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Plans for a film on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the horrific Christchurch mosque shootings have been met with criticism in the country and accusations of “white saviorism.”
On Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that FilmNation Entertainment is bringing They Are Us to the Cannes Virtual Market later this month. The film, written and directed by Kiwi filmmaker Andrew Niccol, is set to star Rose Byrne as Ardern and takes place in March 2019, in the days after a deadly terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch by a white supremacist in which 51 people were murdered.
They Are Us is being billed as an “inspirational story” that follows Ardern as she helped rally the government and citizens behind her message of compassion and unity and ban assault rifles in New Zealand. The title of the film comes from Ardern’s powerful speech describing the victims of the attack.
As news of the film reached New Zealand, local media reported on a growing backlash with critics uncomfortable with the biopic’s focus on Ardern over Muslims in Christchurch still grieving after the attack. On social media, the hashtag #TheyAreUsShutdown began to trend in New Zealand as survivors, Muslims, writers and activists reacted to the project.
👉🏽 Say no to them using your locations
👉🏽 Say no to hiring gear
👉🏽 Say no to being talent
👉🏽 Say no to being crew
👉🏽 Say no to interviewing them or promoting on your media platforms
— Kera O’Regan | on hiatus (@keraoregan) June 11, 2021
Stuff NZ reported that Christchurch’s Muslim community felt “blindsided” by the biopic and that they were not consulted. Aya Al-Umari, whose brother, Hussein, died in the attack, said she learned about the film through social media. “Without knowing the context of the movie I’m not sure I can put a positive spin to it. It seems like it’s just capitalizing on what happened here and I don’t think it will be well received in New Zealand,” she told Stuff NZ.
In a statement to the NZ Herald, Christchurch Muslim Association spokesperson Abdigani Ali said: “Although recognition of our Prime Minister for her response to attacks is well deserved, we question the timing and whether a movie is appropriate right now?”
On Twitter, Mohamed Hassan, an award-winning New Zealand journalist and poet and host of The Guest House — a podcast that explores how Muslims made sense of the Christchurch mosque attacks — tweeted that the filmmakers did not have the right to “turn this into a White Saviour narrative.”
In a longer and much-discussed opinion piece for the NZ Herald, Hassan writes, “Even worse, that the film has chosen to focus not on the tragedy and the victims, but instead on the prime minister and the rest of the country and their response.”
He added, “It is being sold as a feel-good story, a portrayal of heroism in the face of terror. In its essence, it is a story about an act of white supremacy that is centered around white voices, white feelings and white heroism. The irony is nauseating. The lack of self-awareness is profound.”
Ardern has already distanced herself from the project, telling Stuff NZ that “neither she nor the Government had any involvement with the production.”
THR has reached out to FilmNation for comment.
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