Saturday, February 24

River of Freedom: A film review

When the Stuff produced documentary “Fire and Fury” was released last year it caused quite a stir. A desperately overproduced polemic on the Parliamentary Protests of March 2022, fronted by respected journalist Paula Penfold, the creative team laid it with a trowel, from the strange apocalyptic graphics to a soundtrack worthy of a Vincent Price movie.

A lot of incredibly silly people were interviewed in “Fire and Fury”, including the batty Kate Hannah of “The Disinformation Project”, who is likely completing a victory lap after empowering a Napier publican to ban a knitting group.

According to Penfold and her dubious supporting cast, the protests were engineered by the far Right, and all who were present were either dupes or incredibly unsavory people. It was classist trash from beginning to end, but it delivered up a healthy side order of distinctly upper-crusty racism to boot, in the assertion that the sizeable Māori contingent were all unwitting tools of white supremacists.

As if Māori have ever needed to be tricked into taking issue with the state?  

Analyzing policy, I tend to zoom right out to try and gauge public reaction and any unintended consequences. Public responses matter in a democracy, after all. I don’t know why my mind travels here first: it could be due to my profession, being a screenwriter and producer, where being able to second-guess an audience’s reaction, beat by beat and scene to scene, is what makes me employable. I found that, finally, I shared almost the exact same view on the government’s COVID policy as novelist Eleanor Catton, who – while not militantly opposed to anything about it – said that without any allowance for dissent or difference, the government was always cruising for a bruising.

Gaylene Barnes ‘River of Freedom’ is an independently released theatrical documentary that takes us into the heart of this dissent and difference, and the ‘bruising’ that hastened Ardern’s political decline. After a directive from then Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard for the media not to engage with protesters, it is a supreme irony that a document like this film should emerge, that patiently covers each development in the protest, almost moment to moment, while harvesting the myriad stories and worldviews of an eclectic collection of protesters. With a 2 and a ½ hour running time, many may be daunted by the prospect, but the film rarely lags. It often doesn’t feel like you are watching a film. You have been parachuted into the middle of the protest and are experiencing it firsthand.

For all our talk of diversity in the entertainment industry, many people are probably unaware of the tight reins on the representation of minorities in much New Zealand work, especially when it comes to Māori. Māori broadcasting (which I worked in for many years) is predominantly made up of the middle-class and the university-educated, many of whom make no bones that they feel entrusted with the image of Māori and therefore entitled to filter representation. ‘River of Freedom’ is notable for featuring many Māori, from around the motu, of various ages and from various walks, who collectively kill off the aforementioned racist mainstream media narrative around their participation. What is also worth noting is that rather than being puppeted by any far Right, the disproportionate presence of Māori saw the protest embrace a Māori kaupapa – with whakawhanaunatanga and manaakitanga flowing. Barnes charts this beautifully, and the establishment of an impressive, functioning village built on goodwill and cooperation, which many of the forgotten people present have likely craved after years of governmental neglect.

Because this is the film I saw. While anti-vaccine rhetoric is present (though plenty of protesters are represented who are not hardline on the issue) I was captivated by the tender, empathetic treatment of Kiwis never seen, never heard, never recorded, never published. Many present likely had a preexisting distrust of a system, and this cause and the event of the protest was a chance to remind the rest of New Zealand that they still exist. The moronic provocations of Trevor Mallard were a rallying cry, but the truth is the working poor have been sprayed with water and told to get off our collective lawn by successive governments for decades now. The poor are pests, to Labour and National. It wasn’t misinformation that led to the protests, dear Paula: many of these people know the true face of successive governments – a face your economic and social privilege makes you blind to.

You can tell when a director, or journalist for that matter, likes people, and Barnes clearly cared for every single person at the event and wanted to honor them, and their stories. This is likely because she was one of them – with a dog in the fight -which ends up a double-edged sword for the film. Breaks with the captivating immediacy of the observational protest footage to off-site interviews and archive of Ardern (again with the Vincent Price music!) rob the film of an impartiality it could’ve benefitted from along with a stylistic unity. The narrative could’ve stayed organic, fly-on-the-wall, with everything that needed to be said or seen expressed by the diverse voices present. To be fair, Barnes does take this approach for the most part: the treatment of the Police, generally sympathetic, is all relayed to us in the moment, by protesters. They are not written off as the cowboys in the black hats at all. And the fantastic coverage of Mallard’s shenanigans probably said everything we needed to know about those in power. You can tell when a government likes people…

The cinematography of Mark Lapwood deserves a serious shout-out. I viewed the film on a “bigscreen” app on a VR headset: basically, my own private virtual reality cinema screen, so got the full big screen experience of the film. Mark is one of the best cinematographers working today. We get wonderful, unobtrusive observational work that suddenly breaks into what feels like accidental beauty. Mark’s work gives the film a majesty, demanding it be seen on the big screen.

From the very first frame, the film holds a tension in that we all know the ending. Things got incredibly dark. As it turns out the protest shed its skin a number of times over the protest and Barnes charts these various transformations too, along with some of the ideological fissures within. We know it’s coming, and when it does, the treatment of it is visceral and unflinching.   

I heard that the NZ International Film Festival declined to program ‘River of Freedom’. This strikes one as incredibly cynical. For the cinematography alone, the film demanded inclusion. For the outstanding direction by Gaylene Barnes, the film demanded inclusion. A mature viewer may detest everything the protest and the protesters stood for yet should still be able to recognise the art on display and be curious to want to meet and hear from the dissenters. If we only programmed works the toffs agreed with, where would that leave our industry?

Having not had a film in competition at Cannes for 30 years is the ready answer…

https://riveroffreedom.nz/ is being released to cinemas. Visit the website for details of screenings near you

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