Have you noticed that when people, especially politicians, say “We need to have a national discussion about this”, it generally means, “We are not going to have a national discussion about this”? I’m not sure exactly what a national discussion would look like, or where it would take place; on any given subject, we seem to go in for lots of little discussions, in lots of different places, often with very little cross-pollination. But imagine for a moment that you are in a giant room filled with every other New Zealander, and someone says, “Now we’re going to watch a film, and afterwards maybe we could talk about it”.
That is the spirit in which Operation 8, Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones’s documentary about the 2007 anti-terrorism raids, needs to be viewed. And I say “needs to be viewed” advisedly, because this is a film that every New Zealander ought to see. It has a very clear political agenda, and we ought to welcome that: there is no way to deal with this subject without taking a position on it, and a film which attempted to present itself as innocently objective would strike me as far more suspect than one which wears its heart on its sleeve. A two-hour film about three years in the life of a police case and the people it targeted simply cannot tell the full story; there isn’t time. The devil is in the things you choose to leave out. I’m much happier with the selection bias of the film-makers out in the open.
As you’ll gather from the trailer, the film speaks for the 18 people who were arrested in 2007, and their families, communities and friends. Three years on, they are finally on the verge of having their day in court. This puts obvious limitations on what can be discussed in the film. Wright and King-Jones avoid focusing on the charges the 18 are facing, aside from noting that the original attempt to charge 12 of them under the Terrorism Suppression Act fell over when the Solicitor-General ruled the act’s requirements had not been met.
Instead the film asks questions about who was targeted, how evidence was gathered, and what the implications are of having a dedicated anti-terrorism squad as a permanent feature of New Zealand’s law enforcement apparatus. For example, Police commissioner Howard Broad is shown implicitly acknowledging in media interviews that part of the Crown case rests on evidence gathered by informants. The film examines past cases where informers have been caught lying or inciting the people on whom they’re informing to break the law; we see an interview with Patrick O’Brien, a former police undercover agent who says, very straightforwardly, “I tampered with evidence; I lied; that was my job”. (He was not involved in evidence-gathering for Operation 8; he makes it clear, however, that he does not think police culture has changed since his time.) Ross Meurant – hardly a left-wing radical – is interviewed on the phenomenon of police isolation and self-reinforcing paranoia, a condition thanks to which, he says, their selective reading of ambiguous evidence is not reliable. “Much of what they deduce is bullshit.”
It would be perfectly legitimate to question how relevant these discussions are to the Operation 8 case; questioning is what the film asks you to do. Likewise, the fact that Operation 8 targeted activists from a wide range of unrelated left-wing causes may be simply because those activists were covertly working together, and not, as the film suggests, because those are the people the police are institutionally programmed to target, and sooner or later, an anti-terrorism squad is going to target someone. It would be as naive to imagine New Zealanders are incapable of plotting armed insurrection as it would be to suppose that the police are incapable of abusing their powers.
Some people will vehemently disagree with this film. Others will endorse it whole-heartedly. A lot of people will have things to say about whether and where it crosses over from advocacy into factual distortion. I want to hear all of those voices. This is not an issue to stay quiet on. The film is currently screening at World Cinema Showcase. It may screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival later this year, and it’s possible it will get some sort of theatrical distribution as well. I hope so. Personally, I want to get hold of it on DVD and watch it at least twice more. It’s a densely argued, detail-rich two hours, and it deserves to be watched, absorbed, and discussed. Yes, nationally.
OPERATION 8, directed by Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones, at the World Cinema Showcase.