Review: Patrick Gower puts victims of the Christchurch terror attacks at the centre in his new documentary Patrick Gower: On Hate. So does it achieve what he intended?
Hate seems too simple of a term to describe what the victims of March 15, 2019, experienced at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. Hatred doesn't seem like a strong enough feeling to explain why members of the Muslim community went through unspeakable levels of terror and grief.
But by zooming in on victims' accounts of the events, viewers get an emotive experience that is powerful, albeit tailored for Gower's audience. He seeks to answer questions that have been dissected in depth over the past two years: should we have seen it coming? Did social media help create a terrorist? Can we stop hate?
In many ways, we have answered those questions already. But in a neatly packaged documentary format, the message hits home for the people who need to receive it most. The timing of the documentary is interesting too - Andrew Nichol's intended Hollywood feature They Are Us made headlines in July for all the wrong reasons.
"It's fine to hate, it's fine to love. This is beyond hate."
That's what Wasseim Alsati tells Gower in the documentary. It's a quote that summarises the strengths of the new doco and the limits of its title. To give Gower credit, he uses this quote as the compass for his investigation. Viewers learn the terrorist's actions are beyond a simple answer but are instead a summation of the dangers of social media algorithms, racism, discrimination and extremism.
In a piece explaining his motives behind making the documentary, Gower makes it clear he wanted to centre his storytelling on the victims. But he is the unavoidable subject: he platformed and arguably failed to hold to account white supremacists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern in 2018. He reported on the mosque attacks himself. Gower includes footage of both events in his film and doesn't necessarily avoid putting himself in the spotlight in the process of holding himself to account.
But in a way, that is what Gower is doing with his recent documentaries. He's not trying to be a fly-on-the-wall observer, but rather he positions himself as a Louis Theroux type - who learns with the viewers instead of removing himself from the equation. It makes for viewing that reaches through television screens and into the minds of everyday New Zealanders. Gower cries with them, hugs them and, in the process, makes us all feel something.
The documentary leads viewers through a timeline of what lead up to the attacks, to what happened after, to unforgettable victim impact statements read in front of the terrorist himself.
Patrick Gower: On Hate's strengths lie in the incredible talent he got to speak on camera - seven people whose lives were irrevocably turned upside down by the acts of someone whose hatred seems impossible to comprehend. The human cost of white supremacy is what is mostly front and centre - as it should be for this kind of documentary to be effective.
Where the documentary stumbles somewhat is in the confines of its short-form format. We don't see anyone from the big social media companies front up to face Gower's grilling - YouTube declined to be interviewed and that leaves a notable gap.
However, the talent we do get to hear from in addition to those from the Muslim community paints a vivid picture of how much tech companies have fuelled the rise of white supremacy. Professor Paul Spoonley and self-proclaimed ex-radical Caolan Robertson's interviews add what is necessary for critical discussions of the alt-right, as does Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's conversations with Gower.
Like myself, some viewers may be left asking themselves if "hate" is the right word for what the victims of March 15 went through. It may not summarise the full extent of what the Muslim community went through, but it makes for a snappy single-word title.
Instead, it is what viewers get from hearing the strength that matters more than the exploration of hate: compassion, empathy, and understanding. Like Wasseim Alsati tells Gower, the terrorist's actions, and indeed the actions of any alt-right person go beyond a single word.
The documentary flips the conversation back to the voices New Zealand needs to learn from most after March 15, 2019: the Muslim community. Gower's chat with Ahad Nabi, who famously dressed in a Warriors' jersey when he gave the terrorist a two-finger salute is a welcome insight into his decision to call out the terrorist's cowardice.
And it's what the Muslim community makes of this documentary, and the possible reasons some chose to participate (and their level of trust in Gower) that speaks the loudest.
• Patrick Gower: On Hate is available to stream on ThreeNow.