Since the Cannes Market title They Are Us was announced late last week with Rose Byrne poised to play Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, there has been an outcry among many New Zealanders who believe a still-raw tragedy would be exploited by Hollywood storytellers. Criticisms include inferring that the 2019 attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch that cost 51 innocent lives would turn into a “white savior” narrative focusing on Ardern, who banned assault weapons from the country after the tragedy. Tens of thousands have signed petitions, putting on their heels filmmakers who want to tell the story of a country’s reaction to a massacre. Critics also have ignored the fact that the film’s director, Andrew Niccol, is a New Zealand native.
Tonight, a joint statement was issued to New Zealand press by Muslim Association of Canterbury (Al Noor Mosque) and They Are Us producer Ayman Jamal, laying out a more complete picture of what they movie will be.
Said Abdigani Ali Spokesperson Muslim Association of Canterbury (Al Noor Mosque):
“After the Muslim Association of Canterbury’s media statement questioning the timing of the film and raising concerns on the focus of the film – the producers of the film have got in contact with MAC to clarify our concerns. After consultation, the producers have shared the synopsis of the movie and listened to our concerns.
“MAC acknowledges that the producers have contacted and spoken to both the Imams of Al Noor and Linwood Mosque and some of the victims of March 15th terrorist attack who came forward and shared their stories with film producers. However we have come to an understanding that more consultation needs to be done with the victims of the March 15th terrorist attack which includes further dialogue with Linwood Islamic Centre and the different community groups that represent the victims such as the March 15th Victim Group, Sakinah Foundation and the other ethnic community groups that also represent victims from their ethnic communities such as the Somali, Pakistani and Bengali communities just to name a few of these community groups in Christchurch.
“We have agreed to work closely with the producers to facilitate this process of consultation and any victims of the March 15th terrorist attack who are the families of the victims, the survivors or witnesses can send their request for consultation to: email@example.com and rest assured you will be contacted as the producers have made a commitment to work with our community in an appropriate, authentic and sensitive manner.”
Said They Are Us producer Ayman Jamal:
“First and foremost, we are devastated by the pain and concerns caused by the announcement of the film by the members of the New Zealand public, the Muslim community of New Zealand and in particular the victims directly impacted by events of March 15th 2019 in Christchurch. This was never our intention, and we believe we owe a clarification to those families who lost their loved ones, survivors and witnesses regarding the film, its purpose and intention.
“Over a year ago, we have consulted with the local Muslim community of Christchurch which included Imam Gamal Fouda of Al Noor Mosque and Imam Alabi Lateef Zikrullah of Linwood Mosque and over 20 other victims of the March 15th attack,” Jamal said. “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.”
The producer shared the following synopsis of the film: “They Are Us takes place over one remarkable week, from a Friday to a Friday, Jumu’ah to jumu’ah. From the Prayer Day when a gunman chose to murder Muslims in New Zealand to the following Prayer Day when the country chose to honour them. In a mirror of New Zealand’s own approach, during the film the gunman is never shown and his name is never spoken. Instead, during the attack we witness the acts of heroism and sacrifice. The worshipers who confronted the gunman at Masjid Al Noor and shielded their fellow worshipers. At Masjid Aroha – Linwood Islamic Centre – we witness the courage of the unarmed worshipper, Abdul Aziz, who chased the gunman away and in doing so saved so many lives; the Imams of the two mosques, Fouda and Zikrullah, advocating for the families of the victims, including urging that the bodies be released in accordance with the Muslim faith. We witness the Muslim surgeon who saved the life of a four-year old girl wounded in the attack and the Christchurch residents who came to the aid of worshipers. We depict worshiper Farid Ahmed, who very publicly forgave his wife’s murderer. We depict how refugees, fleeing violence, were forced to come to terms with the cruel irony that violence claimed them in one of the safest places on earth. And we witness the actions of Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, during this remarkable week. How, an hour after hearing of the attack, she instinctively penned those three simple but unforgettable words of love and solidarity, ‘They are us.’ And in this week, she achieved in six days what countries like the United States have failed to do in decades – Banning assault rifles and all weapons of war used in the attack.
“This project was developed to share these and some of the other unique 20 plus stories that the victim families have shared with us who are the real inspiring stories and heroes with the whole world. That is why we called the movie ‘they are us’ – we wanted their stories to be heard and to make it our obligation to tell these unique stories to the world.
“There is no one hero in this film, 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. We deeply regret that we did not reach all of the families of the victims, survivors and witnesses and we want to sincerely show that we are here to listen and consult with every last victim of this tragic event who wants to express their views irrespective of what the view is and that we are ready to hear the many more inspiring stories for those who would like to share them with us. We are opening a channel of communication through the Muslim Association of Canterbury for all the families of the victims, survivors, and witnesses to email in their views, requests for consultation, requests for meetings or those who would like to share their story with us and assure them we are here to listen. The email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
This project got off to a terrible start and will fly or fail under its own weight. But it seems like maybe the initial focus in announcements on the prime minister — because Byrne was tapped to play her — created misguided suspicions of a “white savior” narrative arc. It is worth noting that films from Jojo Rabbit – a satire about a Hitler Youth advised by his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler – or the Paul Greengrass movies United 93 and 22 July could have been condemned before being made, as could happen to They Are Us. The subject matter of the last two Greengrass films were transformed into permanent cathartic documents of courage in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. It is tricky to try and squelch artistic interpretations of national tragedies, even when those tragedies are still raw. While Niccol is known for sci-fi, he is a Kiwi, and it seems he has every right to attempt to give an artistic interpretation of a tragedy which belongs to all New Zealanders.