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Filmmaker Tony Sutorius on Helen Kelly's last stand

Helen Kelly. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

The director of a new documentary on Helen Kelly writes about capturing the final chapter in the union leader’s life.

It was a cold, desolate West Coast day. My memory insists on that much, although it’s probably not true.

Outside Formerly the Blackball Hilton, a crowd has gathered around a huge mounted wooden wheel, gently turning as those left behind by the Pike River disaster put flowers into the name plaques of their men. A choir sends shivers down everyone’s spines, then goes quiet. A hundred people, bearing witness, not wanting to stare, are struck silent. There’s a knot of men in suits, the dignitaries, the representatives. A dozen or so. There’s a deep unease among them, a rustle of foot shuffling and arm crossing. Carefully serious faces. There has been no direction, but instinctively they all stand tightly together … left, right, unionist, politician.

Everyone except Helen.

She’s sitting on the grass, with Pike family members on either side of her. They could be at a family picnic. From time to time, they exchange quiet comments. She looks thoughtful, and she smiles unself-consciously.

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Maryanne is staying over at her friend Helen’s Mt Victoria house with her Tokoroa whānau, here for AC/DC’s Wellington concert. They’re a loud, happy bunch; everyone is having a good time and beers are flowing. Helen is learning about racing cars.

Right after her husband and their dad, Charles, was killed, damaged beyond hope by a log slung into his head by a forestry machine working near him in the early-morning darkness, people from home warned Maryanne not to talk to “that Helen Kelly”.

Whatever their reasons for saying this, they should, perhaps, have guessed the effect it would have on a vulnerable but tough Maryanne. She did reach out, even as rudderless as she was, tossed by such a huge grief that you can still often see it wash over her years later.

She is sure she’ll carry the weight of this forever. Just as she still carries Charles’ ashes, neatly packed in a small black suitcase. I ask her later, how do you feel about Helen? “I just love her,” she says, simply and with complete conviction.

There are many jobs in which you professionally encounter people in deep distress, people with huge problems, and those of us who do these jobs know two things for sure: it feels good to help, but you must be careful to maintain boundaries. Otherwise, you might get sucked into their vortex of pain. You have to keep a separate, private place to retreat to. A professional detachment. An appropriate work-life balance. Everyone knows this.

Everyone except Helen.

With rising alarm and increasing self-consciousness, I found myself watching her walk into these fires over and over again, apparently unburnt. What did she have that we didn’t? What did she know that we didn’t? I knew I’d found my film.

Kelly with Tokoroa widow Maryanne, who lost her husband in a forestry accident in 2013. Photo/Supplied
I first met Helen in the early 1990s, when I operated the camera for an interview that Al Barry was doing with her for his seminal 1996 documentary Someone Else’s Country. She was young, stroppy and oddly self-possessed.

In the years that followed, we crossed paths now and then on the Wellington circuit. She was a fan of my film Campaign and a few other things I made, which made me happy. Every so often, I’d get one of her famous “Hey, mate” phone calls, shaking me down to give one good cause or another a hand, generally at impossibly short notice, always with ridiculously scant resources. And, as with the dozens of others she called on, I would, of course, generally wind up doing what she asked, and a bit more.

When her presence in the media increased as Council of Trade Unions (CTU) president, and especially when she discovered social media, I began noticing her voice cutting through many controversies with a distinctive, singular quality. Whatever the subject, whichever the area of policy, somehow she never sounded as if she was talking about policy at all. She always sounded as if she was talking about lived lives, breathing people. To me, there was no one else, left or right, who could authentically and apparently effortlessly describe the world in this way. I wondered, idly, how come she did, and where it might one day take her.

And then one day she was dying.

Like many, I was gut-punched by this news, really upset, surprising myself. Helen was just so alive, so fit and well and so obviously standing at the threshold of important things in her life. What the hell? And from lung cancer, when she’d never smoked? Coming as it did so soon after the tragic death of Peter Conway, her friend and former CTU secretary, it just seemed so ridiculously unreasonable that it was nearly impossible to believe.

I met her on her first morning after having left the CTU. Despite the circumstances, I think she was feeling a bit anxious about no longer having a “real job” for about the first time since she was a teenager. In this, as in several other things (including her music tastes), Helen was surprisingly, quite entertainingly, conservative. It wasn’t clear what she would choose to do with the time she had left. We didn’t know how long she would live. No one could say how long it might be, so it seemed like a good idea to keep going with it. I really wanted to start filming to try to get to the bottom of that authentic voice before it was gone.

And so we did.

It’s quite a thing trying to get the rowdy, disparate elements of a film to come together into a coherent whole, to start playing a sort of cinematic music together. But as it begins to happen, a beautiful moment comes when the film starts coming to life and telling you, as the film-maker, where it needs to go, what it needs to say and, ultimately, what it needs to mean. Sometimes it speaks in its own, new language. Like the anxious parent of a wilful child, a film-maker really has no choice but to help it get there, with love and doing the best you can.

I’d like to be able to express the meaning of Helen Kelly – Together in words, because I know there are important challenges that emerge from the film and from Helen’s work and story that confront our deeply rooted perception of ourselves as New Zealanders. It questions what we really value, casts serious doubt on the justness or otherwise of our society and how that comes about.

But these are just words, and they don’t feel like enough.

To me, Helen’s work was fundamentally built from bravery and from love, and those things can’t be explained. They have to be experienced and felt. Travelling this journey alongside Helen was a troubling yet profound experience. We truly hope that Helen Kelly – Together will bring it alive for you as well.

Helen Kelly – Together has its world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington on July 28 before further screenings there and in Auckland (from August 2), then heading to NZIFF events in other centres.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.