Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

OPINIONSocietyAugust 9, 2021

The They Are Us film should not just be paused. It should be binned forever

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

The draft screenplay confirms the New Zealand Muslim community’s worst fears, writes Sara Salman.

By now just about everyone has heard about They Are Us, a proposed film based on the March 15 terror attacks, with Jacinda Ardern’s response in the foreground. Following a wave of controversy the filmmaker behind the project, New Zealander Andrew Niccol, has announced it’s been put on hold. Niccol said he was “deeply saddened by the pain” the movie had caused in the Christchurch Muslim community and upset by the leak of a screenplay, which he insisted was an incomplete draft.

While it might be paused, it is far from stopped. Niccol also stressed he was eager to get the project back in development. For me, as an expert on violence, and a member of the Muslim community, that’s troubling news. Because the film has what I see as an incurable problem: by putting this story through the Hollywood machine, it is almost inevitable that it emerges tainted by racist and offensive tropes. The problem can be seen even in the tired title, “They Are Us” – a clear expression of the arc of the film and its intended representation of the terror attack. Having read the leaked passages of the draft script and the discussion around it, I can only conclude this would be a film that silences uncomfortable truths, that shrinks from confronting white supremacy, that creates a narrative of love which bypasses healing.

“They are us” is a slogan that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the attack, intended to acknowledge its victims and to invite New Zealand Muslims into New Zealand society. It came out of collective shock at the “loss of innocence” for New Zealand – an idea that is itself a myth. “They are us” was an attempt to atone for years of racism. But the chant was a knee-jerk reaction. New Zealanders believed that saying “they are us” would create unity in the face of the terrorist. The truth is that we, New Zealand Muslims, remained “they”, even as we grieved and mourned the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history. Attending vigils and memorials where the slogan echoed from speakers and on signs, I felt angry. After many years of being a New Zealander, I was still spoken about as if I had not been one of “us” all along. I felt invisible; it was strange to be in the company of fellow citizens being referred to in the third person. “They are us” speaks about us rather than to us. The mantra, though well-meaning, is in fact exclusionary.

It is not surprising that the filmmakers would repeat this chant. It is clear to me they simply have not grasped the pain of the March 15 horror and the long road ahead to a cohesive society. Muslim New Zealanders remain seen as outsiders, not quite “Kiwi”. Muslim identity up until the attack had been largely formed in the New Zealand imagination through the monolithic lens of security-9/11-Hollywood, which conflates Muslims and Arabs, and reduces our history to decadence and terror. Muslim demands to be protected from racist violence in the country went unheeded for years precisely because Muslims are treated as a security threat, a “they” who must be monitored. Stop referring to your fellow citizens as “they.”

Against this backdrop, putting Ardern’s voice at the centre of the story is cruel. Her response is the minimum duty of care in a democratic regime that prides itself on tolerance and openness. It is also decidedly normal; the prime minister did her job, even if some countries such as the US have chosen disgraceful ways to address such catastrophes.

Perhaps because Ardern was simply doing her job, her response has been given the Hollywood hyperbole. According to the leaked script, she is shown sobbing alone, and comforted by Winston Peters, who consoles her in Te reo Māori.

Was the catastrophe of March 15, and the victims’ stories, not sufficiently moving? The leaked script and the altering of victims’ experiences suggests an obliviousness on the part of the filmmakers, an inability to understand the magnitude of the event as it was. It is little wonder that New Zealanders have responded with disdain to a script that seeks to be a love letter to the prime minister.

I understand the filmmakers’ confusion. From their perspective, I suspect, the story possesses no negative stereotypes about Muslims, therefore it’s a welcome change from the usual Hollywood movies. But this is glib. Racism against Muslims takes different forms in film, and the terrorist trope is only one way to dehumanise Muslims.

The filmmakers re-tell the massacre, as it appears in the leaked script, in a way that defines the terror attack as part of New Zealand’s destiny to be crowned loving and tolerant country of the year. The filmmakers believe that the film tells a story of love’s triumph over hate. The film chooses to tell the story by showing the deaths in graphic detail, while concealing the whiteness of the terrorist, who is not shown at all.

The white supremacist terrorist attacked and killed Muslims. Rather than confronting him and the ugly beliefs that birthed his attack, the film takes a different turn. The killing of Muslims is reconfigured as a teachable moment: This is what happens when guns are loose. We need a leader who will rescue us. Indeed, the film re-narrates the terror attack in a way that all but wipes out New Zealand’s responsibility for it. It offers the dead as a sacrifice and reduces the horror of March 15 to sentimental notions of love and unity.

Here, Muslims are not terrorists; instead they are side characters whose deaths offer a lesson. The representation of Muslims in the leaked script evokes the idea of “noble savages”. They may respond heroically, they may die in the process, but ultimately they need a white saviour to make things right. It is a classic racist trope.

In effect, the film wipes out the agentive and activist Muslim voices that have been fighting for years against racism in New Zealand. It erases what Muslims in New Zealand have known for a long time: that the terrorist attack could have been prevented had the government been paying proper attention. The film takes away the full humanity of those who died – their deaths are simply a lesson for the viewers. The film falsely elevates the prime minister to the role of white saviour, as if she did not need help and political cooperation to get things done. It is no wonder politicians, too, think the film needs to be canned.

The terrorist attack of March 15 is a story of a hatred that metastasized over the last decade as the world stood silent, while New Zealand in large part ignored the racism eating at its society. I agree that if a story is to be told on the big screen, Muslims have to tell it. But if a story is to be told at all, it has to begin with what it means to live in New Zealand in the aftermath of 9/11, amid years of growing vitriol against Muslims. We cannot move forward unless we dispel illusions about who we are as a country. A film that elevates fictitious narratives about love is not an ode to heroes, but an exercise in gaslighting, Hollywood style.

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