The Nation: Tony Sutorius on his Helen Kelly documentary
On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews filmmaker
Tony Sutorius about his Helen Kelly
Lisa Owen: After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Helen Kelly stood down as president of the Council of Trade Unions, but she never stopped fighting for what she thought was right. Now, almost two years after her death, a new documentary details the battle she faced during her final months — for her health and for the causes she believed in. Filmmaker Tony Sutorius spent a year with Helen Kelly. I asked him if she ever felt like giving up.
Tony Sutorius: It became clearer as she became sicker that it wasn't certain that she'd make it to the end of those battles, and they were very intractable. Yeah, she hesitated, and she had, I think, some dark moments, but she was very, very determined and a very brave leader, I think. She kept it to herself a lot of the time when she was really sick, and a lot of people really struggled to believe how sick she was when it became really obvious. So, yeah, she did have some doubts, but she didn't share them very often.
So, one of the big issues that did dominate that last year of her life was Pike River. How do you think she would feel about the way things sit at the moment with that?
I think she'd be delighted with the incredible achievements of the Pike River families. They were really inspired by her, and they were really tough in their own right anyway. After she died, I think they kind of crossed another rubicon and they decided that it was time to fight back, and they did. I knew them by then. We were mates. So it was really interesting to see that from the inside. They found another level of bravery about being judged by New Zealand and just decided to push through it. That's Helen's inspiration.
Yeah, I was gonna say, do you think that was in part because of the way they saw her acting?
Absolutely. Helen had a really strong view that New Zealand is very tough on anyone who stands up, anyone who argues back. She used to say all the time we're like a fishing village and no one wants to upset the fleet owners for fear of what might happen to them. It was interesting to watch people look at her. They would pull back a little bit because they would think lightning would strike her when she would say these things, but it didn't. And I think it inspired a lot of people to be braver.
That was probably Helen's greatest legacy, actually. Someone said it at her memorial service — she left you feeling braver.
Yeah, she wasn't afraid to poke the tiger, was she?
Not at all. In fact, she took a certain amount of glee in it sometimes, I think. She was very happy to do that.
Now, in this movie, you are hoping to use some footage from inside Pike River, the mine, that has never been seen before.
What does it show?
The footage was filmed four months after the last fire and explosion had gone out, and it's acknowledged, in fact, by the police and by the chief executive of Solid Energy that it does show a fully-intact, clothed miner. He's lying on the ground. He has his knees slightly raised. You can see the tread on his boots.
And to be clear, the significance of that is what, in the context of this?
I think New Zealanders will remember that Police Commissioner Howard Broad was saying, at the same time that this image was shot, that all they were were a pile of ashes and the families just had to accept there was nothing there and it was time to walk away. It wasn't true. If you look at these images down the mine, there's wooden pallets, there's plastic buckets, there's rubber hoses. It wasn't an inferno down here. That was simply never true.
So why do you think that this film would be the right forum to show that footage?
When you see down into the mine and when you understand the journey of the Pike River families, you understand that, in a really literal way, the Pike River miners, the Pike River 29, are New Zealand's skeletons in the closet, you know. It's this horrible example of everyone deciding it's too hard or politically, you know, just undesirable to do the decent and obviously right thing. And these families have been asked to just suck that up on behalf of the Government and the rest of us. It's horribly unfair, and it just feels obscene and yuck, and it's the sort of thing New Zealand, you would think, would never stand for. I think that's a very good way of explaining Helen's drive. It's something that she saw in New Zealand — that a lot of us like to not see or perhaps have never seen, but it's there.
And do you think that, in the context of telling her story and her involvement — because you see a lot of Helen Kelly with the Pike River family in your film — that that is why it is the right place as well?
Yeah, I think the Pike River families feel that it's the right place because they know that Helen was an essential part of their journey and was kind of like their spirit animal, in a way; she got them up, she got them moving, she got them fighting, and they're now winning, and it's because of Helen's inspiration.
She was raised by very activist parents. She had a house in her childhood that was full of people.
I'm kind of wondering, could she be anything else, having been raised in that environment?
Yeah, I think she could. Actually, there's a lot of people who were raised in similar environments from that time who didn't go on to become Helen Kelly. I think that the legacy that it left her with is not quite the obvious one. It's not just the politics that she got from that; it's actually the humanism. That's the most important thing. She was remarkable in this way. She would engage with absolutely anyone she met on the same basis. They could be a forest feller or a coal miner or the Prime Minister; they were all the same in her evaluation. That's a profound thing, because New Zealanders all think we're like that, but when you see someone who actually does operate that way, we're really not. It's a different thing.
