One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsFebruary 23, 2023

Tony Sutorius on politicians, documentary and ‘telling the truth about being dishonest’

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The mission is not so much to make an argument, but to seek an understanding – and it sometimes means playing the role of ‘sad bystander’, says the director of Elements of Truth.

In the leadup to the 2020 election, film-maker Tony Sutorius was drawn to a peculiar political marriage of convenience. Jami-Lee Ross, the MP who had launched, by his own lawyer’s later account, a “kamikaze” attack on his then leader Simon Bridges, was pairing up with musician-turned-conspiracy-theorist Billy Te Kahika Jr.

Sutorius, best known for his fly-on-the wall documentaries Campaign and Helen Kelly: Together, gained permission from the men to chronicle their efforts to harness under the Advance NZ banner the burgeoning antivax “freedom” movement. The result is Elements of Truth, a Hex Works production supported by NZ on Air. The 20-minute film, available to watch now, launched with a screening at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington on Tuesday night. The following exchange is an edited version of the Q&A that followed. 

Toby Manhire: What attracted you to this story, to these characters?

Tony Sutorius: When Billy TK burst on to the national scene, and on Facebook, in particular, it was explosive and surprising. I was interested to understand what people saw in all that, what drew them to it, and what that meant for New Zealand. It felt bigger than that specific moment. And I think that’s how it has turned out.

The first time I dealt with Jami-Lee Ross was in 2016, when I commissioned him to write about his experience at the Republican Convention in the US. He wrote about his fascination with American politics, and about West Wing and House of Cards. Is there a sense in which he’s seen himself as a character in a political drama, do you think?

I would say that he sees himself as a salesperson. I mean, he does have convictions. He just doesn’t consider it necessary to believe everything he says. He thinks it’s naive to believe that a politician ever could. 

To be fair to him, I think that’s a fair point. It’s worth thinking about. He says that in a political coalition, with two parties, you wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with everything from both parties. So you can only ever really feel a certain portion of it and the rest, you just have to, you know, approach it like a real estate agent covering up the dodgy second toilet. Same same sort of idea.

In that incredible post-election interview Tova O’Brien asks Ross if he has sold his soul. Did he, do you think?

I think so. I think that it’s true that he behaved, ethically, in a way that is very difficult to understand. That’s what drew me to him. I’m interested in why he did that. But I think you can have convictions about certain things, and be kind of a bit morally vacant on certain other things. I don’t mean to sound like I’m defending him. I’m not. You know, I was standing at the back of the studio when Tova disemboweled him, I thought it was fair. But I had a second feeling about it, too. I think all of us, collectively, are a touch hypocritical, in wanting our politicians to be as pure as the driven snow but then smashing them if they are. 

In the end it is kind of our responsibility if they have to lie to succeed as politicians, because we choose them. It’s debatable whether you have to. Of course, it’s debatable. And any individual politician would usually say that they don’t. Except Jami-Lee didn’t lie about it. That was weird. He was telling the truth about being dishonest. There’s a lot of tension in the film that comes from that. 

Why did he agree to take part in the film?

There’s a couple of factors. You know, I made a film called Campaign back in the day, and like every one of his generation in politics, Jami-Lee has seen it. When he found out it was me, he was quite fascinated, because he really thought he could do better than 1996 National candidate Mark Thomas had, in terms of not saying dumb things on camera, so you be the judge. 

But also, perhaps, he could feel the clock running out. Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman talks about people spending their energy carving their names on blocks of ice on a summer’s day. I think politics is like that. And he could sort of tell that it was nearly the end of the day. And I guess there’s some sort of legacy drive.

Toby Manhire and Tony Sutorius at the Elements of Truth launch in Wellington (Photo: Supplied)

Have you spoken to him lately?

He rang me this morning. We invited him to come. Sadly, he didn’t. That would have been fun. I think he was a bit scared, as you would be. But, you know, just the most interesting thing in the film for me at a personal level, is the way he comes out of that interview with Tova O’Brien. And he’s standing in the lift and says, “I like Tova. She says what she believes.” And he has this incredibly wistful look in his eye. It’s like, somewhere in there he knows. And I think that’s how he felt about this film. He knew that it wouldn’t be great for him, but he kind of thought that was OK.

