Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Operation 8: Deep in the Forest

I finally went to see Operation 8: Deep in the Forest at the Coehaven theatre in Ōtaki, and this post is my thoughts on the documentary. I’ve struggled with whether to write about it—I don’t want to be critical of something that is important and should be watched. But it left me so confused, I decided to write about why I reacted the way I did, and maybe other people will want to add what they think.

First of all, Operation 8 is an informative film—at 110 minutes, it covers a lot of material, and it covers it fairly quickly. I’m writing this several days after seeing it, after I’ve had time to sit with my reaction to it, so my memory may be wrong in places. The film has two main strengths. The first is that it gives another opportunity for some of the victims of Operation 8 to tell their story—it does this very well. It also gives a well-constructed, accessible and coherent presentation of arguments against anti-terrorism laws, and police making political decisions on how to treat dissent. My main gripes with the film are that I think these two themes compete with and detract from each other, more importantly, the academic analysis detracts from the personal stories. And I'm confused that, in a documentary that is so clearly about colonisation, colonisation kind of drops off the radar.

The movie seemed to be in two parts. The first part focuses on the experiences of the people of Rūātoki on October 15 2007. This was compelling and upsetting to watch. I cannot imagine what those people went through, I felt rage and powerlessness hearing their stories again. So much of the media focus at the time was on the drama of the police and the leaked information—the real story is the tragedy of how the police treated this community. Like Valerie Morse’s book, this should be compulsory viewing.

The second part of the film focuses on commentary about the police operation. It uses lots of talking heads, almost all tauiwi, mostly academics, two ex cops, and one defendant in the Operation 8 trial. They present several perspectives on the state’s behaviour and build a case that the state has given the police excessive power/discretion. I’m calling this the liberal argument to distinguish it from other positions that are mentioned in the film.

The liberal argument

The operation is an example of the state over-reaching its legitimate power. The war on terror is being used to give the police and courts more power, at the expense of our rights/civil liberties. Special units have been established to fight terrorism where there is none. They create an environment of suspicion and paranoia, and end up "deep in the forest"—where leftwing academics and politicians become enemies of democracy, and blow-hard piss-talk becomes evidence of terrorist conspiracies. These units need to justify their existence by occasionally (or at least once) discovering something resembling a terrorist plot. They may choose when to act on information, picking a time that benefits them (eg, when the Terrorism Suppression Amendment bill was being debated), or that benefits the politicians who they depend on (eg, when the Crown is negotiating a settlement with Ngāi Tūhoe). Ideal targets are those who are isolated (because they are easy to vilify and there will be less political damage) and who annoy the state (because politicians will appreciate vilifying them). Whenever the police are given power and discretion they will become over-zealous, and behave as they did.

The bulk of this part of the film is spent developing that argument. It was this part of the documentary that left me cold—it was so abstracted and separated from where the film started. I felt frustrated hearing what all of these people thought of what happened, given that so many of them agreed with each other. I wanted to hear more from the other defendants, or the victims of the operation—what did they think the operation was about? I especially wanted to hear more about how the operation fits within our colonial history. I at least wanted some diversity of opinion. As I said earlier, the film presents the liberal argument very convincingly, but it does so at the expense of other arguments*, in particular, the colonialist argument that Moana Jackson presents.

The colonialism argument

The operation was an act of racism by a colonial state. "the colonisation of Māori ... has always been about the dispossession and ... terrorising of innocent peoples. ... indigenous peoples being defined as a threat whenever they have questioned their dispossession... The real or perceived ‘threat’ has always then been met with violence." (Jackson, p2) Police used Operation 8 as an opportunity to harass other groups (such as the search of the 128 community centre), but it is clear that the main target was the people of Rūātoki, and the purpose was a show of force against Māori organising independently.

