Richard Prebble and Mark Thomas during a TV debate (Screenshot, NZ on Screen)

The excruciating, enduring brilliance of Campaign, two decades on

It’s one of the most remarkable political documentaries ever made, and it was produced with a single camera and next to no budget. More than two decades on, it was a key reference point for the Spinoff series Youth Wings. The Spinoff speaks to director Tony Sutorius about the legacy and message of Campaign, and why people are still watching and loving it to this day. 

As the camera rolls, the Alliance party’s candidate for Wellington Central starts to break down, while talking about the pain of defeat she knows is coming. Dana Glendinning speaks openly in a way politicians never do, revealing how hard it is to put on a public face day after excruciating day. Then the phone rings, she takes the briefest moment to collect herself, and answers cheerfully. 

It’s a small moment in a political documentary that only grows more astonishing with every passing year. Campaign, directed by Tony Sutorius, covered the wild 1996 race for the Wellington Central electorate, during the first MMP election. Along the way, Sutorius spent time slowly breaking down the walls around National’s Mark Thomas, Labour’s Alick Shaw, incumbent United MP Pauline Gardiner, Glendinning, and the campaign team around Act leader Richard Prebble, who went on to win the seat. 

But it’s not really a documentary about politics, in the sense of belief or ideology. Rather, it depicts politics as it is actually experienced by those who put everything into trying to make it to parliament. They plot and strategise and scheme, but ultimately they know that to be elected they must humble themselves before the voters. For every photo op Shaw gets with grandees like former PM Mike Moore, there were hours and days of grinding, depicted in a bleak scene when he tries to hand out fliers in the sleepy Karori Mall. 

Today, the 1999 documentary (which can be watched for free on NZ on Screen) is mostly remembered for the scene in which Mark Thomas’s promising campaign gets hurled in the trash by sitting PM and National leader Jim Bolger. That moment is still one of the few times in New Zealand’s political history when a betrayal has taken place in full view, the cold calculations taking place unspun. 

Campaign has turned out to be something of a sleeper hit over the years. Since it was first uploaded to NZ on Screen in 2014, data provided by the platform shows it typically has spikes around September and October – perhaps because for political junkies that feels like the right time of year. It was also recently showcased by MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who got Sutorius to provide commentary during the screening. 

To talk about all of that, The Spinoff contacted Tony Sutorius to ask about how he felt the film had aged, and what he reckons are the most important messages to take out of the film two decades on. 

Campaign was made at a time before many politicians had formal media training. Do you think it would actually be possible to make anything remotely like it today? 

I think it would require trust. The film I’ve just finished about Helen Kelly – she was a politician and media trained, and she was up for the same thing. I think it comes down to people having trust in your intentions, and to their great credit, all of the politicians involved did. 

Also, as an observational documentary filmmaker, it’s so simple that you can’t even really call it a trick. If you hang around for long enough, people’s media training and their sense of wanting to project a certain self just softens and softens, until it’s barely detectable any more.  

Alick Shaw waiting to see the outcome of a TV poll (Screenshot, NZ on Screen)

When you were making it, do you think the politicians realised quite how much access they were giving you? 

Richard Prebble was – and he didn’t give it to me. I remember when the premier of Campaign happened, most of them came on the second day – I think they sent spies along to the first one. They were quite anxious about it by then, and I talked to Alick Shaw about it years later, and he wasn’t proud of how he came across. In fact he was quite ashamed of it. 

What was he ashamed about exactly?

I think he was talking about what by current standards are some pretty homophobic things he said at times. I don’t think he was homophobic in his own mind, and I’m sure isn’t now. But it was a different time, and that’s one of the most interesting things watching it the other day – it was still an issue whether people were gay or not, it was still a hot topic. And it felt like it had the potential to sink political careers, which is a bit hard to imagine now. But it’s worth remembering, because it’s not that long ago. 

Would you ever think about re-editing the film, or putting in a disclaimer or anything like that, or would that defeat the purpose of depicting what it was actually like? 

My view is that it would be the wrong thing to do. I think it’s really good to actually take people into that environment. There was a fear about it, and there was aggressive gossip about whether people were gay or not, and it mattered. You know, it’s hard to get to grips with, but it’s good to do so and remember how that works. Because it may not be an issue of any substance now whether a politician is gay or not now, but there’s other things where it could be an issue now, and I think when we look back on films made today in 20 years time, there could be things that resonate in the same uncomfortable way. 

(Note: The Spinoff contacted Shaw to get his version of events, and he said he had no recollection of this conversation. He readily accepted that he said things at the time that he would not say now, while also making it clear his campaign was not behind the smears against Thomas. Shaw also said that he had strongly supported LGBT rights campaigns, particularly homosexual law reform in the 80s.)

You personally, as a filmmaker – did it help that at the time you didn’t have a lot of profile or work under your belt, to allow you to basically fly under the radar? 

Oh yeah, no doubt. There’s two ways of getting in. One is to have some kind of great credential that people are really impressed by, and the other is to have absolutely no profile and seem totally harmless, and I think I was the second one. I was also helped by the fact that I was using one of only two digital cameras in the country at the time, and it was tiny, and nobody had ever seen little cameras that weren’t completely crappy, so they just assumed it was a sort of overgrown student project, and wouldn’t be an issue. I think when it suddenly turned up in cinemas they were a bit taken aback, but it was too late by then. 

A lot of the shooting of it – like the shots in the car following Mark Thomas, and it seems like the camera is just sitting down on your lap – that seems to play into the sense of you as a filmmaker being totally harmless, non-threatening, almost taking the camera out of their eye-line.

