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It is, quite simply, wrong to insist that the tragic events of 15 March 2019 belong to anything, or anyone, but History itself, Chris Trotter argues

It is, quite simply, wrong to insist that the tragic events of 15 March 2019 belong to anything, or anyone, but History itself, Chris Trotter argues

By Chris Trotter*

It would be interesting to know how most New Zealanders responded to the “They Are Us” movie project. The prospect of a movie recounting their country’s response to the Christchurch mosque attacks of 15 March 2019 would undoubtedly have evoked feelings of pride in a very large number of New Zealanders. That the central character of this historical drama was to be their own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would likewise have thrilled a lot of Kiwis. Of equal interest, and perhaps more importance, however, would be some measure of New Zealanders’ reaction to the extraordinary hostility the “They Are Us” project has generated.

Over the space of just a few days, upwards of 40,000 signatures were gathered on-line for a petition opposing the film’s production. Within 48-hours of the project’s announcement, the Office of the Prime Minister felt obliged to issue a statement distancing Ardern from the production and making it clear that she’d had no warning of the film-makers’ intentions. The Mayor of Christchurch, Leanne Dalziel, publicly pilloried the project and curtly informed its promoters that they and their production crew would not be welcome in her city.

What motivated this astonishing outpouring of negativity and resistance? After all, the film’s promoters had made it clear from the get-go that the movie they hoped to make was not about the terrorist attack itself, or its victims, but about how a nation responded an act of unprecedented savagery. Necessarily, the leader of that nation would be at the centre of the narrative because the New Zealand Prime Minister’s handling of the tragedy was a critical factor in shaping the overall response of her people.

It is important to pause here and acknowledge that Ardern’s reaction to the Christchurch shootings was as close to perfect as human-beings get. The world was by turns astonished and uplifted by her words and gestures. Ardern allowed humanity to rise above the evil of the terrorist’s actions. Few politicians are blessed with the skills to make such a contribution. So, why is it that so many have moved with such speed, and so much venom, to prevent this extraordinary story from being translated to the screen – and told again?

Superficially, the explanation is to be found in the film’s critics’ belief that the story of the Christchurch shootings belongs exclusively to its victims. That any work of art that fails to locate the terrorist’s, Brenton Tarrant’s, victims at its heart is not worth making. It is their story: not Jacinda Ardern’s story; not New Zealand’s story; not the World’s story; and no one has the right to make it anything else. As conceived, runs this argument, “They Are Us” reduces the attacks’ Muslim casualties to bit-players in their own tragedy. Tarrant treated them as objects to be used, and now the film’s promoters seem determined to do the same.

In one sense, those who make this argument are quite correct. Without the victims there is not only no story, but also no terror. Tarrant’s act has no meaning without the 51 defenceless Muslim worshippers who fell beneath his bullets. Likewise, without witnesses there can be no horror. Without families and friends left to grieve the dead, no pain. That’s how terrorism works. That’s why terrorism works.

Terrorism cannot be overcome, however, by fetishizing the horror and pain it causes and walling them in with its survivors. The act of terrorism is, by definition, a political act, and its intention is not only to shock, but to numb. The terrorist seeks to engender feelings of helplessness and, like all torturers, is hoping to extinguish hope itself. The evil of terrorism does not stop there, however, because the terrorist is also hoping to incite acts of political vengeance that will, in the long run, advance his cause.

When the followers of Osama Bin Laden flew jet airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, they all knew that the resulting destruction of life and property would not materially weaken the United States. But, that was never the point. The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to drive America mad: to set her on a course towards disaster and decline; to create a frenzied giant that would end up demolishing its own house. And, if we’re being truthful, they succeeded – beyond their wildest dreams.

