Tony Sutorius runs Porirua-based company Unreal Films. Sutorius first made his mark as a filmmaker with Campaign, a 1999 documentary about an election campaign. Since then his company has won a reputation as the company to call for films about elections, from training videos for electoral staff, to films promoting voting and explaining how it works.
Sutorius fell in love with documentary while watching classics like The Thin Blue Line in the Victoria University film library. “Every essay I wrote was about documentaries,” he said. “It was always my big thing.” A volunteer firefighter — and the son of a firefighter — he turned to familiar topics for his first documentary, which screened on TV3’s Inside New Zealand slot in 1994. The Firefighters: Inside the Uniform chronicling fire crews over a fortnight at Porirua Fire Station.
By then developments in technology were making filmmaking far more accessible to those with enthusiasm unmatched by dollars. With help from TV veteran Russell Baxter, Sutorius got his hands on a digital video camera — just in time to chronicle the 1996 election campaign in the Wellington Central electorate.
Having won a surprising amount of access to politicians and their backroom crews, Sutorius fell increasingly in love with the project. But having failed to win any financial interest apart from one community trust grant, he and editor Andy Mortimer then endured a year-long stint in an ant-infested flat, honing the 55 hours of footage in-between computer meltdowns. Sutorius tells the whole story in this piece.
Dispirited by making documentaries on the smell of an oily rag, Sutorius considered starting anew in the United Kingdom. But thankfully there was a happy ending — despite the lack of a life-changing cheque. The feature-length Campaign was met by “joyous, rolling laughter” and sellout audiences at the 1999 NZ Film Festival. A six-week cinema run followed in Wellington. Interviewed in Capital Times, Sutorius argued that that he was interested "in ideas, but I’m most interested in people ... what situations are like or what lives are like. Campaign’s like that. It’s not about parties."
Sutorius went on to join the team of directors behind another festival title, The Whirling Man (2000). The short film followed colourful, jester-clad mental health campaigner Arnold Brooker (who passed away in late 2004).
By now his company Unreal Films was getting increasingly busy. In 2005 Sutorius won a contract to make the first of many films for the Chief Electoral Office (and later the NZ Electoral Commission). Unreal Films has also worked on education and training films for three electoral commissions in Australia, and education campaigns for the 2019 independence referendum in Bougainville. Sutorius claims to know of no other screen company “with comparable experience in the field of democracy outreach and election management”.
Among the dozens of other films that Sutorius has directed and produced are the ACC-commissioned Ordinary Lives, which was provided via DVD to those dealing with disability in the family, and the Annie Collins-edited Wood for the Trees, about fallen forestry worker Ken Callow.
Feature-length documentary Helen Kelly - Together debuted at the NZ International Film Festival in 2019, before wider Kiwi release in February 2020. Sutorius first met Kelly while helping shoot Alister Barry's Someone Else's Country in the 1990s. he began making a documentary about the renowned trade union leader during the last year of her life. He counts himself lucky to have known Kelly, and says that her work "was fundamentally built from bravery and from love".
In a four star review, Stuff's Graeme Tuckett praised Sutorius and his team for "a fascinating, illuminating and often humbling record of a life being superbly lived".
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 22 January 2020
Unreal Films website. Accessed 15 January 2020
Tony Sutorius, 'Filmmaker Tony Sutorius on Helen Kelly's last stand' - The Listener, 27 July 2019 (broken link)
Kate Andrews, ‘A bitter pill’ (Interview) - Capital Times, 25 June 1999, page 5
Steve Newall, 'Director of NZIFF doco Helen Kelly: Together tells us about this incredible Kiwi' (Interview) Flicks website. Loaded 11 July 2019. Accessed 15 January 2020
Graeme Tuckett, 'Helen Kelly: Together' looks at the last days of a Kiwi hero' (Review) Stuff website. Loaded 28 July 2019. Accessed 22 January 2020
'Stop the Killing in Forestry' (broken link) One Big Voice website. Accessed 29 August 2014