Had he, by that point, become untethered from reality?

I want to be clear about something. Walt Whitman talked about this, that it’s our job not to judge but to understand, to empathise. When I talk about him and why he did things and in telling you what I saw in his sense of himself and his code, I’m not offering a defence of it. That’s up to you guys to figure out. I think that in his mind, he was a professional politician. It’s his job. It’s his career. It’s what he knows how to do. He’s been one since he was 18, when he was elected onto the Auckland Council. Eighteen! It’s his whole thing. 

And suddenly he found himself out in the cold, he couldn’t do his career. And then, there was this little glimpse of an opportunity that suggested maybe at least for a while he could again. It was irresistible, I think. And the price to be paid was, well, sometimes he had to sit there and hear things, or say things even, that he actually didn’t personally believe. And he thought that was a price that was OK to pay.

In your film-making there seems a commitment not to be judgemental.  

Usually, I don’t go into films with a thesis. I go in with a question. And usually the question is simple. I don’t understand what the hell’s going on here, and I would like to understand. Not to “explain”, but to capture it enough so that people can feel it and experience it directly, have direct access to some truth about it. 

I really do believe in the truth. I was at university when postmodernism was super popular, and I was the only one there who completely disagreed with it. I don’t believe in absolute truth. But I do believe that some things tend to be truer than other things. You may never get there. But it’s totally worth trying for, you know, because it’s the path to being on the right track. I just try to catch as much truth as I can and bring it to you in a way that reassembles a month’s experience into 20 minutes. Which is imperfect, of course, and it’s filtered through my subjective judgment about what tells the bigger truth. 

There’s another story, of course, which we couldn’t tell him this time, which is about why do people follow, why did people believe and where are those people now? It’s an important story. And I’d like to tell that one day. But Jami’s appearance in it gave it viability, and for just one moment, especially at that Tauranga rally, I think there was this high watermark, where it really felt like it might just work.

You thought at that point that they might just pull it off, and make it to parliament?

I doubted it. But I mean, goodness, gracious, they did get 20,000 votes. That’s a lot of people. You met quite a lot of them a year ago, on the front lawn of parliament. True story. This is really the origin story of that movement. I went down there a few times, I filmed there a bit. And when I was walking around, people would recognise me and say, Where’s Billy? We haven’t seen him. Where’s Billy? 

They’re still out there. They haven’t gone away. And they are every bit as alienated and feeling as isolated and separate from the rest of New Zealand as they were back then. Maybe more. You know, when I was with Billy TK, on a paepae in Northland, saying to young Māori men: the state doesn’t like you and actually is planning to kill you. They’re not your friends. They’re your mortal enemies. The young Māori men, didn’t seem to find that particularly far-fetched. In fact, I’d say they probably found it historically resonant. And that’s, honestly, how they feel. It wasn’t a mania. It wasn’t a weird moment in time. There honestly are at least 20,000 people out there who truly live in that world. We need to understand it. We need to grapple with it because it’s a real thing and it’s going to come back. It hasn’t gone anywhere.

Jami-Lee Ross at a 2020 anti-lockdown march along Queen Street (Photo: Elements of Truth)

Returning to the relationship with the subjects of the documentary, Janet Malcolm famously wrote about the conflicted, even devious role of the journalist in The Journalist and the Murderer. What about the Documentary Maker and the Politician? Is the nature, the complexity of that relationship something you think about?

I think about it the whole time. I have a personal policy that if anyone asks me a question about what I believe about what I’m doing, I’ll answer them honestly. I told them I was going to tell the truth. They’d already seen my other films. I don’t feel conflicted. 

Those who have seen Campaign will remember Alick Shaw, the Labour candidate. He has some pretty bad moments in that film. I saw him not long ago, and he said: I look at the film now and I don’t like the me that I see. But I still recognise that that was true. So thank you for putting up the recording and capturing it. That’s pretty cool. From my point of view, that’s all I can ask for. It’s my job to tell the truth and that comes first. 

