The power of the megaphone, the call to prayer

Flower tributes mosque Auckland New Zealand Christchurch shooting
Neighbours laying flowers at Imam Reza Mosque, New Lynn, Auckland the day after the massacre at Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand (Image by Nick Thompson)

Above all, the people we should listen to after a terrorist attack are the victims. So, before I get into my mediocre white man reckons relating to the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, here are a few examples of Muslims having their voices aired in NZ’s media:

One Family’s Story of Survival and Loss in New Zealand (The Daily podcast, The New York Times)
We warned you. We begged. We pleaded. And now we demand accountability (The Spinoff)
The people we lost (
Hear their words: Muslim voices on the Christchurch attacks (The Spinoff)

Our media have done very well to boost these voices. It’s been exciting, and a little sobering in retrospect (why is this not normal), to suddenly have so much easily available to read and listen to from groups of people who lack power in our society. For me, it’s prompted a lot of thinking about the intersection of power and speech: who has power, and how do they wield it in their words and actions? Who should have our attention right now, and what are those that do have our attention using it to say?

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has gained an enormous amount of national and international attention for her response to the shootings: not just the quick mobilisation of her government to outlaw the kinds of weapons used in the attack, but the uncommon sensitivity and caring she has shown to the victims. This constant examining of her actions has led to plenty of debate. For example, her wearing of a headscarf, which some insist is a symbol of oppression, has been a hot topic for both the white New Zealanders and the Hindu Indians on my Twitter timeline.

Whether or not you agree with how the Prime Minister has conducted herself, she is the most powerful person in the country and the figurehead of our grief. It’s therefore right that her response has been subjected to such scrutiny. I was uneasy about how she was centered in the days after the attacks, particularly in the mass sharing and printing of photos in which she hugged strangers and displayed emotion. It seemed to me that those images should be of victims’ families, or of Muslim adherents left shattered by the targeting of their community. But it’s complex: they didn’t sign up to be part of anything like this, or to be relentlessly photographed, or to play a central role in a crisis. The Prime Minister did, opting into the front pages in the best and worst of times. It’d be strange if she wasn’t there now.

And I got another perspective a few days after the attacks. A Muslim friend in India sent me a one-line email expressing sympathy, and attached four of the more widely shared images of the Prime Minister with her headscarf proudly in place. If her symbolic representation of everyone else’s love and support meant something to a Muslim on the other side of the world, that’s good enough for me.

At the very least, the Prime Minister seems to be aware of her effect on the social landscape. She has led with a view to consciously establishing new norms that are inclusive and hopeful. Get behind me, she seems to say, and we’ll make things better together. That’s more than can be said for various commentators in the American political media, who of course have had plenty to say about Christchurch. Ben Shapiro, who hosts a very popular conservative news podcast, uses up a fair amount of oxygen sharing his views on everything from universities as liberal indoctrination centres, climate change belief as religion, and the anti-Semitism of anyone who supports the idea of Palestininan statehood. Naturally, he was quick to comment on Christchurch, particularly to rebut the idea that white supremacist violence has anything to do with prominent critics of Islam such as himself, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and indeed President Donald Trump.

Okay, but no. A cursory look at the repeated phrases used in comment threads and social media profiles – #MAGA and its derivatives, Trump Supporter, Not Politically Correct – reveal a collective that is very openly a collective. They just happen to speak the language of individualism. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s freedom of speech. Not my choice to get offended, buddy. Broader civic discourse has extended the reach of this type of language with phrases like ‘lone wolf’ – a phrase used often to describe the Christchurch attacker, who professed an admiration for Trump and Norwegian terrorist Anders Bering Breivik in his manifesto. The ideologues set the tone and establish communities, and every individual is then empowered to act alone against the Other. (You could say the exact same thing against fundamentalist Islam, which is to say that neither extremity lacks a coherent movement to back them up.)

