Independent Aussie film-maker Brendan Shoebridge stood on the stage at the War Memorial Centre on Thursday night, visibly moved by his reception.
He was here with his wife and young children, touring his film around New Zealand. We turned out their biggest crowd yet, welcomed him with karakia and waiata, and thanked him with a standing ovation.
I love a good documentary and The Bentley Effect is one of the finest I've seen.
The story unfolds through footage Brendan shot during the long-running campaign against coal seam gas exploration in northern NSW. The viewer is right there as the action happens, and it's a poignant, powerful and beautifully crafted story.
Australia has a lot of coal seam gas (CSG) being extracted by unconventional drilling. Lots of it lies under some of Australia's most productive agricultural land. When Metgasco moved into the Northern Rivers region, it was met with fierce and sustained community resistance.
This is a film about people, not statistics. The diversity and unity of the community opposition to this external threat was extraordinary.
Ian Galliard, a weathered bloke in his 60s with a larrikin grin as broad as his Aussie strine, played a central part in organising the three blockades of drilling sites. He was flanked by the knitting nanas, a flock of older women prepared to put their bodies on the line - shoulder to shoulder with young activists, grizzled farmers, Aboriginal elders and everyone in-between.
They climbed tripods towering over the road, they locked themselves by the neck or arm onto pipes buried in the ground, they sat in beach chairs on the road and knitted and sang. They found countless creative ways - often playful and always non-violent - to show their opposition.
At Glenugie and at Doubtful Creek, they slowed and disrupted the advance of drilling rigs before waves of police dragged them away.
At a field in Bentley, they took a final stand. If the community was to stop the encroachment of CSG extraction, this blockade had to be successful. And so for five months in 2014, a peaceful and orderly camp was maintained. The commitment to non-violence didn't waver.
Brendan refrained from the temptation to demonise anyone - not the isolated farmers who defied their neighbours and community by signing access agreements with drilling companies, not the politicians backing big business over their constituents, not the police. "Show, not tell," was his aim.
Early in the film, without commentary, a line of policemen arrive, dehumanised by their uniforms and sunglasses. The effect is chilling. Later we hear their rehearsed responses to the challenges offered by the protectors: "We've got a job to do," they say. "We're not here to debate with you."
But they couldn't help but listen. In early actions, local police had to face down their neighbours and friends. Brendan doesn't editorialise; he doesn't need to when the images are worth more than words. His camera lingers on a candid close-up of young policeman, his game face slipping.
Several young cops reportedly quit after the police forced the way open for the drilling rig at Doubtful Creek. Others bought shares in Metgasco, creating a conflict of interest that meant they couldn't be sent to the blockades. There were accounts of riot squad members preparing to storm Bentley texting warnings to their parents: don't be at the blockade on Monday. (To which their parents replied, we'll be here, you'll have to arrest me.)
Thousands of people came and went or just stayed at Bentley. People began holding their business meetings there. Others took annual leave or turned down work. The depth and breadth of community support lined up behind the people on-site was staggering. As the government planned to pull police from their stations around the state, crucial support services were withheld. Some local motel owners wouldn't take their bookings. The caterer cancelled the contract to feed them. When protestors learned of plans to starve them out by barricading all roads leading to the camp, a helicopter was offered to drop food supplies.
In the end, the long-awaited and feared confrontation did not take place. The police advised the state government that attempting to clear a blockade of 10,000 people carried a catastrophic risk of injury and death. The government backed down just days before police were expected and suspended Metgasco's license. The news arrived before dawn on 15 May and we saw disbelief give way to visceral relief and joy.
Why was there such a response to this film in Whanganui? Partly hard work and good organisation. It was spearheaded by Melinda Hatherley, whose family business Tree Life NZ underwrote the cost of the local screening. There is also the memory of past successes: forcing TAG Oil to back down over plans to drill under Mt Taranaki, earlier campaigns to protect the awa.
And more than anything, there is the awareness of the fight coming to us. If Trans-Tasman Resources' seabed mining isn't stopped in the courts? We'll stop them on the roads and on the beaches. Bentley served as a training ground for people from around Australia, who took ideas and knowledge back to their own communities to order to oppose CSG exploration. We're learning too. The defence of our ocean will be stronger because of what was achieved in a cow paddock in northern New South Wales.
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