Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

Why it's far too soon to be making a movie about the Christchurch attacks

A movie entitled 'Hello Brother' is being made about the New Zealand terror attack that left 51 dead, and the city's Muslim community appear to know nothing about it

The Christchurch terror attack on two mosques left 51 people dead. Reuters
The Christchurch terror attack on two mosques left 51 people dead. Reuters

Somewhere in Christchurch right now, a mother is experiencing her first Ramadan without a son. Wives are adjusting to lives without their husbands. A father remains by the bedside of his daughter, who has been in hospital for over two months.

The trauma of the terror attacks that took the lives of 51 people while they were praying in two mosques in the New Zealand city is still fresh; the families and friends are still adapting to their new normal.

So the announcement of a film that will rehash that distress, as people are still navigating the immediate aftermath, seems particularly ill-advised. Even more so considering its not a New Zealand production, nor does it seems to be in any way associated with the country.

Christchurch is my hometown and is where my family still reside, though I've lived overseas for the best part of three years. For that reason, I know that I'm not in the best position to be commenting on an upcoming film about a city I now only frequent at irregular intervals – so I can't imagine how an Egyptian director is faring at the prospect of creating it .

The director first floated this idea one week after the attacks

A movie on the massacre was officially announced at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday by its producer, Cairo-based Moez Masoud. But it's not the first time the idea has been bandied around – Masoud first declared his intentions on Twitter just over a week after the attack.

"What has happened and is happening in New Zealand is worthy of chronical and humanitarian documentation and a communal reconsideration (of the other) away from ignorance, fanaticism and extremism which are not exclusive to anyone," he said, in Arabic.

"We will soon start, if God wills, the production of Hello Brother, an international film of [about] humanity."

Suffice to say that didn't go down to well at that time, either.

The film will follow a family of refugees that fled Afghanistan for Christchurch. It will be called Hello Brother – the words spoken by a Muslim worshipper to the gunman as he entered the Al Noor mosque.

The Muslim community in Christchurch were unaware of the film's inception

It's one thing for an international film crew to swoop in on an unfamiliar city and attempt to tactfully capture a tragedy, and the fallout of which they have not experienced, but perhaps the most jarring aspect of all of this is that the Muslim community in the city does not seem to be involved at all, nor does it seem to have been properly consulted.

The Muslim Association of Canterbury have said publicly that they had not had a proposal for the film, "nor have we agreed to it".

"We stress that no discussion has taken place with the Muslim Association of Canterbury for this. One man visited the mosque yesterday (Tuesday May, 14) and said that they had vague ideas about shooting something but no proposal was made to us," they wrote, in a statement on social media.

"We cannot stop such projects going ahead if film makers choose to embark on them but The Muslim Association of Canterbury regards the dignity and privacy of our community and the dignity of those whose lives were taken as paramount. We have always sought to protect this dignity and will continue to do so."

How soon is "too soon"?

But the post-disaster documentary isn't exactly a new concept. Last year, Hotel Mumbai offered a dramatisation of the 2008 siege at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and 22 July told the story of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway (using a Norwegian cast and crew). Netflix waited two-and-a-half years to team up with French director duo, the Naudet brothers, to make a movie on the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

The time between the events occurring and films being released are, on the whole, respectable. I mean, Titanic came out almost a full century after the ship went down in the North Atlantic.

Lastly, most of these documentaries and movies are either made by people in the communities affected, or film makers work closely with them from the get-go. It's simply unacceptable for them to be caught unaware by a far-reaching announcement made at a huge international event on taking their, incredibly personal, experiences to the big screen.

Christchurch's last tragedy played out in several films, but most were made by Cantabrians

For the people of Christchurch, it's an unfortunate feeling of deja vu; that a tragedy inflicted on their hometown would be played out before them again, perhaps several times.

The same debate surfaced after the earthquakes in 2011. The first earthquake-related film When A City Falls, premiered in November 2011 – 14 months after the city's first earthquake that reduced many buildings to rubble, and nine months after the deadly February earthquake which killed 185 people and devastated the city. Was it too soon, people asked?

But the difference was that this film was made by a Christchurch resident who experienced the disaster too, and the movie itself had come about almost inadvertently.

Film-maker Gerard Smyth had just been tying together a smaller film about the 7.1 magnitude September earthquake when the 6.3 quake on February 22 hit. As buildings fell around him, he took off with a camera into the central city to document the disaster befalling Christchurch – one of the first people he encountered was an ex-colleague's girlfriend. That ex-colleague had just died in the CTV building. There was perhaps no one better suited to make this movie.

Mourners perform congregational prayers on the sidelines of the funeral of Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi, 71, a victim of the Al Noor Mosque massacre in Christchurch on March 21, 2019. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on March 21 announced an immediate ban on the sale of assault rifles and semi-automatics in a muscular response to the Christchurch terror attack that killed 50 people. / AFP / Anthony WALLACE
Mourners perform congregational prayers on the sidelines of the funeral of Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi, 71, a victim of the Al Noor Mosque massacre. AFP.

The city's next big turn in front of the camera didn't come until several years later, on the fourth anniversary of the February quake. Had it been too long, people asked? How much longer would we have to relive this horror, and how much more was there left to say?

It's a fine line to tread. After all, who decides what constitutes "too soon", and what's "dragging a tragedy out for entertainment purposes?".

But when The Day That Changed My Life screened, the documentary was widely lauded for its sensitive story-telling. By then, the dust had settled and the signs of recovery were promising. For many of us who lived through the ensuing aftershocks and navigation of a broken city, it helped us assess exactly how far we'd come. But more importantly, the director, Christopher Dudman, was also from Christchurch.

A number of other earthquake documentaries and short films have surfaced over the years, but nothing yet that has brought in overseas actors and film crews to retell a story felt so deeply, by so many, in such dramatic fashion.

If that day ever comes, it would need to be handled sensitively and with due care to all parties involved: most notably, the Christchurch community.

Updated: May 20, 2019 10:25 AM

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