Remembering Helen

There’s no question that the late union leader and activist Helen Kelly changed many lives. In a soon-to-be-released documentary, film-maker Tony Sutorius examined how Helen managed to touch so many people,
and, in the process, his own life changed too.

Helen Kelly2

Tony and Helen had made films together for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU, the umbrella body for unions including the PSA) and, like so many others found with Helen, their work relationship had led to a friendship.

When she stepped down as CTU president after being diagnosed with cancer, the two met for coffee and Tony suggested a project. “I said, I don’t know what you’re going to do now, you probably don’t know either. But I have a feeling it would be a really good idea for me to tag along and film you doing it.”

It was Helen’s unusual voice that attracted Tony. He says she had a way of talking which made issues come alive, “it sounded like they were people, instead of policy screeds.” He wanted to get to the bottom of that, and the result is this film, with the working title Helen Kelly’s Mates.

Tony explains where this comes from: “She didn’t draw a line between her personal and professional life. People became her mates. It wasn’t about an issue any more. She had mates, they were in trouble, they needed support and there she was. It felt very simple and very right, a very Kiwi way to operate.”

The film is planned for cinema release later in 2018, and the mission will be to get it screened as widely as possible. Tony wants New Zealanders to see this not just because of Helen’s remarkable work, but also because of the wider themes it raises.

“There’s a lot of deep ideas that Helen brought alive about what being a New Zealander is. We really like the idea of egalitarianism and that you should stick up for your mates. Helen showed that if you’re able to step outside your own cultural and social networks and get out into the world and engage with people, it’s still there. So if it’s possible to harness it and awaken people about what that means, it becomes an incredible tool.”

And in the process, Tony found his outlook on his life and work profoundly affected.

“It’s made me really question how I used to make these intensely emotional films with people and then say, ‘okay, that’s done thanks’. After watching Helen, I couldn’t justify it any more. I become their mates and now I have responsibilities to them.

I still play an active role in the Pike River families’ groups. I can no longer walk away.”