Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Pike River doco a 'triumph in its embrace of complexity and grief and humanity'

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

"Twenty nine men died on the 19th of November. Is that okay? How can that be," she asks, "in the 21st century, in New Zealand?"

These are questions posed by Kath Monk which Pike River - a NZ on Air-funded docudrama screened on Prime on Monday night - sought to answer. Inevitably it failed.

Inevitably, because those questions are unanswerable and inexplicable, a tangle of unthinking deregulation, overwork, under-resource, excessive hurry and bad luck, which turned toxic and took 29 lives six years ago.

But Pike River's inability to answer such questions, far from making it a failure, instead forged a triumph in its embrace of complexity and grief and humanity.

Pike River was an epic tragedy with many authors, and the film-makers resisted the understandable urge to find a scapegoat upon whom to pin it. Instead they sifted through layer upon layer to build a stunningly powerful narrative from which the most powerful message is that this must never be allowed to happen again.

The story is told in two distinct styles.

Pike River is less about finding answers and laying blame, and more about family.
Pike River is less about finding answers and laying blame, and more about family.

There are dramatic recreations of key moments from the day itself. This was perhaps essential - so much of the narrative of that dreadful day and those which followed could likely only be understood through such an approach. The performances, particularly those of the miners, are achingly vivid at times.

These sections though cannot help but feel somewhat limp by comparison with the interviews with those left behind. It's impossible to overstate just how powerful the interviews with the families of those entombed in that mountain are.

If it's a truism that no parent should have to bury their own child, being denied the opportunity to bury one is clearly a singular form of torment.

Many of the Pike River families found the documentary too difficult to watch.
Many of the Pike River families found the documentary too difficult to watch.

These men and women could have been forgiven for wanting to simply get on with their lives and their grieving. Yet their participation in Pike River is of such force that it's difficult to imagine any who watch it sitting by while the conditions which created this event were to ever happen again.

Those conditions were simple and, in bitter hindsight, the results predictable. Throughout the '90s and '00s the number of inspectors dedicated to checking mines dwindled from over a dozen to two. "We used to do the very gassy mines on a weekly basis," one subject recalls incredulously.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Pike River was very gassy. Yet the rush to open it to meet a then-surging coal price meant that it was built with inadequate ventilation and essentially no escape hatch. A trail of corners cut and red flags ignored which eventually exploded and tore the life out of a community.

That community is the heart of Pike River. Rowdy Durbridge in particular is an extraordinary character, in a captain's hat and wild hair, speaking with a kind of tragic, earthy poetry: "Stepping into the corridor of misery" one minute; "you can only piss with the dick you've got" the next.

Kath Monk. Photo / Supplied
Kath Monk. Photo / Supplied

Bernie and Kath Monk watched as Peter Whittall, the mine manager, sold hope to the families in the aftermath.

"I didn't shake his hand once," said Bernie at a screening I attended. He saved his energy for the crusade for workplace safety ever since, for making sure fewer parents have to suffer through what he and his wife have since.

Their stories carry Pike River through, along with those of ignored geologists and marginalised safety representatives and all those sucked inexorably into this cast by that explosion and those which followed.

Pike River "embraces" the tragedy of the event.
Pike River "embraces" the tragedy of the event.

Their stories became forever entwined on that day, and in Pike River - a labour of extraordinary love and care - they're well told.

"To me, it's not about the families as such," says Durbridge towards the end. On one level he's right. But the beauty of this deeply moving piece of television is that is never true - Pike River is always, always about the families.

Pike River will be available to view at primetv.co.nz and skygo.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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