18 Jun 2021

The minefield of portraying real life tragedy on screen

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 18 June 2021
A member of the Muslim community uses his mobile phone out side the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2020.

Photo: NurPhoto

When news broke last week that Hollywood producers were planning a film based around the events of the 15 March terror attacks, there was immediate and understandable backlash.

Many in the Muslim community and beyond were worried the film was looking to cash in on the tragedy. Early whispers that Jacinda Ardern would be the focus of the film were met with anger from people who felt the stories of the victims and survivors of the attack should be the focus, and that the centring of Ardern reinforced a ‘white saviour’ trope.

Some people simply felt it was too soon: that this film would re-open wounds which have barely begun to heal.

Much of the commentary raised interesting questions about storytelling and ownership: who has the right to tell this story? Who is the film for? What is the point of committing such horrifying events to screen?

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan sits down with Robert Sarkies, director of the 2006 film Out of the Blue which told the story of the 1990 Aramoana massacre; and migrant film expert Arezou Zalipour, to discuss the delicate nature of filming a real-life tragedy.

Dunedin filmmaker Sarkies was in his early 20s when David Gray killed 13 people at Aramoana, a small beachside settlement, in November 1990.  He says They Are Us wrestles with a similar question at its core.

“It’s a terrible event. It’s inevitable that a film, at some point, will be made about it. Then the question is: who should make that? Who has the right to make that? And there’s no easy answer.”

More than a decade later, after making the iconic 1999 film Scarfies, Sarkies was approached by a producer friend of his, and asked to read Bill O’Brien’s book about the massacre, which the producer had optioned.

“I could see two things: I felt it was inevitable that this film would be made, because the material was so compelling.

Arezou Zalipour

Arezou Zalipour Photo: supplied

“And secondly, I felt that, if it was to be made, it needed to be made responsibly. It needed to be made by someone who could have empathy, and basically do it right. And I felt, being from Dunedin and having some concerns about how that story might be told in the wrong hands, I trusted myself to tell it. I took on the responsibility.”

As with They Are Us, Sarkies’ film faced some backlash in pre-production – notably from Chiquita Holden, whose sister, father, and father’s partner were all killed in the Aramoana attack.

Holden questioned the filmmakers’ right to tell her family’s story; but, Sarkies says, her stance changed over time. She ended up working closely with the production, and was one of the community representatives who read the script before production.

Sarkies acknowledges there are elements of the They Are Us production which are unknown, and, in some senses, unknowable: whether the right people are telling the story; what story will actually be told; whether it’s too soon; whether the views of the most affected people have been sufficiently canvassed and taken on board.

But he says there is power – healing power – in storytelling.

“I believe the human point of doing this is as a way of collectively processing [an] event.

“When something personally tragic happens to us, we personally process that by talking about it.

“That’s how we cope. Over time, we turn the events of our own lives into story.

“So, as a storyteller, that’s our role: to help an entire nation process an event.”

The Detail also speaks to Arezou Zalipour, an associate professor at Auckland University of Technology and author of Migrant and Diasporic Film and Filmmaking in New Zealand.

Zalipour says there are two different films here and both are part of Aotearoa's history now. One is a film of the 15 March attacks that should tell the stories of survivors and victims, rather than the prime minister, as it has been suggested will be the focus of They Are Us. She says the film about the prime minister and her compassionate response to the event is a different film and would still make a valuable story.

Zalipour, who also wrote Integrating Through Screen: the Muslim Diaspora in New Zealand, says ideally the film would be made by a Muslim New Zealander, and produced in New Zealand. She thinks much of the backlash stems from the fact that the American producers announced the film abruptly and without consulting widely with the affected community.