They Are Us: Plans for film about Christchurch mosque attacks sparks anger among New Zealanders

New Zealand’s prime minister has distanced herself from plans for a film that would focus on her response to the Christchurch mosque attacks.

US-based FilmNation Entertainment is in the early stages of producing a film called They Are Us – the title is a line from one of Jacinda Ardern’s speeches in the days after the attacks.

But the plans have been criticised by many New Zealanders, some unhappy about reports that the film will focus on the prime minister, leaving the victims in the background.

Others have said the 15 March 2019 tragedy is still too raw and that Hollywood should not be able to profit from the suffering of those who are still recovering or grieving.

Ms Ardern told news website Stuff: “While it’s for the community to speak for themselves, it’s my view 15 March remains very raw for New Zealand.

“There are plenty of stories from 15 March that could be told, but I don’t consider mine to be one of them.”

She also confirmed she “had nothing to do with the film in any form and wasn’t consulted on it”.

Fifty-one people were killed when Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant opened fire on worshippers in the two mosques.

Flowers are also being left at a memorial site at Christchurch's botanic ardens
They are us – the prime minister’s words about the attack’s victims

He was jailed for life without parole last August for the 51 murders, 40 attempted murders and a charge of terrorism.

But in the days after the attacks, New Zealanders were praised for uniting in compassion for the victims and their community, led by Ms Ardern.

She was also lauded for her successful efforts to ban the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons in the country.

According to Hollywood news outlet Deadline, which broke news of the film, Ms Ardern will be played by Australian actress Rose Byrne.

The film will be made in New Zealand and directed by New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Niccol.

But more than 23,500 people have signed a petition calling for the movie to be abandoned and the hashtag #TheyAreUsShutdown was trending on Twitter in New Zealand on Friday.

Omar Nabi speaks to the media about losing his father Haji Daoud in the mosque attacks, at the district court in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019
Omar Nabi lost his father Haji Daoud in the attacks

Those behind the petition said the film’s focus on white voices “will continue to white-wash the horrific violence perpetrated against Muslim communities”.

Niccol “has not experienced racism or Islamophobia” so he should not “lead and profit” from a “story that is not his to tell”, they added.

Deadline reported that the film’s script was developed in consultation with several members of the mosques who were affected by the tragedy but this has been disputed by members of New Zealand’s Muslim community.

Survivor Farhid Ahmed poses with a photo of his wife Husna, who was killed in the attack
Survivor Farhid Ahmed poses with a photo of his wife Husna, who was killed in the attack

Sondos Qur’aan, co-chair of the National Islamic Youth Association, said the movie “is insensitive and would only serve to invalidate the experiences of survivors and victims of the attack and cannot be supported by our organisation”.

Fellow co-chair Haris Murtaza added: “The shuhadaa’ (martyrs), their families, and the wider victim community deserve to be thoroughly consulted and at the heart of any projects that relate to the 15 March terror attacks.

“Entities and individuals should not seek to commercialise or profit from a tragedy that befell our community, neither should such an atrocity be sensationalised.”

Mohamed Hassan, who hosts podcast The Guest House, which explored how Muslims made sense of the attacks, told Radio NZ: “In its essence, (the film) is a story about an act of white supremacy that is centred around white voices, white feelings and white heroism. The irony is nauseating. The lack of self-awareness is profound.”

Sky News sought comment from FilmNation early on Saturday but Niccol earlier told Deadline: “They Are Us is not so much about the attack but the response to the attack [and] how an unprecedented act of hate was overcome by an outpouring of love and support.

“The film addresses our common humanity, which is why I think it will speak to people around the world. It is an example of how we should respond when there’s an attack on our fellow human beings.”

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