Is white New Zealand ready for a truthful film about the Christchurch shootings?

The news last week that a film chronicling the week following the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch – to be titled They are Us and starring Australian actress Rose Byrne as Jacinda Ardern – was being shopped around to international buyers was quickly met with widespread disdain. By the end of the day, the hashtag #TheyAreUsShutDown was trending in New Zealand. Journalist and poet Mohamed Hassan expertly articulated the problem with They Are Us:tevor

the film has chosen to focus not on the tragedy and the victims, but instead on the prime minister and the rest of the country and their response. It is being sold as a feel good story, a portrayal of heroism in the face of terror.

In its essence, it is a story about an act of white supremacy that is centered around white voices, white feelings and white heroism. The irony is nauseating. The lack of self-awareness is profound.

These sentiments were echoed by Anjum Rahman writing in The Spinoff:

The questions have to be asked: are Muslims not able to engender enough compassion and empathy to be the central part of a movie about this tragedy? Is a movie that captures our pain, our courage, our ability to stand up to the face of terror and hate with dignity and strength not a tale that will sell? Are we not inspiring enough?

Rahman went on to explain that she wasn’t opposed to the project because she thought the shooting wasn’t the appropriate topic for a cinematic treatment. To the contrary:

The story of this tragedy must be told in film. There is much to be brought to public attention around the demonisation of a community, the rise of white supremacy, the impact of viral disinformation campaigns, and how these led to the kind of radicalisation where 51 people lost their lives in a meticulous planned act of cold-blooded execution.

What might such a film look like, then? Perhaps it should include a scene set seven weeks before the event, at a rally in the city’s Cathedral Square, when a popular YouTuber promoted the great replacement conspiracy theory that the shooter’s manifesto was to be named after, while a man who had previously delivered pigs heads to the Masjid Al-Noor mosque – where the attack began – waved a New Zealand flag behind him.

Lee Williams and Phil Arps in 2019

For further context, the film could include a dramatisation of the interview between well-known Christchurch media figure Mike Yardley and then foreign affairs minister Winston Peters, in which Yardley scoffed at Peter’s suggestion that opposition to the UN Migration Compact that New Zealand had just signed was coming from the alt-right. This would be relevant because the global disinformation campaign started by Generation Identity – an Austrian group the shooter had donated money to – spread in New Zealand primarily via a viral petition started by a woman who made YouTube videos about a supposed ‘Islamic take over’, and approvingly covered by Newstalk ZB.

The film might show that the National Party had started their own petition against the compact, only to remove it from its website  within an hour from the mosque shootings, and how when someone noticed they blamed the deletion on on an ‘emotional junior staffer (actually a former press secretary who had worked for the party for the previous six years).

If the film wanted to go deeper still, it could include a mention of the visit to New Zealand by ‘great replacement’ theorists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, whom the Royal Commission Report into the shooting would later reveal the shooter had also donated to, and note that – after the Auckland council denied them access to one of their venues – a group of wealthy New Zealanders raised $50,000 to fight a legal battle on their behalf.

New Zealand in general, and Christchurch in particular, don’t usually react well to seeing their racist underbelly portrayed on the big screen. When Gaylene Preston’s miniseries Hope and Wire about the Canterbury earthquakes aired on TV Three in 2014, reviewers were quick to take issue with a scene where a group of skinheads sic their dog on two Asian women outside a kebab shop.

Skinheads in Hope and Wire

Trevor Agnew, writing for Christchurch daily The Press, said the episode was ‘Canterbury but viewed through a northern lens’. Fellow Press writer Vicki Anderson quoted the response of a colleague she had shown the episode to: ‘It’s like they are raping the city … I’m off home now, I’ll wade through old-school stereotypes and several skirmishes with skinheads to get there.’

Yet racially motivated assaults featuring dogs were really happening in Christchurch at the time of the earthquakes. In March 2012, Phillipa Ann Parker and her ex-boyfriend Steven Brian Donaldson were sentenced to eight months in prison for a string of such attacks. Stuff reported at the time:

Judge Doherty said Parker had yelled abuse at a Vietnamese man, told her dog to kill him, punched him and tried to hit him with a beer bottle. When he took shelter in a shop she stomped on the bags of groceries he had dropped, threw items at the shop door, and yelled for him to go back to his own country.

A few months later, the pair met a man from the Philippines, and set their dogs on him in Lincoln Road, Addington. Parker let her dog off the leash to let it chase him. The dogs jumped up and tried to bite his shoulders, damaging his jacket, while he took shelter inside a property and then inside a flat.

A Japanese woman was then confronted nearby. The dogs were encouraged to attack her while she huddled in a corner, until other people arrived. The woman was taken to hospital for treatment for a bite wound and scratches.

The same day news broke about Rose Byrne being cast as Ardern, it was also reported that Said Abdukadir – whose father was killed in the Al Noor mosque – had been subjected to a racist tirade in his bakery. As he told the media, when he confronted the man

he went on this rant with all this racist c**p… and he said ‘this is why you guys get killed,’… he said ‘I’m talking about the people that got killed at the mosque’.

Ardern’s lauded response to the Christchurch shooting is an important part of the story of New Zealand’s worst terror attack, as is the outpouring of support for the Muslim community from non-Muslim New Zealanders, but these cannot be allowed to been seen as the whole story. As Anjum Rahman wrote,

white supremacy is still at our door, harming our young people, threatening tangata whenua, pervasive in our online spaces and political discourse. A film that motivates people to act against this real and present threat is nothing if not urgent.

What that film needs to be is a mirror, not an Instagram filter. And it will be necessary, even if Pākehā New Zealand doesn’t like what it sees.


Image: Rose Byrne, Flickr

Byron Clark

Byron Clark is a video essayist whose research topics include the far-right and misinformation.

More by Byron Clark ›

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  1. God forbid (insert your God here) that corporate media would ever make a movie with the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth.
    For starters, all their funding would suddenly evaporate and the shock jocks would be frothing at the mouth.

  2. Thank you Byron Clark for this piece of clear remembering, and for quoting from my TV Series Hope and Wire. You are right to have found the references I used in staging the scenes of racial intimidation taken from contemporary reports. The constant cry from loud voices was “This is not my Christchurch.” Sadly it is mine. There is room for drama to be strongly told that is relevant to our tragedies. The Greeks did it. So did Shakespeare. It is always ‘too soon,’ but it is an important way for communities to share the grief. In Hope and Wire, a tale of redemption is told in the story of Monnie, the wild child who is saved by being looked after by strangers forced by the quakes to live together without walls. That’s what carefully researched cleverly put together dramatic story telling can do. The screen can focus attention adding insight and depth to the images we see in the news. Thanks for noticing I hadn’t made anything up in Hope and Wire. White supremacy is everywhere. It must be seen, called, and contained. A few weeks before we began shooting in 2014 there was a substantial gathering of white power of over 150 people in Hagley Park. They stayed for the afternoon. I saw that with dread. Sadly, our series was not ‘too soon,’ it was too late. Kia Kaha.

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