Intentionally or inadvertently (it matters little) Tarrant’s terrorism has also successfully distorted the targeted country’s politics. Long before the Christchurch shooter pulled the trigger of his MSSA, there were individuals and groups on the left of New Zealand politics who characterised their country as a deeply immoral colonial state, founded upon and maintained by the principle of white supremacy. Its mostly European citizens, they alleged, were incurably racist, and their primary victims were the indigenous Maori. This systemic racism was not, however, confined to Maori. Xenophobia and Islamophobia were deeply ingrained in the White New Zealand population.

Tarrant’s crime offered those who subscribed to these ideas an extraordinary opportunity to inject them into the bloodstream of the political mainstream. Almost immediately, the Christchurch shootings were represented as the inevitable outcome of New Zealand’s white supremacist culture. A political agenda began to be advanced, which, if implemented in full, will result in the criminalisation of all thought and speech deemed inimical to their extreme anti-racist ideology. Depressingly, a great deal of this extremist agenda ended up in the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry Into The Christchurch Mosque Shootings.

Over the past two years, much energy has been expended on the Left to mask the central fact of the Christchurch tragedy: that it was conceived and executed by a Australian who had been radicalised online and overseas and who chose New Zealand to carry out his attack precisely because it was the least likely location for an act of white supremacist terrorism to be contemplated.

The truth of the latter proposition was demonstrated immediately following the Christchurch attacks by the statements and gestures of Jacinda Ardern, and by the answering outpouring of love and solidarity from the tens-of-thousands of Kiwis who gathered in all the main centres to express their determination to prevent Tarrant’s evil act from defiling and defining their nation. The last thing New Zealand’s anti-racist extremists need now is a feature film which re-tells and re-animates those feelings of love and solidarity.

Those demanding the abandonment of the “They Are Us” project have accused its promoters of using the victims of the tragedy as props in an outrageous attempt to further entrench the white privilege of Prime Minister Ardern, and to marginalise still further the 1.2% of New Zealanders who are Muslims. It is, however, possible to turn that attack on its head by observing that these anti-racist extremists could just as easily be accused of using the victims of the Christchurch shootings as a means of shutting down a cultural project that would show the world just how decent a society New Zealand’s truly is.

It is, quite simply, wrong to insist that the tragic events of 15 March 2019 belong to anything, or anyone, but History itself. Nor should it be forgotten that History lives only in its re-telling. The truth of the events that shape a nation emerges from many voices, many perspectives. The tragedy that unfolded at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques no more belongs to its victims than it does to its perpetrator. It belongs to the whole world. It is us.


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.

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27 Comments

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There is little trust in film makers now or historically when the prime motivation is making money. That is what I believe concerns people, an opportunistic venture is neither wanted nor needed. What distortions and unfair emphasis, despite all the usual assurances, might hurt the community and inflame prejudices, tension and suffering. Not long after the Canterbury EQs some sort of semi documentary narrative appeared on TV. It was simply a shocker. Concentrated far too much on the seedy underclass of the city and social unpleasantries, including male assaults female. Sure that is around like anywhere else unfortunately, but it didn’t need an EQ to bring it to the surface. It was utterly naff, and that is what must be avoided here.

I dont think the motivation behind this movie is about money. Jacinda Ardern is famous but not enough to help investors make money. I think the true motivation behind this is to help to tight US gun regulations.

Hopefully New Zealanders will see it for what it is, opportunistic profiteering from a human tragedy.

White Island next?

Who says making the movie is about setting out to make money? Regardless, one of the the ideas of the movie is to play on the image of NZ as a virtuous nation under the rule of a saintly leader who is able to bring her flock together. The parallels with propaganda movies are strikingly similar.

I think it is easy, with a little understanding of psychology, to understand where Hollywood is coming from, but I largely agree with CT here.

I have several concerns with the discussion on the topic and CT touches on one here;" A political agenda began to be advanced, which, if implemented in full, will result in the criminalisation of all thought and speech deemed inimical to their extreme anti-racist ideology." Racism, while being strongly outlawed if your heritage is European, appears to have been given wings to minorities whose overt racism is increasingly visible and offensive.

