A picture of terror in the Ureweras

By Peter Calder

Still from the documentary Operation 8. Photo / Supplied
Still from the documentary Operation 8. Photo / Supplied

If you're not paranoid, you haven't been paying attention. It's an old line, coined half in wry humour, half in deadly earnest, but it has a special pungency for Wellington filmmaker Errol Wright.

Wright and co-director Abi King-Jones have spent most of the last three years making Operation 8, a restrained, even sober survey of the October 2007 "anti-terror raids" and their aftermath, that patiently paints a disturbing picture of the use of state force to suppress political dissent.

Wright is aware that the undertaking will have attracted close official attention. He recalls driving along a remote road late one evening and noticing a car a couple of hundred metres behind.

"My cellphone rang," he says, "so I pulled over to answer it. And the other car pulled over 200m back. Then when I drove off, it continued to follow me."

The incident spurred Wright to write to the Security Intelligence Service asking what information it held about him.

He shows me the short letter he received in response. Over the signature of director Warren Tucker, it declines to confirm or deny that the SIS holds anything. In doing so, the letter says, it relies on section 32 of the Privacy Act, which allows an agency to withhold information if its release could "prejudice the maintenance of the law".

"Which is a yes," chips in King-Jones.

"We have just taken the view that we expect there will be surveillance [of us] and we carry on. It's not a very nice feeling, but it brings you closer to the world of the people you are documenting."

The events of October 15, 2007 introduced the word "terrorist" into our domestic political discourse for the first time since 9/11 made it the century's most electrifying buzzword. More than 300 police raided 60 houses around the country, many in the Ruatoki valley in the heart of Tuhoe country.

The raids, which resulted in 18 arrests, followed more than a year of surveillance and related to an alleged paramilitary training camp deep in the forests of the Urewera ranges.

Within less than four weeks, the police case was in tatters: charges laid under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 were dropped after the Solicitor-General declined to prosecute them. He specifically defended the police action, but said there was insufficient evidence to sustain the charges, brought under legislation he called "complex and incoherent" and "almost impossible to apply to domestic circumstances".

The firearms charges that remain are scheduled to be heard - controversially before a judge alone, not a jury, for reasons that have themselves been suppressed - next month in Auckland.

Operation 8 - the film takes its title from the police codename for the 2007 raids - deliberately avoids using an instructive or tendentious voiceover. But it provides a pretty useful summary of a story which, its makers fear, has fallen off the public radar.

"I think a lot of people are saying 'whatever happened with that? Are they in prison?'," says King-Jones. "Other people think the whole issue was finished when the Solicitor-General made the decision. People want to know - and they need to know - what happened and why."

What's new about the film is that it gives a voice to those who have so far been voiceless. The opening shots, a helicopter-eye view of the forest, plays over the words of 12-year-old Patricia Lambert, caught in the raids on Tuhoe.

"I saw all these people in black," she says. "It was really scary."

Patricia ushers in the testimony of others in Tuhoe and elsewhere whose stories of police actions would be comical if they were not so chilling: unlocked doors kicked down; fences smashed a few metres from a wide-open gate; children and grannies in their nightwear, kneeling on wet concrete at gunpoint; officers yelling "you will be sent to Guantanamo!".

Meanwhile a gallery of talking heads including security analyst Paul Buchanan, law professor Jane Kelsey and lawyer Moana Jackson comment lucidly and disturbingly on the original actions and the conduct of the case since.

There is testimony from former cops too, including Ross Meurant, whose contribution lent the film its subtitle "Deep in the Forest", and a one-time undercover man who makes some troubling inferences from the size of a police application for a surveillance warrant.

Wright and King-Jones are aware of the charge that they sometimes appear almost to merge with their subjects. At one point, one of the more eloquent of those arrested, Valerie Morse, accosts Detective Sergeant Aaron Pascoe, the head of the operation, outside the Auckland District Court. "Do you really think I am a terrorist?", she asks.

The microphone she thrusts towards him is plugged into King's camera and I feel constrained to ask him whether he has crossed the invisible, but important, line between a documentarian and his subject.

"I think it's impossible to be totally neutral when you are making something. It's very difficult to understand what the environment is for being a political activist in NZ if you don't spend enough time finding out."

Adds King-Jones: "When you collect all this observational material, you get to know these people. It's an important part of the process because these people are in a way quite isolated because of what they have been through. You have to get over their very understandable suspicion. They are wondering 'Are you someone that can be trusted?' or 'What's your angle?', that sort of thing. You can't really separate yourself from your environment."

No one disputes that most, if not all, of the 18 have a history of activism. But the film raises concerns about the role police anti-terrorism measures can play in stifling the legitimate dissent that is the lifeblood of democracy.

Wright and King-Jones point out that what might be dubbed the "protest movement" has been sidelined since the 1970s when political dissent was commonplace.

"It's been really crushed in the last 10 or 20 years," says Wright, "and this was a further crunch."

In any case they are impatient with the notion of objectivity, a term commonly used by people who wish something had been slanted their way.

"[In the raid], 18 people were arrested, 60 houses smashed into, stuff turned totally upside down," says Wright. "The police got to present their point of view through the media and they called press conferences all the time. They have a whole full-time PR team at Police National HQ. They are very well-resourced to look after their own interests. And at the same time, you have these people who really have no voice."

So is their film a dispassionate or activist one?

"Both, really," says King-Jones. "It's about allowing the audience to hear and see something and take away from it what they want. They don't want to be banged over the head with anything. But you want to be able to take them by the hand and lead them somewhere and say: 'What do you think of that?'."

Unsurprisingly the pair are hoping for a good turnout at the screenings - and even a bit of noise. "It's an opportunity for people to take stock of where this country is going," says Wright, "and ask themselves whether we want this kind of country. Because if we don't rein it in soon we are going to be in too deep."

King-Jones: "I just hope that audiences will get a first-hand experience of the people who were targeted. If you are able to get a broader picture of where this has all come from, maybe you will go away from it being more aware of what's going on."

Operation 8: Deep In The Forest screens at the Paramount in Wellington tomorrow at 2.45pm and at Skycity Theatre in Auckland on Monday at 3pm and 8.15pm as part of the World Cinema Showcase.

- NZ Herald

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