Plans for a Hollywood film focusing on prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch mosque terror attacks have prompted frustration and disgust in New Zealand, with accusations that Muslim victims have been sidelined.
The film is set to star Australian actor Rose Byrne as Ardern, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and is called They Are Us – a line derived from one of Ardern’s speeches at the time. It is to be directed by New Zealand film-maker Andrew Niccol, and produced by FilmNation.
On Friday, some New Zealanders criticised the decision to tell the story of Ardern’s leadership against the backdrop of the mass murder of 51 Muslims by a white supremacist as “exploitative”, “insensitive”, and “obscene”.
Ardern has distanced herself from the movie, and issued a statement via a spokesperson saying “the prime minister and the government have no involvement in the film”.
Writer and community advocate Guled Mire said the film’s premise was “completely insensitive”. He said that while the film-makers may have consulted with some members of the Muslim community, many had no idea the news was coming. “It’s hit all of us out of the blue,” he said. “Many victims themselves haven’t even heard of this.”
He said the film’s apparent focus on Ardern glossed over the experience of Muslims who survived the attack. “The reality is many victims are struggling right now. They’re really still trying to pick up the pieces – financially, everything,” he said. “This tapped into that vulnerability to make the most out of the situation.”
Many of those injured and bereaved by the attacks face ongoing financial stress, lifelong physical issues and mental trauma, and have called for a better response from government.
Mire said: “Nobody wants to see the fact that victims themselves and their families and witnesses are not able to receive the mental health support that they rightfully deserve. Nobody wants to talk about the lack of financial compensation for the government’s failings. Not a single official has been held responsible for this.”
The Guardian has approached production company FilmNation Entertainment and Niccol’s agency for comment.
Hollywood Reporter said the film “will tell the story of how Ardern rallied New Zealand following the terror attacks on two mosques in 2019 with a message of compassion and unity, and helped push through a ban of assault rifles”. They also report that the script was “developed in consultation with several members of the mosques affected”.
New Zealand writer Mohamed Hassan criticised those behind the film for turning the attacks into a “white saviour narrative”. He added: “The pain is still fresh and real. This is upsetting, obscene and grotesque.”
Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hussein was murdered in the attack, said it was insensitive, tweeting the classic Kiwi-ism “Yeah nah”. “I don’t think this film will be received well in New Zealand. My guess is it’s Hollywood over-capitalising this,” she told Australian Associated Press.
Others voiced their anger on Twitter. Local producer Ahmed Osman said many survivors and families of the victims were still “living through [a] nightmare” and had not received sufficient support. The film amounted to “the glorification of the most tragic and traumatic thing that’s ever happened to them,” he said. “While we are at it, why don’t we make [a] film about the failings of the police and the SIS [Security Intelligence Service]. The monitoring of innocent Muslim and our community, the consistent harassment and racial profiling we go through.”
The film’s planned title, They Are Us, is drawn from a quote by Ardern in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.”
“They Are Us is not so much about the attack but the response to the attack … how an unprecedented act of hate was overcome by an outpouring of love and support,” Niccol told the Hollywood reporter. “The film addresses our common humanity,” he said.
The Ardern quote became a widespread motto of solidarity after the attacks. But the line itself has been criticised for “othering” New Zealand’s Muslim community and whitewashing the country’s ongoing problems with racism.