But another term that is used by Muslims is the reference to their victims as Martyrs. I find this troubling as they did not die willingly for a cause, but were instead the victims of Australian racist xenophobia. This is frankly ugly, but I feel needs to be called as such. I suspect the term 'martyr' was coined for use by Islamic political forces driving gullible fighters to carry out atrocities for them, and justifying the deaths of innocents for their causes.

I also agree with some of the Muslim community's criticism here. A number of them were heroes, acting very bravely to fight back, likely without any training or conditioning to prepare themselves to do so, making it all the more heroic that they did so.

But another term that is used by Muslims is the reference to their victims as Martyrs. I find this troubling as they did not die willingly for a cause, but were instead the victims of Australian racist xenophobia.

You shouldn't find use of the word martyr to describe the victims 'troubling' simply because it doesn't fit in with your own interpretation. If someone dies for the will of their own God, then I can see why they perceive that person as a martyr. Just because they were not on some form of jihad and willing to die does not mean they cannot be perceived as martyrs.

Who are we to determine the will of "our God"? Or any God for that matter? Doesn't the religious teachings hold that God is unknowable, and therefore his will is unknowable? To have something happen and then assume it is the will of God is very shallow thinking. Forest Gump is perhaps a better sage with his "It happens" comment.

It is not yours or my perception of what the will of God is that is important. It is those of the believer. Like I said, if the Muslim community sees the victims of the tragedy as martyrs under the will of God, then we should accept that. They're more understanding of their own faith than you or me.

Murray can find whatever he wants to ‘as troubling’… you shouldn’t is patronising and rather Karenish

Chris has a tin ear and rose colored spectacles.
His surprise at the rejection of the idea is odd.
He should phone Leanne D.

The Canterbury community is similar to those of Port Arthur, being put in the same position.
Doesn't say much for the imagination of the movie sponsors and local conflicted labour types working the treatment.

Survivors, families of victims and the local mayor have expressed deep misgivings about the production of a new film that will depict the days leading up to the Port Arthur massacre, which claimed 35 lives in 1996.

On Monday, streaming service Stan announced the film NITRAM, which has already commenced production in Geelong, Victoria. It is being helmed by Snowtown director Justin Kurzel, and stars Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis and American actor Caleb Landry Jones as the gunman, whose first name is spelled backwards in the title.

https://theguardian.com/culture/2020/dec/01/the-community-is-pretty-upse...

John Howard handled the situation better. He kept things domestic. In Christchurch during that March the local feeling was that the scrum was being pulled, things done for the international audience, locals left scratching their heads, but following on.
Howard's gun acquisition was handled better too.

Maybe the PM should suggest that like Port Arthur, let's wait 26 years before racing off to Hollywood.

Here is the Conversation discussing the PTSD and trauma related issues, written by an expert Professor.

People who are deeply affected by exposure to traumatic events can develop debilitating psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others who suffer the loss of a loved one, especially when it happens in traumatic circumstances, can develop prolonged grief disorder, a persistent grief reaction that does not ease over time.

https://theconversation.com/amp/is-it-wrong-to-make-a-film-about-the-por...

And you can see this happening here too.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that filming is taking place in Victoria due to fears the subject matter “would still prove too sensitive” to be made in Tasmania.

SMH reports the film will not depict the shooting spree, and will also not refer to the killer by name.

But news of the film was met with a fierce backlash on social media:

https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/streaming/port-arthur-massacre-...

Henry, he expresses little surprise and I think your stirring is a little obvious here.

The difference of 2 years to 25 years seems to have passed you by also, the reality of grieving (if you have been fortunate enough to avoid it) is that time is the healer.

Frankly given your posts I am surprised you are not more supportive of CT's clearly counter narrative position on this issue.

Interesting you should say. I'm not of favour of selecting or layering a narrative, rather be more people first.
I suspect more appreciation of the human condition offers a lead as to how to handle the situation.

