‘Life changing’ doco screening in New Plymouth

Unionist Helen Kelly fought for workers’ rights until her dying day. Brittany Baker caught up with filmmaker Tony Sutorius who documented the last year of Helen’s life as part of The New Zealand International Film Festival’s visit to Taranaki.

Hi Tony! Thanks so much for chatting with me.
You’re very welcome.

Helen Kelly – Together follows the last year of Helen Kelly’s life. The synopsis makes me think I’ll cry when I see it. What was the inspiration behind this film?
Well my last film was a comedic documentary, so this is really quite different. I knew Helen. She was, I guess you’d say, a friend. I met her while filming in the 90s. We saw each other from time to time for about 20 years. It was really weird she was dying, and she didn’t even look sick.

“She would be friends with anyone. It could be the Prime Minister or the person who made her a sandwich…”

I sat down with her the first day after she left the CTU (Council of Trade Unions). I thought she would be okay for me to hang out with a camera. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

Furthermore, she was doing really really important work. The work was totally significant and the clock was ticking. It was a bit of a race to see what she could do before she couldn’t do anything anymore.

I didn’t realise Helen was your friend, which makes me think it would have been difficult for you. What was it like filming Helen in that last year of her life?
It was actually really lovely to spend some time with her. She was the same as ever. She was a really lovely person, actually. People have always had this feeling she was a nice woman, and she really was. I felt very lucky about filming her, and kind of a sense of responsibility to bring something out of it all. The film is giving people a synthetic feeling of spending some time with her.

At the end of it, I had 150 hours of material. I filmed all sorts of stuff. She spent a lot of that time working – I’d say majority of that time. What I found is, she sort of naturally gravitated to the things that had been in her life for a while but she didn’t spend time on. A large slice of that were people who had been killed at work. It ranged from forestry workers to the Pike River disaster. New Zealand seems to not be able to bring justice to that. It isn’t right. You see that when you see the film. There seems to be something broken.

Helen Kelly – Together is headed its way to New Plymouth. Where else has your film screened?
The film premiered in Wellington a few weeks ago. It did very well in Auckland as well. It’s going to Christchurch and Dunedin next week. It’s in the festival (NZIFF) but we certainly hope to release it on a larger scale to reach all of New Zealand later on.

What has been the reaction to your film?
I’m hopelessly self serving (laughs) – it’s been amazing. The reaction in the room is quite astonishing.

“I felt very lucky about filming her, and kind of a sense of responsibility to bring something out of it all…

It seems like your film really highlights an issue here in New Zealand. Are you hoping your film will inspire change or motivate people to make a difference?
My job is to create the film and for others to pick it up and do something with it. The things people admired about Helen, and what I admired about her, just seems like New Zealand culture. Everyone was just important as everyone. She would be friends with anyone. It could be the Prime Minister or the person who made her a sandwich. You would think that that’s a very New Zealand way to operate. But the way she went about it was not normal. For me, it really left me thinking about the way I operate in the world. What are we okay with in New Zealand?

What I took away filming Helen, people might have their different ideas on how certain resources should be redistributed in society, but we should all agree on basic justice. If someone dies and never comes home – that should be investigated. But that doesn’t happen in New Zealand.

Tell us a bit about your film crew…
Well I shot the film alone. But for this film, there’s been a wonderful group that’s become a part of the story to help me shape it into the film it is today. They’re all professionals who work in film. The editor is actually my godfather and uncle, but luckily he’s probably one of the most senior editors in New Zealand. The filmmaking scene in Wellington has really stepped up and helped, and come behind this film.

If you could see Helen one more time, what would you like to say to her?
I really wish Helen could have seen what happened at Pike River after she died. After she died, they did a bunch of tricky stuff. It was only four weeks after she died that the family found out the company was planning to pour cement to seal the mine. The families were inspired by Helen’s support and they found a whole level of strengths and bravery, and stopped it and won.

It wasn’t clear when Helen died whether the baton had passed. They really stepped up and started to take that load.

“I really wish Helen could have seen what happened at Pike River after she died…”

But there’s still a real need for people to take an interest. A lot of people really hold back. There’s really very little help for workers in the forestry industry, which I really regret. You know since Helen died, there’s been 235 more workplace deaths. We basically ignore it. It’s like the weather – it’s always been there and we almost expect it to be there. Our statistics are hinderous. They think there is some organisation that looks after this sort of stuff, but there isn’t.

Is there anything else you’d like say?
Everyone said Helen made them feel braver, and I was interested to hear what that was. One of them was she made it okay for them to laugh and have a good time; that it wasn’t always serious. The film is quite fun at times. It’s sweet and it’s fun, and she was a really cool person. It’s life changing. It’s certainly changed mine.

  • Helen Kelly – Together premieres September 8, 9 and 12 at Event Cinemas. For more information or to purchase tickets: click here!