I am proud to announce that my documentary ‘Last Words’ (a co-production with the NZ Free Speech Union) will be available on the Plain Sight website from today – watch it here. The film follows Danish lawyer and free speech advocate Jacob Mchangama on his November 2022 speaking tour of Aotearoa.
While we all come to free speech advocacy for our own reasons, mine were connected to being Jewish, an ethnic/ religious minority group that has thrived in free and democratic countries, and I was raised working class where, in the face of material oppression, your voice can be all you have.
I was also a member of the Free Speech Union council when I made this documentary. You may therefore expect to be biased. Heavily biased. You may even be inclined to dismiss it without even seeing it.
You learn a lot about yourself when you take on projects like this one. I never set out to ever be a documentary maker. When I started, I was – no point in sugar-coating it – a failed actor who had a young child and, needing to provide more stability, moved sideways into production.
Not being driven by a particular passion to create factual content, I approached this work the way I had narrative fiction, viewing the task as unlocking character rather than being particularly focused on any message.
A message or theme would come eventually, often discovered in the field towards the end of a shoot. And I’d be disingenuous to say I didn’t finally choose the theme that I would massage further in an edit. But it would be inspired by the subjects I was following, rather than my own thoughts, feelings, or politics shoehorned into someone else’s story.
While it has been a few years since I made a documentary, having focused entirely on writing for going on a decade, ‘Last Words’ could have been shot back-to-back with my last one stylistically. I try to facilitate self-portraits as much as I can, a singular perspective that I stick to like glue until it reveals to us a deeper emotional story. While this wasn’t exactly the case in ‘Last Words’, Jacob did go on a journey through his numerous interactions with a variety of New Zealanders, from lawyer and tweeter-par-excellence Graeme Edgeler to gay former Methodist minister and public policy author Dr David Bromell, and spokesperson for the Muslim community Abdur Razzaq Khan.
A question burning within me as I approached the work was around how tough it must be for Mchangama, constantly on the road with global speaking engagements, to comment for the good of a country with such a limited understanding of its culture. He was in New Zealand for 5 short days. But as the shoot kicked off, I quickly realised that my question presupposed I understood our culture. As an outsider, Jacob was forced to ask rudimentary questions, and in doing so taught me a Hell of a lot more about Aotearoa. What struck me finally was how robust our culture of free speech in New Zealand is, especially when comparisons are made to Europe, where even the most permissible countries may have clocked up 100+ hate speech convictions over time. We, to date, have 1. I had long considered Kiwis naturally conservative and questioned whether they would fight state censorship that was being handed to them in the packaging of kindness and cohesion. I was clearly wrong.
You could define propaganda as educational material that teaches you nothing. I hold the stubborn view that documentary, and fiction, demand more honesty than that.
It was nice to know that a mezuzah remains on the door of filmmaking for me, which commits me to this. I wanted to capture a warts-n-all meeting of my own board, and pursued as many supporters of hate speech laws as we could. The issue here was that only Abdur Razzaq Khan had the courage and, let’s be honest, the confidence in his arguments to present his case. With hate speech laws now shelved indefinitely their refusal to engage was clearly a massive strategic error.
This film has travelled far and wide now, enjoying a successful theatrical tour – Aotearoa-wide – that was always followed by a spirited Q & A session. I attended a few of these screenings and met many wonderful New Zealanders from across the spectrum each with their own concerns and each passionate about a need for more open discourse.
Post-Albert Park many did not take the governments wise and courageous decision to park hate speech laws very well. So, we are releasing this documentary on Plain Sight via YouTube to spread the word and would urge you to share it, and Jacob’s wonderful arguments far and wide.
Censorship is at the heart of today’s polarisation. I truly believe this. Take it off the table and we will be forced to talk to those with whom we disagree. Only then will progress be made. I don’t know about you, but I am ready for those hard discussions.