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Brilliant, funny and indefatigable, Helen Kelly was a giant of social justice movements in New Zealand. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015, she stood down as president of the Council of Trade Unions, but ploughed on in pursuing the causes and people she fought for: families of Pike River miners, families of forestry workers killed on the job, factory workers – pretty much anyone who could use her help.
For the last year of her life, filmmaker Tony Sutorius was granted extraordinary access to Kelly: as she underwent hospital treatment, at home, butting heads with the bureaucracy in Wellington, and on the road. On the West Coast she rallies the Pike River families – with whose help Sutorius has secured extraordinary footage from within the mine – who refuse to be palmed off. In Tokoroa, she helps Maryanne Butler-Finlay win justice for her husband, whose death on the job had been written off as accidental.
Along the way, Kelly finds herself an accidental flag-bearer for a change in the law around medical cannabis, something which became a palliative necessity as she underwent round after round of battering treatment. Kelly’s lucid, experience-supported argument played a substantial role in leading to next year’s referendum.
Through it all, Sutorius – whose back-catalogue includes the sublime political documentary Campaign (NZIFF99) – captures the essence of Kelly: a commitment to listening to the most vulnerable and standing up to those in power. Combine that with staggering generosity, and you’re left with a legacy that will long embolden people to fight back. — Toby Manhire