Law professor: Mosque attack victims’ stories are of utmost importance


This was meant to be a week of starting forward on a new path, with the inaugural hui He Whenua Taurikura and its focus on countering terrorism and violent extremism taking place.

He Whenua Taurikura translates to “a country at peace”. Finding, and securing, that peace following the attacks on Al Noor and Linwood mosques, in which 51 people were murdered and 40 injured on March 15, 2019, will be an intergenerational project.

There is certainly a lot to talk about at the hui but, unfortunately, the topic which is likely to dominate is the news that Hollywood (FilmNation to be specific) wants to make a movie, They Are Us, which appears to reflect only one angle of the catastrophe.

In many ways, this should not be news. Hollywood thrives on the stories, and often the tragedies, of others. They know movies around terrorism captivate audiences and, accordingly, they make money. That is a large part of the nature of that industry. Even in New Zealand, the Aramoana tragedy, in which 13 people were murdered by another heavily armed gunman, was followed by a movie (supported by the New Zealand Film Commission) of the event.

News that They Are Us is set to be produced has brought an outrage in New Zealand, to which a petition has been signed by tens of thousands of people. This has drawn both domestic and international attention. The outrage is not that a movie is being produced about March 15 but, in the opinion of most, this is not the correct movie to be made.

They Are Us, apparently, will focus on the way that the Prime Minister dealt with attack upon the mosques and not upon the Muslims that were within them or why this occurred. While this misplaced focus may matter to many New Zealanders, it will not matter to Hollywood. Their attention will be on box-office sales. Ours on the social fabric, integrity, and healing processes for our country in the wake of what happened.

The anger of many is currently calling for the Prime Minister to denounce the project, and ensure that no state funding goes towards it. Denouncing movies by heads of state is not unknown. Among others, President Obama did it, as has Kim Jong-un and even Donald Trump. Each one had very different motivations, and there is no rules or guidance on what is appropriate, or not, to denounce.

Ensuring funding control is somewhat easier, as the rules around this are set down for the New Zealand Film Commission, with their strong obligation that they must only support projects which have a significant New Zealand content.

Here is the problem. Clearly, a movie about a New Zealand Prime Minister, around an event that occurred in Christchurch, has a significant New Zealand content. It’s just the wrong content. Similarly, while our Prime Minister has already distanced herself from the project by stating “my story is not the one to be told”, it does not solve the problem – namely – facilitating the story that does need to be told.

The story that needs to be told is by the Muslim community which was at the target of the attack. It needs to be told on their terms, in their words and with their consent. These victims and their community must not be allowed to become invisible, yet the way the matter currently sits, they are. Worst still, this problem may be repeated. There are many possible stories that could be told of March 15, and each one may further submerge the voice that needs to be heard (with an equal audibility) the most.

This result is the opposite of what the Royal Commission recommended, with the creation of tools to ensure the support and ongoing recovery needs of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses, as well as the need to improve the social cohesion and social inclusion of New Zealand’s diverse population. It also fails around other independent goals, to make sure that victims of crimes are not sidelined.

What this all boils down to is the need to focus on the voices that need to be heard. In a country with the some of the best filmmakers in the world, and a government agency that invests in New Zealand feature films, the answer should be simple.

• Alexander Gillespie is a Professor of Law at the University of Waikato

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