Interrogating the terror

An armed police officer blocks a road into the Urewera Mountains in footage from the documentary <i>Operation 8</i>.
An armed police officer blocks a road into the Urewera Mountains in footage from the documentary <i>Operation 8</i>.

Masked gunmen descended on Ruatoki in the dead of night in 2007. But not to worry, they were police. Tom McKinlay talks to a couple of film-makers who aren't quite so relaxed about it.

As a chapter in the war on terror closed this week, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, ripples from the tsunami of fear he helped unleash lapped against distant New Zealand.

Cables released by Wikileaks indicated that the police case against the Urewera 18 was expected to end merely in fines for the defendants, according to the police themselves.

That result would be a big come-down from the fevered talk of terrorism by police and politicians alike in the days after the arrests on October 15, 2007 - sparked by fears of paramilitary camps in the thickly forested North Island hills.

It is another twist in a tale two New Zealand documentary makers have been following since the early days of the drama. Their documentary, Operation 8, screens as part of the World Cinema Showcase film festival next week in Dunedin.

That all the talk of terrorism has gone quiet is no surprise to the film-makers, Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones, who quickly sensed that the picture painted on prime-time television did not quite ring true.

"I saw the news headlines on October 15 [2007] and I was just generally kind of shocked and confused as to what seemed to me to be a really aggressive, full-on police action, especially what had happened up in Ruatoki," Wright said.

"Then on the same day I think [then Police Commissioner] Howard Broad was on the news at 5 o'clock and he put this terrorism idea out into the public."

It seemed to Wright then that Mr Broad was getting ahead of the evidence, as little time had elapsed since the raids to determine whether insurgency was really in the making - more than 60 houses around New Zealand had been raided.

As it turned out, the police case unravelled quickly, and within four weeks of the raids charges laid under the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2002 were dropped when the Solicitor-general decided they would not stand up.

What is left of the police case is scheduled to finally make its way to trial later this month.

In making Operation 8 - which takes its name from the police operation - Wright and King-Jones went back to the people whose houses were raided, as well as looking at some wider issues.

"Doing the interviews with the people up in Ruatoki about what happened to them on the day of the raids was quite moving, just to hear the stories of families and specifically what had happened to children and the fact that people had been locked in sheds and not been given food and that kind of thing," King-Jones says.

"Also in terms of the broader area that we look at in terms of police surveillance in New Zealand and the extent to which that has targeted activists in really intrusive ways was quite eye-opening."

Among those the film-makers talked to were a former police undercover agent, whose revelations and observations about the raids were "especially dramatic", she says.

"In the broader sense, we looked at what goes on in New Zealand in terms of the surveillance and security agencies and how much power they have and how they keep extending that power with every new bit of legislation that comes in, in terms of their reach of surveillance into the lives of Kiwis.

"I guess putting all of that stuff, and looking at where the war on terror and colonisation has come from into one document gives a view of a side of New Zealand that many people don't have a window on."

And for the people of Ruatoki, in the Tuhoe lands at the centre of the action, the raids had more than a little of the whiff of colonisation about them.

"That was what came out immediately," King-Jones says.

"For Tuhoe in particular, they have a very specific personal history with the police in terms of it being an arm of the State."

Parallels were drawn with the police action taken against Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu in 1916, during which his son was killed and Kenana taken away and imprisoned.

"For them it was a very real current thing happening in terms of them being able to link it back to their recent experience with the State and the police."

The film opens with the 2007 raids.

"We begin the film by getting the first-hand experiences of these people, when they tell the story of what it was like to wake up on October 15 and hear something outside their house or see red dots in their house and what their initial reactions were," King-Jones says.

"Was this just some drunk people walking past on their way home, or the horses running around their house? Then suddenly there's these guns and these guys in terror get-up and they are being yelled at and screamed at and their families are being dragged out on to the street.

"Then on the other side of it you had the people who just thought, suddenly there were these police officers there 'and they were telling me I was a terrorist and it was just ludicrous and I just laughed'."

Wright says recent concerns raised by members of Te Whanau A Apanui on the North Island's East Coast that they might be subjected to similar raids as a result of their protest against offshore oil drilling, should not be lightly dismissed.

"Ultimately it is always a possibility. The reality is that there are 16 detectives in Auckland working full-time on finding the terrorist threats, there are 12 in Wellington and I think eight in Christchurch, so I think the threshold for what these people are looking at is lowered," he says.

"Over the last few years we have seen more and more use of the Armed Offenders [Squads] coming out for what would usually be a routine thing and ultimately people are getting shot or totally intimidated."

Some care had to be taken by the film-makers with court cases looming. They had to be careful not to include anything covered by suppression orders or that would otherwise put them in contempt of court.

"We didn't ask people in any of the interviews what was going on at these supposed camps because anything along that line of questioning is sub judice," King-Jones says.

Screenings of the documentary in the North Island have been well-attended, the film-makers say, with extended question-and-answer sessions at the end.

"People are usually quite worked up after the screenings and want to know more," King-Jones says.

The pair will also be at the Dunedin screenings in the coming week.

Catch it
Operation 8 screens at Rialto, in Dunedin, on Monday at 8.30pm and on Tuesday at 11.15am as part of the World Cinema Showcase film festival.


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