Wiles’ work, and Isaac says there have been a fair few Wiles superfans at the screenings they’ve had so far. Wiles herself maintains a remarkably optimistic perspective. As she says in the film, she’s a glass-entirely-full person (the ‘empty’ part’s still filled with air).
“There's clearly something about the way that I'm made up that makes me an optimist rather than a pessimist,” Wiles explains. “But there's also other circumstances, and for me, that’s being surrounded by amazing people who support me 100%.”
Those people are her daughter, Eve, and partner, Steven – the light in what could otherwise be fairly dark narrative. “She's a woman with a team behind her who believe in her,” says Isaac. “And at some cost to themselves, I must add.”
It certainly wouldn’t be easy watching your mum or partner be so viciously targeted. And they weren’t exactly raring to star in a documentary about it all. “They’d both have been quite happy not to have been in it,” says Wiles, “which again just shows you how amazing they are.”
The hard part now is getting people to see the film. “The real challenge for a film in New Zealand on general release is trying to get New Zealanders to watch their own stories on the big screen,” says Isaac. But it’s crucial we do, she continues, “because if we don't, we're going to lose our identity.”
If this film is anything to go by, that identity isn’t one we should be entirely proud of. Because while our Covid response reportedly saved 20,000 lives, it also exposed and galvanised an increasingly angry, resentful side of New Zealand – one that’s prevalent as ever, as we’ve seen in the recent election campaign period. “I think it's ended up being quite an important story for us to reflect on,” says Wiles. And it is. One worth watching on the big screen.