I think that’s true, but also I was working alone. Which is hard to do, but I’ve done it ever since because I think my great discovery on Campaign is that if you’re just one person, suddenly you can go all these places and not be the most interesting thing in the room. If you’ve got a crew and turn up somewhere, it can be almost like the circus coming to town. But if you just sidle in there and hang around for days, surprisingly quickly everyone just shrugs and moves on. 

Mark Thomas in the car, during a scene in which he dismissed anonymous homophobic smears against him (Screenshot, NZ on Screen)

There’s a kind of mania that accompanies election campaigns – did you personally find yourself being swept up in it while you were filming? 

I had a really unusual perspective, in the sense that I was able to dip into everyone’s unique personal mania, and then the next day be in someone else’s. When you think about it, nobody gets access to do that. Nobody gets allowed into multiple campaigns unless they’re some sort of spy. And that gives you this odd perspective, because you realise that everybody is seeing what they want to see, generally people convince themselves that the polls don’t show what they show and they’re going to come through, and that it’s not hopeless. And that lifts you outside their little world, in a way that’s never really left me. I wouldn’t call it cynicism, but when you strip some of the ideology away because you’re moving around so much, the human experience comes to the fore, and you start realising that in many ways they’re all having quite similar experiences. And it’s pretty shitty for the most part – it’s quite a hard gig. 

What makes a good campaigning politician, in your view?

It would be fair to say the best campaigner in the film was Richard Prebble, because he was a professional, and he was surrounded by a well-organised group of people. They had strong message discipline, and had figured out a strong message to say to people who might vote for them – 

Six MPs for the price of one vote.

And they just said that. Which when you think about it, if you wanted a right-wing government, that’s a very compelling thing to say. It was clever. But the really striking thing – there’s a scene in the film where he’s going from street corner to corner – he said the exact same thing everywhere he went. And everybody he interacted with left the interaction with that in their heads. 

That’s what it takes. You need a compelling story to tell, and you need to tell it to everyone. I think a lot of politicians misunderstand that, and think it’s a popularity contest, and they need to make people fall in love with them. I doubt that works terribly often, particularly at a local level. 

If you’re relying on people falling in love with you personally, you’ll inevitably disappoint them in the end.

Yeah, and it’s a dangerous part of your soul to put out there. There’s also a bunch of people quite keen to hate your guts in equal measure, and if you expose yourself to that it’ll wreck you quite quickly. I think a lot of people who dip their toes in politics are rapidly overtaken by that, and either destroyed by that or completely spat out. 

Just speaking of Prebble – he didn’t give you a formal interview over the film – what were your interactions like with him, and what did you make of him?

He never spoke to me, but he did let me follow him around and his campaign team were quite happy to have me around. The truth was – Richard was leading the Act party at the time and running a national campaign, so he actually wasn’t in Wellington much of the time. It wasn’t like I was locked out, he just wasn’t there. 

My interactions with him were pretty formal, and fairly distant. But the interesting thing was – I spoke to his campaign team, and realised it wasn’t just me – that’s how they were all interacting with him. It was an extraordinarily remote kind of vibe. A lot of politicians of his seniority are like that. They have this kind of Teflon exterior, that you interact with, but there’s not really a human being there. They’re very hidden for their own protection. 

Richard Prebble’s campaign manager Nik Zangouropoulos indicating the trajectory his candidate was on (Screenshot, NZ on Screen)

Contrast that with Mark Thomas, who gave you so much of himself. Or maybe a version of himself, but he came across as deeply human.

They were as real with me as they were with everyone else around them, which was considerably. And that’s a bloody hard way to do politics. It’s probably what everyone would want from their politicians in theory, but in reality there’s this nasty combative vibe around it, which makes that unsustainable. It’s a deep question we need to think about – if we’re so profoundly cynical and negative, what sort of world is that likely to create for them, and what sort of leadership will that produce? 

Not to put you on the spot too much, because there’s no sense at all that your film had a preferred winner, but did you have a dog in the fight as it were? Did you care who won, or come to think that one candidate would have made the best MP? 

For me the big thrust of my career has been democracy, more than any political party or anything. I’ve just come back in the last year from working on the Bougainville independence referendum, and for me the machinery of democracy – and just the sheer kind of way that democracy defies our coarser instincts as human beings – it’s the greatest achievement of civilisation, and more important than anybody’s individual agenda. 

So when MMP came along – maybe people reading won’t remember – there was a huge idealism about what it would do, and that a new age of consensus politics predicted. There was basically an assumption that politics wouldn’t be dirty any more. And because of that idealism a whole bunch of young people came into the process who probably wouldn’t have been part of it otherwise, plus there was this energy from all the little parties that suddenly seemed to have a chance. That was what I was particularly interested in – I felt it was either going to pay off magnificently, or be a bit crushing, and either way it would be an important story to tell. 

So in that sense, seeing the PM of the time Jim Bolger backstab his up and coming young candidate [National’s Mark Thomas] was pretty brutal. And the young woman at the end, who you see crying on camera – 

She had youthful idealism, and it was shattered. 

There’s probably some real true believers somewhere, for whom it’s all ideological. But I think for most people it’s quite a personal thing. And they’re just seen their mate who they tried to help get sabotaged, and unfairly. And they thought it was a defeat, and a betrayal by their own general.

It’s funny – when I look at it now, I react differently to what I did at the time. I look at democracy these days, having done things like Bougainville, and reflect on how bloody amazing it is that no matter how disappointed we are on the Sunday after an election, very few of us pick up AK-47s and go running down Lambton Quay. When you think about it, it’s quite surprising. Why do we stick to the rules and accept losing? That’s the fundamental miracle of democracy – that we do. 



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