Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The case for and against the “They Are Us” film

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The case for and against the “They Are Us” film

The last week has been full of debate over plans to make a film about the 2019 terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques. The vast majority of media coverage has focused on opposition to the film. These criticisms need to be taken seriously. But a strong case can be made in favour of a film that is about peace, tolerance, compassion, and against hate.

The case against the film

A number of strongly worded and argued cases have been made against the film. The main three complaints are that the film focuses on the wrong subject (because it deals with the aftermath of the tragedy including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the crisis), the film is being made “too soon” after the horrific day, and the Muslim community in Christchurch has not been consulted.

Yesterday, one of the strongest criticisms was published – that of Mohamed Moustafa, whose father was killed in the terrorist attack. He says that if we focus on Ardern’s leadership of the crisis, which he says was only displaying “basic humanity”, then “we are inadvertently lowering the bar” – see: Terror film a squandered opportunity to ask questions we’ve never had answers to.

Moustafa predicts the film will be a “whitewashed” account “where a false narrative of white saviourism is preached”. He argues the storytellers show “arrogance, entitlement and self-interest”. And since the attack, “Not much has changed in terms of racism and Islamophobia in this country.” He says: “The truth is that we still have a long way to go in this country before we can even consider telling this story.”

Similarly, journalist and poet Mohamed Hassan condemns the movie project for allegedly choosing Ardern as a focus: “In its essence, it is a story about an act of white supremacy that is centred around white voices, white feelings and white heroism. The irony is nauseating” – see: They are not us and it hurts to be props in a Hollywood movie.

He believes that in the aftermath, the “country was being held up as a beacon of tolerance and peace”, with Ardern’s “They are us” phrase being nothing “more than just another tourism slogan”.

One of the organisers of the petition to get the film’s production shut down, Guled Mire, wrote a hard-hitting column, saying: “They Are Us is another example of lazy filmmaking that seeks to drive the same old narrative [of negativity about Muslims]. It seeks to whitewash the murder of 51 people and the permanent scars left on so many more. What we do not need is for Hollywood to appropriate, rewrite and shove another white saviour narrative down our throats. At the very worst, the film represents torture porn” – see: We won’t stop until white saviour film shut down.

Mire also asserts that Ardern’s leadership during the terrorism crisis doesn’t warrant attention: “there is nothing to celebrate about the actions of Ardern in the initial days following March 15. She simply did what is required from a leader.” And he criticises Ardern for not opposing the “grotesque” film more strongly. He says he wants to “see the deplatforming of this movie”, and “Ardern’s Government must ensure there will be no opportunity for the creators to access subsidies to develop” it.

Journalist Saziah Bashir is also unhappy that Ardern’s role in the story has received so much attention, and says it doesn’t deserve celebration: “How can we celebrate this tragedy as something that was ultimately a triumph because someone got a pretty photo of Ardern in a hijab and it inspired some graffiti art and a light show in Dubai?” See her opinion piece: They are (using) us: ‘How is it okay for others to profit off our pain?’.

Overall, for Bashir the film is “exploitative”, in “bad taste”, and she asks this about the film: “how can we be certain the violence won’t be glorified?”

A number of political commentators have come out strongly against the film. Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame says the director, Andrew Niccol, “has actually written or directed two of my all-time favourite films” but in this case “I will not be paying $21 to go to They Are Us” because of the apparent Hollywood-style focus on Ardern – see: They Are Us movie wrong to focus on Jacinda Ardern.

Politicians have also been critical. Most notably, Ardern has said: “There are plenty of stories from March 15 that could be told, but I don’t consider mine to be one of them.” Christchurch Mayor, Lianne Dalziel, says that she’s “outraged” by the project, and film workers will not be welcome in her city. And Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has been tweeting in condemnation of the film, including saying “This is white supremacy” – see Emily Brookes’ Jacinda Ardern on Christchurch mosque attacks film: ‘My story is not the one to be told’.

The petition against the film, organised by the National Islamic Youth Association, now has nearly 73,000 signatures, and can be found here: Shut Down ‘They Are Us’ Movie, which side-lines victims of the March 15th terrorist attack.

Details of the film revealed

A lot of the above accounts are based on certain assumptions about the film and about the production so far, and some of these have turned out not to be true. It appears that many critics have put their trust in a Hollywood media report about the producer’s fundraising attempts. Is it possible critics have jumped the gun by speaking out in condemnation before any real details of the filming are known?

While a full announcement has not been made, a statement was put out late last week by the producers of the film and the Muslim Association of Canterbury which set the record straight – see: Christchurch mosque shooting movie: They Are Us movie producers to meet with more victims. This shows that the film does not intend to focus on Jacinda Ardern, and the Muslim community has, in fact, been consulted about the film, including the Imams of the two mosques in Christchurch.

Producer Ayman Jamal – who has a background in producing films telling Muslim stories – explained that despite allegations Ardern would be the centre of the story, there is no one hero in the film. Instead, he explains the focus: “Collectively, the New Zealand people from diverse backgrounds showed us – the rest of the world – that together they turned an horrific terrorist attack to unity, love and compassion by sticking together and affirming that they are all one and in this together.” Furthermore, according to this report, “The synopsis reveals the attacks will be shown – but that the scenes depicted will be the acts of heroism and sacrifice carried out by ordinary people that day.”

