The day after Helen Kelly left her job as President of the Council of Trade Unions, the terminally ill workers' rights advocate met with film director Tony Sutorius and agreed to let him film the final year of her life.
The resulting documentary Helen Kelly -Together captures her ceaseless efforts supporting those affected by forestry industry deaths, families of Pike River miners, and meatworkers locked out of their jobs, as well as her own journey towards death.
Sutorius runs Porirua-based Unreal Films and his previous films include Campaign, the short film The Whirling Man, and dozens of educational and training films.
Sutorius says despite her diagnosis, Kelly was determined to continue fighting and faced her illness with good humour.
“The funny thing was, the more she was direct about it, the more abstract and far off it seemed. Everyone was astonished when she actually died, even being with her in the hospice, she felt full of energy and full of life. She was an extraordinary person in that respect.”
Kelly’s father was the controversial unionist Pat Kelly and she grew up surrounded by politics. Sutorious says he believes Kelly’s deep-seated humanism stemmed from her upbringing.
“She had this remarkable quality where anyone she met, under any circumstances, seemed to be just, you know, of equal value and [she was] equally likely to have a chat with and engage with [them]. And it sounds like an ordinary New Zealand thing that we would all think ‘oh yeah, that's not that unusual’.
“I'll tell you what, you go and spend some time with someone who does it - it is unusual, and it's actually very striking.”
The film documents Kelly’s frustration at the lack of prosecutions carried out by WorkSafe, illustrated in one scene about quad bike safety - or lack of. Kelly believed prosecutions were necessary, to make anything change, Sutorious says.
“In New South Wales and Victoria they have nearly the same health and safety laws, ours were modelled on them, and they've just decided to fix quad bike deaths, and the way they're doing it quite simply, they're prosecuting farmers who don't take all practicable safety steps, we just won't do that in New Zealand.”
Kelly always had time for people, he says.
“She was involved in hundreds of things. You know, she didn't seem to have much else that she did other than work and represent people the whole time. You know, and it was, it was beautiful. She loved it, I think she got a lot of energy from it, and just felt that it was her contribution in the world.”
And in her final year he believes the process of filming her gave her the impetus to keep going.
“She says [in the film] you know, I'm living while I'm alive, and she said these are the things that energise me, they keep me going. That was literally quite true, particularly towards the end, it actually did give her a reason to stay alive and to stay healthy.”
Since Kelly died almost 300 people have died at work, Sutorious says.
“I think that there's clearly a need for the rest of us to engage with that. It's bad you know? New Zealand's does very poorly in this respect compared with the rest of the world. You are 50 percent more likely to die at work as a New Zealander than an Australian - in the same legal environment, a similar economy. There's no reason for that other than the fact that we're okay with it.
“The majority of people who die at work are poor, and brown and live in the provinces and merit a paragraph if they're lucky in the media, when it happens to them.”
Helen Kelly: Together is on general release throughout New Zealand from February 13.