A company wants to make a film about the Christchurch mosque massacre on 15 March 2019.
It’s about time.
Both the Prime Minister and the Mayor of Christchurch have proposed that the film should not be made because there are other stories that ought to be told first. Neither of them have the right to determine which stories about anything should or should not be told, in any order. Nor does the Prime Minister have the right to determine whether the film ought to receive state funding.
Despite claims by some Christchurch Muslims that they weren’t consulted, it emerged yesterday that they were.
They have now got their collective messages straight in a joint statement between the film-makers and the Muslim Association of Canterbury, which also said that the production team were “devastated by the pain and concerns caused by the announcement of the film by the members of the New Zealand public, the Muslim community of New Zealand and in particular the victims directly impacted by the events of March 15th 2019 in Christchurch.”
This emote-and-counter-emote is a pretty basic freedom of speech issue, and also a history-teaching moment.
This week the NZ Herald reported:
Christchurch mosque shootings: They are not us, and it hurts to be props in a Hollywood movie
As a Muslim, I have never had any faith in Hollywood. It is an industry that for decades was the only source of information for billions of people on Islam and Muslims, and what they saw were monsters marionetted on screen to sell cinema tickets.
Grotesque antagonists screaming nonsensically, cloaked in black, firing AK-47 rifles in the air before getting mowed down by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or Harrison Ford or whatever heroic white saviour was in vogue that year.
A big lesson from the world of international film production is the one of perpetual creative ideological competition: if there isn’t a Muslim-oriented film company in the entire world that can’t make a film about this issue, then what happens is this: others do it instead. So hurry up.
But there are good arguments to make the film.
Firstly, this history needs to be told, or it will be told for us. It was a racist and evil politics of representation that got us here in the first place, through a powerful engine of short films on Youtube, 4Chan, Reddit, 8Chan and elsewhere, effectively enough to incite people to commit acts of terror. If New Zealanders can’t tell a good story about a good New Zealander doing good, the existing evil narrative wins. It is a perpetual ideological contest which needs fresh content as its defence. Make the good narrative.
Secondly, Prime Minister Ardern now has a unique place in the world, and her place in this terrible tragedy adds to that uniqueness. Of the rich nations in the world, she is one of no more than three i am aware of that has actively supported Muslims within her country in the last decade. That she had to do so within such shocking circumstances is also a story worth telling. Leaders across the world are begging for good examples of democracies and leaders who are both compassionate and high functioning. The idea of humane and tolerant democracy needs this story because such humane and tolerant democracy is itself at risk. The light of liberal, generous, tolerant democracy is dimming. Light the fire.
Thirdly, opposing this kind of representation about her leadership role stands against the entire Prime Minister Ardern publicity machine. No one complained when news stations and youtube clips compared her performance at the United Nations to that of Donald Trump: they wanted to promote a young, liberal left democrat against an autocrat. Ardern had yet another biography come out this week (which had no qualms about explaining her role), and these authorised-unauthorised hagiographies come out about once a year: Jacinda Ardern a New Kind of Leader, Jacinda Ardern Leading with Empathy, I Know This To Be True Jacinda Ardern, Jacinda Ardern, etc etc. Gushing magazines for months and months after the event, together with substantial legislative changes that she personally led, attest to her role.They are at one with the intentional publicity machine generating wall to wall coverage through news and journal publications in the months and years after the massacre precisely on her actions and the kind of leadership that this represents.
Doing a film on Ardern is what her team wants (even if it’s not this one), and there is no principle against why that’s a bad idea just because it’s a film. Ardern herself is at the centre of this publicity machine and has used it all the way to power from the beginning.
So, should the Muslim community of Christchurch or New Zealand or the world if this petition goes worldwide, determine whether this film should be made? According to Mohammad Hassan from Christchurch’s Muslim community, yes. His petition wants it stopped.
And here we are again, being spoken about but not spoken to. Our intimate and devastating trauma packaged and sold by yet another twinkle-eyed Hollywood producer. Our voices are irrelevant. Our bodies props on a set designed to tell someone else’s fable.
Even I am surprised by how much this hurts. How angry it makes me. But it’s a reminder the pain is still fresh. These wounds have not healed. I write this from a place of utter exhaustion. I am tired. I do not want to deal with this today, but here we are again.
We should accept that it hurts. Full stop. I can’t imagine Prime Minister Sir John Hall at the smashing of Parihaka in 1881, wanting to see a play being done on that event or his role in it. He would look terrible. But it deserved one. It took over a century for interesting films to be made about the New Zealand Wars.
That’s the “too early” argument.
But that’s not a good argument. It simply points to a kind of creative and moral laziness that such films weren’t made, that histories weren’t told before the actual participants were long dead, and that the truths were buried with them. This creative and moral laziness has made the entire Treaty of Waitangi process damn miserable. Make the story live, or the moral force it has in our collective mind will dissolve. The result of this century of creative near-silence is that we are still having a stupid nationwide consultation about whether to include the New Zealand wars in our history curriculum. Let’s not repeat that.
Secondly films about far larger crimes against humanity through World War 2 were being made about national leadership before it began, while it was on, and for 70 years since. Same for Vietnam. This moment in Christchurch exists within a recent history of massacres of Muslims that have risen with the rise of the hard right – a crisis which many have seen as a precursor to those surrounding World War 2. Precisely because that WW2 story is told so often and in so many ways, World War 2 is and will remain our primary moral fulcrum weighing against the new rise of the racist hard right. Tell the story, so that its moral message helps define us anew from one generation to the next. Don’t tell the story and its entire moral force dissolves.
We barely know about the moral message of China and Russia’s massacres-of-millions-through-deliberate-famine, precisely because they were totalitarian regimes who suppressed such truths from being expressed – especially in film form from their own people. We struggled to put up a memorial in a rose garden to the 237 people who died in the Erebus disaster over 40 years ago.
So now we can imagine the effects if the film production company agrees, shuts the idea down, walks away, and we wipe the back of our hand against our collective forehead in relief.
The great Conservative machine about the hyper woke killing cultural expression gets a big confirmation.
The floor is open for another film company to do the film with as much or as little sympathy as they want.
The opponents of liberal, tolerant and generous democratic leadership get to stare down Biden’s challenge to find good examples of good leadership as a balance against rising tyranny.
The New Zealand film industry misses the kind of moral test that it needed.
Australia as an exporter of racist extremism goes unexamined, again.
Ardern looks like a total political hypocrite.
The failure of our own state to protect its own people goes unexamined (other than through an absurdly narrow Royal Commission).
The international machine of Muslims suppressing creative production gets another win, and also misses out on a major creative opportunity for Muslims.
But at least New Zealand is placated, its memory again erased.
Instead, make the film.