This story also reports the Muslim Association of Canterbury acknowledged that producers had spoken with local Imams. Jamal has been quoted saying that over a year ago the production spoke to “Imam Gamal Fouda of Al Noor Mosque and Imam Alabi Lateef Zikrullah of Linwood Mosque and over 20 other victims of the March 15th [2019] attack”, but “At the time the Christchurch Muslim community was going through a lot, and we were engaging only with those families who were ready to share their story with us at that time” – see Emily Brookes’ They Are Us producers consulted Christchurch Imams, but ‘deeply regret’ not doing more.

According to this report, the producers and the Muslim Association of Canterbury plan to continue to work together on the project, and Jamal has expressed his deep regret that more consultations have not yet taken place.

It appears that despite earlier reports that the Muslim community is united in its opposition to the film project, many are in fact supportive, and there are strong differences between the various groups. This is explored further in Emily Brookes’ Mosque attacks film causing division in Muslim community, youth organisation slams ‘performative’ promise for consultation.

In favour of the film

Despite the avalanche of feelings expressed against the They Are Us film being made – something that blogger Martyn Bradbury has described as Orwellian “cancel culture” – there are a number of voices arguing that such a film is needed.

Writing in Stuff newspapers today journalist Lana Hart, who has already told the story of March 15 in a radio series, argues that the They Are Us producers might have got some elements wrong, but there is a strong case for making films about tragedies like March 15 – see: It’s not the film. It’s the approach to the film.

Here’s Hart’s main point: “Could a film, like art, serve the greater purpose of helping us make sense of the world? Imagine you didn’t live in Christchurch or New Zealand but cared about the issues and people affected by the massacre. In Dublin or Mecca, you are as horrified by what happened here as we locals are. Maybe you want to know more. Maybe you need energy and purpose to address the underlying reasons for the attacks. From outside Aotearoa, you have a genuine curiosity about the people, facts, and responses to the tragedy. A sensitively-produced film holds the potential to spread important messages to a global audience interested in what happened here.”

Hart quotes another film specialist, Matt Mueller, saying “Hasn’t art always been about processing human trauma and making sense of the senseless?” She also draws attention to some great film storytelling about other tragedies, such as the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2011 Norwegian killings.

For the must-read defence of the film being made, see Chris Trotter’s Nobody owns the Christchurch tragedy. He argues the story of Ardern’s response should be central to a film about what happened in Christchurch: “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.”

He argues the positive story about how the nation drew together in condemnation of the tragedy is a problem for some on the political left who want to paint New Zealand as deeply racist and Islamophobic. Essentially, Trotter’s argument is that those objecting to the film project have a problem with the unifying They Are Us message.

Herald columnist John Roughan also thinks Ardern’s leadership was heroic and worthy of focus, saying it’s “hard to see how she could not be” a heroine of the film – see: It is not too soon for the Christchurch mosque attacks to be focus of film (paywalled). He says: “Ardern’s response had a profound effect on the world. Two years on, it’s even possible to say she changed history that day.”

Roughan says that what happened “needs some reflection while it remains fresh in the memory. It is also hard to see how the story could fail to do justice to the victims and the survivors, as [the critics] fear.”

Columnist Mike Yardley does wonder if the film project is happening too soon and has the right focus, but says it should be allowed to be made – see: Movie plan breathtakingly crass, but should it be cancelled?. He concludes the filmmakers should be free to make it, and the audience free to stay away from the screenings: “Yes, They Are Us makes me squirm. But should it fall prey to cancel culture? The woke want it shut down, but freedom of speech isn’t confined to what we agree with, or what chimes with our sensibilities. If you don’t support it, spurn it. Don’t go to it and don’t view it.”

Blogger Martyn Bradbury has written a number of posts defending the film project, and criticising those who want it shut down. For instance, see: The woke cancellation of a movie they haven’t seen is ugly & why Golriz’s definition of white supremacy is terrifying. He says, “I think this movie focusing on the leadership of a young white female Prime Minister using kindness and empathy in the aftermath of a white supremacists terror attack is the exact movie the world needs right now.”

Other filmmakers have also been interviewed about how movies can be made in a sensitive and appropriate way, and whether they should be made at all. For example, Emile Donovan has interviewed Robert Sarkies, the producer of Out of the Blue (about Aramoana), about these ethical difficulties, and found that opponents of his film actually became supportive – see: The minefield of portraying real life tragedy on screen.

Similarly, see Emily Brookes’ ‘What people don’t want is to be exploited’: The people who’ve made films about Kiwi tragedies. In this, David Stubbs, who directed the TV series on the Bain family murders, Black Hands, says such films are not usually made for great profit or fame: “From my experience it’s generally about finding the truth in complex stories and honouring the legacy of victims.”

Finally, for a very different analysis of the problems with the potential They Are Us film, economist Eric Crampton looks at whether such a film – which is likely to receive government subsidies to be made – would count as an “election advertisement” if it’s released during the 2023 election year – see: Mosque attacks film: Movies about politicians should not be taxpayer-funded.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.