Telling Stories

Former journalist Helen Kapalos chats about her documentary A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana and her passion for storytelling.

Photography by Marija Ivkovic.

It takes a lot to walk away from your career with a top-rating network, particularly when you’re working on its flagship program.

Yet, in early 2015, when Helen Kapalos quit her role with Channel Seven’s Sunday Night that’s exactly what she did. Inspired by an interview she had done for the program with a young person with bowel cancer, who had been using medical marijuana to relieve his pain effectively, Kapalos recognised that there was a bigger story to tell and felt strongly that she was the person to tell it. She left the network and, with no real experience, began working on her medical marijuana documentary: A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana.

As we meet she’s on her way to give a copy of the documentary to the Victorian Premier, but finds time to sit down to talk with Business State about her work with the Victorian Multicultural Commission, her passion for storytelling and how her quest to tell the human stories behind medical marijuana led to her selling her home to pay for the privilege.

Business State: Did you always want to be a storyteller?

Helen Kapalos: Yes, I guess so. I always knew I wanted to be a journalist as I was such a curious kid and I loved reading, so it felt like a natural progression.

How did it all start?

1995 was the United Nations Year for Tolerance, and there were a number of scholarships being offered. I won a journalism scholarship, which was for a three-month paid internship with SBS.

Was journalism your first passion or was it more a desire to be on television?

It was journalism first. As part of my three-month scholarship, I spent one month working in documentary, one month in radio and one month in TV. I quickly realised that I had fallen in love with radio and so went on to work in public broadcasting. I loved working in broadcasting because you’re free to develop the angles to the stories you’re most interested in. You also have to think about those stories from every point of view, which makes you a much more balanced journalist and reporter. From there I started to manoeuvre into TV and ended up working for everyone from Channel Seven to Channel Nine and Ten as well as for the ABC and SBS.

Your career has been hugely successful, and your leaving Channel Ten was highly publicised. What do you think happened and how did those challenges help you move forward?

I’m not entirely sure what happened! I do know that TV is not an easy industry; it’s a male dominated environment where women in their mid-40s, and up, aren’t recognised for the experience they can bring. It was a tough time, but what I did learn from it, which has been integral to me moving forward, is that my job does not define me.

How were the seeds planted to make this documentary?

I was covering a story for Sunday Night on Channel Seven about using medical marijuana for pain relief, and I was sent to interview Dan Haslam, a 24-year-old who had inoperable bowel cancer. Dan had been using marijuana for pain relief and was a huge advocate for its decriminalisation. After meeting him, I knew there was a larger, more human-focused, story to be told. I wanted to tell the powerful stories of the mothers having to source it to help their sick children or how it was being used to help people with Parkinson’s disease. There was so much to say.

It’s a bold move for someone who has had little documentary making experience.

I know, but I hired people who did! I hired people I had worked with before and advertised for the others. I did, however, have a very clear vision of how I wanted it to look and sound, and my focus was always going to be on depicting the plant in a way that it hadn’t been seen before.

Is it true that you sold your house to pay for the film?

As soon as I knew I wanted to make the documentary, I started to redraw on my mortgage and, as the project got bigger and I needed more money, I kept redrawing. Plus, I had to step out of employment during post-production as I needed to focus on the film. This meant that I was unemployed for a period. I ended up selling my house and downsizing, but it was all worth it as I own the content outright and have gained an enormous amount of faith in myself. I now know that I can do whatever I set my mind to.

Do you think anyone’s getting it right when it comes to marijuana legalisation?

I believe that Israel and Spain are doing a great job. The States isn’t the best model because it’s too easy to abuse the system, but in Israel, for example, they are highly regulated and are conducting ongoing human trials.

Do you think Australia is getting closer?

I do, yes. It’s going to take a long time, but I believe that it will happen.

Will you go back to television or stick to filmmaking?

Never say never, but the plan is to carry on as an independent filmmaker. I am working with the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) in a chair capacity and talking to them about making films about topics such as demystifying identity politics as well as long form pieces on Islam and how religion plays such a divisive role.

How did you get involved with the VMC?

I was doing emcee gigs and one night I was emceeing at the Premier Gala Dinner. I was talking about my background as a Greek Australian and how important it was that I balanced both cultures in my life. Later on that night I was asked if I wanted to apply for an executive chair role and that was that.

What does your role involve?

I run workshops for disadvantaged and minority groups, and we also fund training for interns to head off and work at Swinburne University and the ABC. I got the program off the ground – the first of its kind – and it gives interns their first step up into radio and TV. I’m so passionate about it because it’s how I got started in the industry and I wanted to open the door for others.

Your career so far has been incredible, which of your achievements are you most proud of?

Making this documentary. My sister said to me: “Even if you don’t make any money from this, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.”