I do feel a bit sad for people sometimes but I mean generally it’s of their own construction. So, I don’t know, I’m kind of a sad bystander you could say, but I try to be fair and my first loyalty is always is to the audience and the truth, because that’s my job. 

How often, across the projects you’ve been involved with, when you ask someone, ‘can I come hang out and film you’, say, ‘absolutely not’?

Not that often. Quite often, people are open to it. Generally speaking, people aren’t ashamed of what they are, no matter who they are. By definition, I suppose, if you are a certain thing in the world, it’s because that’s what you’re choosing. And so if I say, Can I show what you really are, and persuade them that I’m going to try to do that as honestly and directly as I can, most people think that sounds sort of all right. People want a legacy, they want to be remembered. They want to make an impression on the world. And I think being on film is a way to do that. Some people actually don’t seem to mind that much if it’s positive or negative. They just want to be seen.

Toby Manhire and Tony Sutorius at the Elements of Truth launch in Wellington (Photo: Supplied)

For some it might be part of what draws them to politics in the first place.

There’s a vacancy, or there’s a need inside a lot of politicians. And a lot of them – I think I said this to Jami-Lee this morning – a lot of politicians that I’ve dealt with who are senior, people like Richard Preble or Helen Clark, when you deal with them professionally it feels like they’ve been dipped in Teflon. The price they’ve paid is that they’ve had to become bulletproof. It seems like a lifetime affliction to me, a bloody terrible price to pay. I think a lot of people who would be good leaders who should be involved in politics won’t. Because they just are fearful of what it will do to their souls. And I think they’re right to be concerned. It’s hard to escape in one piece.

This film is coming out almost three years after the election. It was the same with Campaign, about the 1996 election in Wellington Central, released in 1999. Does that passage of time change the way we see things?

Stories definitely change as time passes. It’s quite unpredictable. When we took Campaign for its premiere, the editor and I sat there and honestly didn’t know whether anyone would think any of it was funny. We weren’t sure if it was a comedy or a drama. We thought it was funny, but that’s because we’ve been locked in a room listening to it 400 times. We didn’t know what would happen. When the opening shot came up and it was poor old Pauline Gardiner butchering the national anthem and everyone started screeching, I thought thank fucking Christ. It was a real relief.

A lot has changed since Campaign in terms of the technology, both in politics, with social media and livestreaming, but also the way of making a film, in that you now have almost limitless ability to capture material. 

The technology’s changed. But I was very lucky that I was one of the first filmmakers in New Zealand to get hold of equipment and technology that meant I could do it by myself. And my whole career has been like that now. Because back in the old days when a film crew arrived it was like a circus coming to town, it was just huge. And those of us who went to film school back then remember all the talk about how nothing authentic can honestly happen, because there’s all these bright lights and so on. I think it’s different now, because it’s just me and a little camera, and people do actually behave naturally in front of me, they forget really fast. 

How fast?

Half an hour. And these are people who have media traiing. Pretty soon, they just, they just give up and they think the hell with it. They go with it. I mean, you have to have had a conversation and developed the trust. 

But the other thing that is different is the state of the institutions. We’re trying really hard to reach a new audience for New Zealand political documentaries, because although there’s probably as many films being made as ever, the actual audience engagement for things like movie theatres and especially broadcast television, is in a state of collapse. There’s still films being made and stuff going on. But the fact is that that’s largely directed to an international audience now. And that’s cool if you want to make glamorous film for an international audience.

But if you want to do what I do, which is boring old New Zealand subjects for boring old New Zealand audiences, the audiences are still there, the filmmakers are still here, and the subjects are definitely still there – we’re a young culture, we’re full of unexplored stories – but the institutions are not still there. And I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen about that. It scares me. So that’s why I gave this a try. I hope that this, you know, finds a different route to its audience. But something has to change, or we’re going to permanently lose our ability to connect people with New Zealand stories.

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