In your film, there's a scene where there's a big fry-up. There seems to be a ton of people in her house. I think some of them are going to a concert. And I'm wondering to myself, does this woman ever separate herself from work? Does she ever go home and close the door and go, 'OK, that's it. This is me-time now'?
Perhaps occasionally, but I have to say I never saw it. I think one of the defining characteristics that Helen had was that she didn't have this big line between her private and her professional lives. I found that really, really hard to understand at first, because as a filmmaker and a journalist, you think you have to have that, but she really didn't. She allowed people that she came across in her professional dealings to become her mates. And they did become her mates, and then she just helped them when they were in trouble, and that's basically what she did. There are very few, for example, political figures who would actually have day-to-day relationships with people across the spectrum of New Zealand society. Helen really, truly did. They were her friends. That is the big difference about Helen, actually. That's why she sounded different when she spoke — because it was coming from a real, genuine, human place. She knew these people.
A lot of people will be wondering that if they were given a finite amount of time to live, which, in essence, is what happened to her, would they use every ounce of that to battle for other people, which, in essence, is what she did. Was her family happy with that? Was she happy with that — to be fighting right up to the end for all these causes?
She didn't spend every single second on it. I mean, she did— she put some time into herself and more time into her family, so I don't think they felt neglected. But, um, yeah, I mean, I spoke with Dylan, her son, about it, and he said, 'Well, that was Mum.' Everybody knew. No one was surprised. It's just how she rolled. It's probably that same thing. It's like not having that big line that, you know, when people think that if they found out they were dying, they would, sort of, leap on to the family side of the equation, and that's where they would stay. She didn't have a separate part of her life,
so she kept doing the things that she cared about.
The other thing is that you go places here in this film which have not been seen publicly before. You followed her when she had radiation treatment, and she went in to the hospital for chemotherapy. What was it like to be there? And how did she see that — having you there filming?
I mean, Helen was a strong self-advocate, and if she thought that something was kind of, you know, not appropriate, she had no hesitation at all in biffing me out. But actually, she wasn't concerned about letting me in and letting me see what it was like. It was the strangest thing. She never equivocated about how sick she was. She never beat around the bush. She would just— And yet no one really believed her, because she had just this amazing life force all the time.
She championed the use of medicinal cannabis and came out publicly and said she was using it. Did you ever see her using it? Did you ever meet anyone who was giving her the product?
Um, no, I stayed away from that deliberately, because I didn't want to create legal risk for anybody. There would have been the potential for my footage to be, you know, taken by the police if that had happened. But, you know, she would tell me about it. It was quite funny, actually. She would come home, and there would be things just piled up on her doorstep. People from all over the country were sending her all kinds of lotions and potions.
So, cannabis product, you mean?
Piled up at the doorstep?
Absolutely. And it really did— It made an important material difference. It's one of the important reasons why she was able to just keep going each day, cos she wasn't feeling sick, you know? She could eat, and she could keep working.
So, what do you think her attitude to dying was? What did you learn about that during the year?
I think she was pretty pissed off about it. I mean, you know, I don't think she was really sanguine about it. But what she said to me was that everybody dies. And, you know, in this day and age, we're a bit protected from that knowledge, and we all act surprised and horrified, but, you know, 100 years ago, everyone would've just considered it perfectly normal. So she was fundamentally reasonably accepting, but she was very frustrated that there was going to be work still to do. And she was worried that some of the people who she— who needed her help, she wasn't going to get them far enough down the track to be able to continue without her. So she was a bit scared about that.
I can actually remember her coming to be on Newshub Nation, and she was in the green room reading a book about how to die gracefully. Did she manage that, do you think?
Oh, look, I think it was, sort of, as magnificent as that experience could be. She was surrounded by love, by everybody that she knew and then by her closest family right at the end. Everything was said. And I think she had inspired the people who needed to keep fighting to do it. And importantly, she'd brought them together. It's one of the most interesting things Helen did was she brought people from Pike River to people from forestry to people from other industrial situations and got them talking to each other and realising how similar, fundamentally, their battles were and that they could help each other, particularly women. They started to really be able to step through the social barriers to say no and fighting and standing up. That was a profoundly important thing. And it was happening right around her deathbed. She was literally lying on her deathbed giving people instructions about what to do. It was funny, sort of.
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