Port Arthur & Australia offers indications of what we could face.
But the priority should be the people on the ground, over and above political narrative makers.
Hence listen to Leanne.

Another good article from Mr Trotter great points, well made. I really hope this article can make it to Stuff where more people can read it.

On a possibly unfair aside, I think I can see Mr Trotter mellowing as we all walk through time together. Still holding power to account but from a more reasoned veteran of many political forays.

And science would agree :) https://www.jneurosci.org/content/26/24/6422.abstract

It seems these film makers are more interested in making some type of political statement, rather than preventing additional trauma to those involved.

Ive watched the movie "out of the blue" based on the Aramoana tragedy a couple of times and found it to be quite a good watch.

a long as its tasteful, it gets my thumbs up.

That was not made until 16 years after the incident itself, and even then there was plenty of objection in Aramoana.
This is far too soon.

Sorry, but any such movie as this, now, would be weaponized by the Ardern haters. Regardless of how you feel about her and the govt, this movie should not be used as such.
Not to mention the people directly involved objection. It definitely belongs to them more than it belongs to anyone else, and if they don't want this done at the moment or like this, then so be it.

Two things:

movies/cinema does not have glamour feel that it once had. There is every expectation that a difficult story could be told in a way that is rough and misguided.

and to tell a story about the current prime minister makes it too soon, I think. I'm someone who holds a neutral opinion on JA at the moment and I'm still waiting for something of substance to come from her dreams for NZ. A film that is a reminder of what her finest moment has been, that ain't gonna help. I don't want to give her the praise for that just yet. The many anti-JA will also refuse that. When she has moved on out of the limelight then it becomes OK for both sides to unify again and say "She did a great job for NZ there (but I did/did-not like her..)"

If Hollywood feel the need to make a movie extolling the virtues of Jacinda Ardern go for it but don’t use this tragedy as the vehicle.

Agree.

Agree. I'm not sure why they would need another actor to play the role either, as Jacinda already does it so well...

We dont feel pride. We feel a deep sense of shame and revulsion over the fact that it happened at all. It rocked people to the core, shattering our belief that things like that "couldnt happen here". Our Govt institutions failed all of us (and them) in allowing Tarrant into the country, failing to monitor him, and blithely issuing him a gun licence despite being warned about his behaviour. Just because Ardern stepped up and cleaned up the mess, doesnt mean that our feelings about the event itself has changed. The idea that this event is now becoming entertainment fodder for foreigners, or worse, a propaganda machine for the Left, is simply appalling. And lastly, as a sitting PM coming up for re-election, we all know it will be used purely to push the "Saint Jacinda" message onto the public in 2023 in the same way as Covid affected the outcome of the 2020 election.

The absolute and terrible failure in process by those in authority. If a gun license had not been issued the tragedy may not have occurred at all. The police are very alert and able at docking you for parking your rear wheel an inch over the white line, but this terrorist was given virtual carte blanche. Suggest an all revealing factual documentary on that on TV would be beneficial, well beyond any said movie as is being proposed.

Chris wrote: "Superficially, the explanation is to be found in the film’s critics’ belief that the story of the Christchurch shootings belongs exclusively to its victims. That any work of art that fails to locate the terrorist’s, Brenton Tarrant’s, victims at its heart is not worth making. It is their story: not Jacinda Ardern’s story; not New Zealand’s story; not the World’s story; and no one has the right to make it anything else. "
Chris has either misread or is misrepresenting the critics of this movie. They are disturbed that the while the New Zealand government has put in place suppression orders which will keep the whole story of the Al Noor massacre under wraps for thirty years, one part of that story will be used by Hollywood to glorify the response of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
New Zealanders deserve to know the truth about the massacre. They do not need a fictional work of propaganda which exploits the tragedy for political or monetary gain. If Chris could get this he would not be so up in arms about the "anti-racist extremists" who are not at all impressed by plans for the movie.

A