But to Shapiro and his ilk, it is insane to suggest Trump’s forceful anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views have anything to do with the Christchurch shooter, let alone any of Shapiro’s own diatribes about Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar or Bill Maher’s panel discussions about the dangers of moderate Islam. Every event happens in isolation, in a Randian vacuum, caused only by the free will of the actors involved. It works the other way, too: if you want to stop climate change, give up meat and take the bus, never mind the staggering emissions from multinational corporates and the lack of political will to actually use power for change.

This is the thinking that dominates our society nowadays. The Christchurch massacre seems to have prompted a closer look at what we as individuals say and do, and how we can collectively mitigate the threat of extremism. If only the likes of Shapiro – and hey, Trump, as if that would ever happen – were able to reflect on the communities they have created; how their words are transformed from mere opinions into calls to action when expressed from a megaphone. That’s the kind of individual responsibility we need right now. And there’s a model for it in Jacinda Ardern.

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#NZFF: “The coward is here”

In A Field in England, there are four archetypes: the educated coward, the driven leader, the bitter cynic, and the wise, plain-speaking simpleton. Their violent, black-and-white Civil War world — gunfire, bayonets, and explosions amid the long grass of the meadow — becomes pure chaos upon the insertion of O’Neil, a charismatic Irishman who might be the personification of Satan. “Open up, and let the devil in!”

A Field in England silhouettes

The field of the title buzzes with life. Regular inserts show tiny larvae creeping among the grasses, which wave in gorgeous slow motion. The humans cut a swathe through it, digging and bleeding into it, picking it up and eating it, but the field lives on despite their presence. It’s also my belief, though, that A Field in England is an applicable name for director Ben Wheatley’s cinematic sandbox: a space in film history that he is cultivating completely on his own. His earlier Kill List was the most surprising horror-drama I’ve seen in years, with possible influences as disparate as Clive Barker and Ken Loach, and his latest bears similarities with Eraserhead and Irréversible. I have joined Wheatley’s ever-growing fan following because rather than erecting untouchable monuments to his own genius, he draws us deep into his space and shows us these fresh horrors up close. Even at his most surreal, as he is in A Field in England, I don’t think he ever forgets his audience.

Not that this is an easy watch. Faces are blown off, visual non sequiturs abound, and stroboscopic effects feature prominently. Much of the first half hour or so is a search for detail: who are these people? Where did they come from? And where are they going? Rich and varied aural effects offer few clues. Occasionally, Wheatley breaks the loose narrative for what I would call a ‘live photograph’: the actors posing dramatically, with shivering hands and chests rising and falling, for no obvious reason. But slowly they reveal themselves through sparse dialogue, arguably the film’s strongest element. “Perhaps we should all go back and suffer,” says the simpleton looking back in the direction of the battlefield. “Knowledge is its own payment,” says the educated coward when asked how well his master keeps him. “Shit and thistles,” says the cynic as a description of the field (and possibly as a summation of his life).

A Field in England is bizarre and fragmented enough to be open to many interpretations. Mine is that it’s about power: who has it, why they have it, how it corrupts and evolves and dissolves. The educated coward has lived for a long time under one man’s power; how will he respond to sudden dominance by another master? Can a cynic ever be truly powerful? And in the absence of other personal qualities, how useful is a good leader? O’Neil is the controlling figure of doom that throws everything out of alignment, emitting his own fantastic, unexplained power and bringing everyone over to his side whether they like it or not, but he too is fallible. Absolute power, if it even exists outside of theory, cannot be wielded for long due to its shifting nature.

We sat way up the back of the Paramount for this one, and I joked at the start that it might be appropriate to look into the abyss from afar, rather than up close. We knew more or less what we were in for. It proved to be as nightmarish as expected, so perhaps we were saved from the savage head-trip we might have experienced up close. More pertinently, our distance from the screen meant that I took all my notes in the dark. They are a total mess, scrawled diagonally in fragments across lined pages:

A Field in England notes | NZFF

For a film as disorienting as A Field in England, that seems appropriate.