I wanted more explanation about the choices the film-makers were making—why did they give so much time to the liberal argument at the expense of (especially) the colonialism argument? Unfortunately, the film-makers' voices are absent from the film. Many people have commented on their obvious bias towards the victims of the operation, rather than the police. I find the Pākehā liberal bias more upsetting, because it reduces colonisation to a minor role. I feel manipulated—the focus on Rūātoki did not prepare me for a film about terror laws and police power. Why were we given a little bit of information about the history of that community with the Crown, when ultimately it is irrelevant to the main argument the film presents? I feel disappointed that a story of the Crown attacking Māori has been used as backstory for an argument in which colonisation is pretty much irrelevant. I’d really like to hear what others think/feel about this. Unfortunately, I came away from the film thinking it was an example of Māori stories being interpreted and contextualised by Pākehā, and used to a Pākehā agenda. Again.

I’d love to hear how the film affected other people.

* There are two other arguments that are touched on in the documentary
The keystone cops argument:
The police were bumbling fools, who genuinely can’t tell the difference between silly games and a credible threat to national security. Several victims of Operation 8 mock the way police behaved, for example, smashing through unlocked doors instead of opening them. This is mirrored later when David Collins mocks the credibility of a plot to kill President Bush by catapulting a bus onto his head (part of the evidence used by police to get an interception warrant, and reported by the media as a real plan to kill Bush).

The anarchist argument:
The operation is simply the state exposing its abusive nature. It is inherently oppressive—it uses its power to control us. We see the violence of this whenever people try to organise their lives outside its control, even on a small scale. The state then makes up stories to minimise, deny or justify its violence, and terrorism is just their latest excuse. Tūhoe communities like that at Rūātoki have always maintained their independence, so the state will periodically show its force to bring them into line. It becomes especially concerned when several groups with different anti-state positions, such as anarchists and mana motuhake activists, are talking to each other. As long as the state and its police have power over us, they will abuse that power.


  1. Hi Kim

    Thanks so much for this. In particular, I think it breaks some of the silence around the political meaning of the raids.

    I also had a complex reaction to the film, but I'm not sure I can break it down from my own experiences of the raids and their aftermaths and articulate why.

    I'm not sure I thought the views in the documentary were as coherent as you suggest. I do think that immediately after the raids and since there has been a big silence around the charges, which makes it heaps harder to make any kind of argument. Only politics which makes sense without acknowledging the silence can be expressed coherently - and that is one of hte reasons that the liberal argument becomes common.

    I've been wanting to write about Operation 8 - or at least why I can't write about operation 8. Thanks for making it clear that there is more to be said than a vague liberalism.

  2. Kia ora Maia, thanks for your response. Like you I found it really hard to separate my feelings about the film from my feelings about the raids and their aftermaths.

    I think the film helped to crystallise what has been annoying me about political responses to the raids (or lack thereof), mine included. Like you say, many of us have struggled to know what we could say about Operation 8. So much has been PR rather than political, which makes sense for those whose freedom is literally on the line, and in the face of the obvious but still effective police PR. At the same time, there have been Māori commentators who have maintained a consistent and strong anti-state line (like Moana Jackson and Annette Sykes), as much as they can.

    I'd be keen to talk about what we can be saying and doing now, and I'm excited that you might write more about Operation 8.

  3. Anonymous2:40 pm

    I agree the film tries to tell two stories – the impacts of the raids and the matter of police culture and how this affects their responses to supposed threats.

    Actually I thought the latter was more interesting, just because it was covered better. I don’t think the film makers were in a position to make a film about the impacts of the raids, both because of the timing, with unsettled court cases going on, and, for whatever reason, they weren’t able to get to grips with the issue of the raids in the context of on-going colonisation.

    There’re a few reasons why the latter could be the case, and I don’t really know which one applied. For me, the political response to the raids did highlight the poor understanding of solidarity work in the current anarchist and ‘radical left’ scenes in New Zealand.

    Pakeha anarchists seemed to end up paralysed in the face of colonisation, half the time beating themselves up for being a ‘Pakeha movement’ (even when there were several Maori in the room) and the rest of the time acting as if the advantages of being Pakeha somehow didn’t apply to them.

