M, 97 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Taking a group of professional women on a three-week cruise combined with a leadership workshop was an inspired idea. No doubt about it. The trip to the exquisite, endangered wilderness of Antarctica would be a reminder of what science was fighting for.

The journey would offer a fundamental reset for the participants who had been selected from the fields of science, engineering, technology, mathematics (STEM) and medicine.

It was designed to help them become the sort of the leaders they ‘hoped to be’, honing the skills necessary for contributing to meaningful and necessary policy change around the world.

Course leader, Fabian Dattner, had lofty hopes that were even underpinned by a great quote from poet T S Eliot. The prominent businesswoman, leadership consultant, and self-described dreamer, has a background in corporate consultancy.

No doubt the women participating who paid $30,000 each for the trip, had high hopes too. In 2016, they were the first tranche of a program that is now established and ongoing.

The opportunity to film this maiden voyage burgeoning with possibilities fell to Australian documentary filmmaker, Ili Baré. The writer and director was to make a record of the inaugural event aboard the Argentine-based icebreaker, Ushuaia.

Multi-award winning photographer Peter de Vries was also on board. His location vision would be interspersed with cinematography from director of photography, Dale Cochran, who covered the group interaction.

I was all set to go too, up for virtual adventure, when at one of the early group sessions, Dattner upbraided the late arrivals.  The public ticking off for professional women and the manner in which it was done is uncomfortable viewing. Where were we headed?

As the plot thickens, the images of pristine snowbound wilderness are unspeakably beautiful. High-angle drone shots as the Ushuaia ploughs through the ocean were magnificent, but the images of life beyond the events onboard are ultimately, inevitably, too few.

The small representative group that writer-director Baré has selected to be the film’s focus include a wildlife population modeller, an environmental scientist, a climate change activist, a soil scientist, a krill biologist and a science communicator. We learn of their particular workplace issues, and get a sense of their career journey before and beyond the film timeframe.

participants urged to allow transformational change to propel them forward

From time to time, there are intertitles with juicy facts such as female participation in STEM careers after having children. The global gender pay gap, the percentage of publications in female-driven scientific research, and more confirm the inequities for women in their particular fields.

One of the participants reported her experience of sexual assault when she was the only female among 40 men at an isolated site. A disturbing percentage of the women reported sexual harassment, even assault, in the field.

Dattner’s leadership style and philosophy begin to come into question during these sessions. At her insistence, the women should delve into themselves in order to let go of stuff that had been ‘holding back’ their careers, and allow for the ‘transformational change’ that could propel them forward.

the wonder of the wilderness failed to divert from difficulties on board

Some of the participants pointed out there were other ways of looking at structural inequality in their chosen fields. It was not just up to them to fix things. Some of Dattner’s responses to their criticisms are startling.

It becomes painfully clear that Dattner’s mentoring style and conceptual approach do not sit well with the women in science. By the time the cruise has reached the seas around Paulet Island, she was being seriously challenged.

Through the portholes, whales could be seen breaching the sea surface and penguins were tumbling into the water as the Ushuaia travelled past, but the wonder of it all failed to divert from the difficulties on board.

As a strategy facilitator observes, the leader did not have the capacity to manage what had come up. A clinical psychologist was installed for subsequent cruises.

This maiden voyage of the Homeward Bound project was certainly not an unqualified success. But it grew an international network and that is definitely a positive outcome.

At a time when leadership is on everyone’s mind, when the contrast between different styles couldn’t be more stark, there is growing interest in observing women in leadership roles.

It’s a pity this doco, though released at a timely moment, does not tackle the really big issues that are involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2020