    I think the anarchists have been influenced by both the social democrat agenda of believing the wrongs of colonisation aren’t our fault, therefore not our problem, or can be righted by adding a few macrons and learning Te Reo (which are things I don’t disagree with doing such things – I just don’t see how this benefits Maori or rights wrongs); and the naive internationalist anarchist agenda of ‘we are all equal and united non-citizens of the world’ characterised by slogans such as “No borders, no nations”“We are all illegal” “We are all Zapatistas” etc. Trouble is, we aren’t.

    It was only recently that I realised the current anarchist scene uses the term ‘solidarity’ completely different to me – I think of it as a relationship that requires negotiation, and a degree of formality, in order that both parties are able understand what is being offered and what they can expect, and to allow to allow the those requiring support to refuse, or redefine, a relationship that isn’t useful to them (this explains why I’ve found the politics of some ‘solidarity’ groups so hard to get my head around). Sometimes activists seem to feel they can declare themselves part of somebody else’s movement unilaterally, without invitation or agreement: “I’m in solidarity with you, whether you want me or not”.

    I should note that these comments are really about the secular anarchist scene. The Christian anarchists seem a lot more concerned with colonisation and have a much stronger Maori presence.


    Sam Buchanan

  4. Thanks for your review, it's written very well and provides some good insights. I hope you don't mind me cross-blogging on the BR site?

    We had our AGM over the weekend just been, and actually talked about this quite a bit (not so much the film, but how the response and activities by anarchists either pushed or neglected the colonisation aspect).


  5. Anonymous11:49 pm

    Hey Kim,
    It's awesome you wrote this. You explain it so clearly. I agree with Maia that it feels like breaking some kind of silence.

    I couldn't agree more that the 'liberal argument' really dominates the film and that this is disappointing when the promotional material really emphasised the image of Tame Iti... and the opening of the film is so dramatically set in Ruatoki. It feels like the survivors of the police raids in Ruatoki became a backdrop to the political analysis of Pakeha. Moana Jackson being the notable exception. It was sad not to hear from Annette Sykes more.

    One thing that stood out to me from the 'liberal argument' was the way activists are portrayed as the 'conscience of the nation', a special role where you are somewhat outcast and suffer from repression but where human rights lawyers will stand up for you because you're doing it for 'all the rest of us' preserving the right to protest, etc. Two things about that: i REALLY don't want that role, and it makes me feel ill that liberals (including my parents) are reasonably happy for individuals like the operation 8 defendants to carry it. And I don't think that folks from Tuhoe resisting colonisation really fit into this 'conscience' role ... in fact any group trying to resist and meet their own needs collectively - rather than doing something 'for our democratic nation' would come across as less noble within that liberal framework.
    So i'm interested in how we can resist that kind of story. Incidentally, I think it also makes being politically active seem really awful and unviable for most people.

    Kia ora Kim,
    thanks for writing


  6. Hey Pip and Sam, thanks for your comments

    Sam: Yes, to both your comments on Pākehā anarchists general failure to address colonisation, and on solidarity. You often raise the importance of relationships. I've been thinking a lot lately about the lack of emphasis the Wellington anarchist scene generally puts on developing and maintaining relationships (I don't know what other activist scenes are like in NZ). I've been thinking mostly in terms of internal dynamics, but you're right that external relationships are important too (in terms of solidarity). I have some theories on this that I want to explore in another Radicle, and you've given me more stuff to think about. Thanks.

    Pip: Yes, to both your points. Like you, I felt really uncomfortable with the way the documentary was set up as being about Māori, and then ultimately wasn't. I don't know what the survivors of the raids feel, but I'd feel used. And yeah, as liberal as Wellingtonians like to portray themselves, I don't recall many of them doing anything after the raids. On the one hand, I hear my most liberal friends mocking anyone who does anything even vaguely protesty, and on the other hand, our parents generation smugly pat themselves on the back for past protests that they may or may not have supported at the time, which in hindsight kept the politicians honest. I don't know if your parents were involved with anti-apartheid or anti-nuclear work, but I know there's a lot more people feeling good about those demos than actually had anything to with them.

    ranty rant rant, and barely related to your comment

    Who knew a blog post would be a good way to hear from people I don't see enough of.

  7. Appreciate this blog ppost