Wednesday, December 1, 2021

“If It Was 51 Pākehā, Killed By Someone Who Didn’t Like Pākehā, Then We’d Still Be Raging About It.” Patrick Gower On His March 15 Documentary

Patrick Gower wanted the latest instalment of his TV3 documentaries to not only highlight the views of those most affected by the March 15 terrorist attacks, he wanted to also look at the wider perspective of how they could happen in the first place. He talks to Emma Clifton about choosing to make a victim-led documentary, the toll extreme grief takes on everyone and his own shame for past reporting that he feels made him part of the problem.

One of the earliest lines from TV3’s Patrick Gower: On Hate documentary gets straight to the point. Wasseim Alsati, one of the March 15 survivors, whose four-year-old daughter was shot and injured while in his arms, asks journalist Patrick Gower plainly. “Do you want me to tell the truth? Or do you just want me to say it because I’m in front of the camera?”

It’s a moment that starkly demonstrates the wide gap between the narrative New Zealand likes to tell itself about the March 15 terrorist attacks – and the actual reality that those directly affected are still living. “What Wasseim is saying is ‘Do you want me to go, “Hey, we’re strong, we love New Zealand, thanks for supporting us, we’re bouncing back, we’re on our way, go the All Blacks!” or do you want me to tell the truth?’” says Patrick Gower, talking to Capsule via Zoom. Over the past two-and-a-half years, Patrick has done a lot of reporting with the Muslim community in Christchurch and become close with many of them.

“I always knew there was more that people needed to see; I wanted to convey more of the depth of the feeling from the people that I was interviewing,” he says. “I’d also started doing more documentaries and saw the level of journalism you get to do in them and the way you can get Kiwis to sit down, think, discuss and reflect on things. Those two forces in my life collided.”

He wanted On Hate to not only look at the ongoing trauma, anger and pain felt by those affected, but take a wider look at how the attacks could happen here. “In the documentary, we talk about ‘they are us’ and how, at the time, most of us wanted to believe that statement. And it’s a great statement. But the reality is much more complex.”

Throughout the hour-long documentary, Patrick talks to seven people who were either in the attack or lost loved ones to it. There is a lot of sadness and there is also a lot of anger; both are justifiable, but showcasing the anger of the Muslim community was somewhat lost in the fray following the attacks themselves. “Something that I had in the back of my mind when I was working on this documentary was ‘what would have happened if it was 51 Pākehā killed by someone of a different religion? What would have happened then and what would be happening now? Would it have panned out like March 15, where you have a Royal Commission and you fix a few things and no-one is really held accountable, but we all still pat ourselves on the back?” he says. “Whereas if it was 51 Pākehā, killed by someone who didn’t like Pākehā, then we’d probably still be raging about it, in my view.”

“If it really was ‘New Zealand’s darkest day’, well, it’s not that long ago and we haven’t got to grips with what caused it.”

He worries that we have been too quick to move on from such an atrocious hate crime. “If it really was ‘New Zealand’s darkest day’, well, it’s not that long ago and we haven’t got to grips with what caused it. That’s been one of the driving forces behind this documentary.”

One of the other victims of the attack featured in the documentary is Sara Qasem​, whose beloved father Abdelfattah was murdered on March 15. She talks about the impact of losing her father, the isolation she felt at times growing up in New Zealand because of her background and, at one stage, the appalling reality of having to watch the live stream of the attack in an attempt to find out if her father was among the dead.

Both Sara and Patrick are visibly emotional throughout the interview. Patrick says as he gets older, it’s harder and harder for him to keep his emotions together when doing interviews like this – “maybe I should do an interview where I do keep it together, because that would really be surprising for people!” But he also talks about the heavy task that comes with doing stories like this, where people like Sara and Wasseim are reliving the worst day of their life, in order to inform the viewer.

“The truth is, I take them there. And that leaves a burden on me both during the interview and afterwards, because you’re effectively taking someone to an elevated state of grief,” he says. “It’s not a nice thing to do, when you say it out loud like that. You help take someone into a zone where they probably don’t go that often. Maybe at a funeral or different times, but you take them back there and leave them in this place. As an interviewer, interviewing someone in extreme grief, it does break you, personally. And you don’t forget that.”

As an interviewer, interviewing someone in extreme grief, it does break you, personally. And you don’t forget that.”

“Sara is someone who is a personal hero of mine. Because she has been able to deal with her father being killed the way he was and is starting to find a way to lead us, in my view, to lead all New Zealanders into a better understanding of March 15.” He doesn’t underestimate the burden that comes with that. “Her life has been upended and in the best form of leadership, she’s finding a way through communication, to bring us together.”

It was already important to Patrick that On Hate was a victim-led documentary into the events of March 15, letting those affected tell the story they needed to tell, rather than the one New Zealand wanted to hear. And when the controversial They Are Us movie was announced in June – and then swiftly denounced by basically the entire country – it reinforced for him the need to have the Muslim community represent their own experience.

“When I saw the reaction, I was relieved because I had been working for a long time on a victim-led documentary and all of the things that people were worried about, we’d pretty much done the opposite,” Patrick says. “And then, to be honest, I got really angry, because the more I talked to the people that I knew down there, the more I could see the pain and the anger it was stirring up. It made me angry at the world and angry at Hollywood.”

But in the documentary, there is one section where Patrick has to confront his own shortcomings when it comes to reporting in a responsible way. Back in 2018, Patrick interviewed ‘extreme YouTubers’ Stefan Molyneux​ and Lauren Southern during their controversial trip to New Zealand, where they were attempting to do a speaking tour until protests shut it down. It was a livestream interview for Newshub and it quickly went off the rails, with the pair using it as an opportunity to share their Islamophobic, white supremacist views.

Why is this relevant to the mosque shootings? Well, as it turns out, the March 15 terrorist was a supporter of the pair, and even donated money to them. It’s an uncomfortable part of the documentary – “and of my life!” Patrick adds – as it forces him to reconcile the cost that comes with what he calls our “high-speed, conflict-driven media.”

“And that even though I would like to think I’m not part of the problem, on that day I was a big part of the problem.”

“Over and above journalism and over and above March 15, what I’m trying to show people is that sometimes in life you have to admit you were wrong,” says Patrick, who says he regrets giving Stefan and Lauren the platform of a livestream interview, which then went viral. “I’ve spent a lot of my time with a big ego, arguing with politicians, and just always going away and thinking that I was right, or convincing myself that I was right, never admitting that I was wrong.”

“This part of the documentary is me admitting that I got it wrong, not just in a small way but in a big way. And that even though I would like to think I’m not part of the problem, on that day I was a big part of the problem. Did I spend one moment of that day thinking ‘how would a Muslim feel watching this?’ No, I didn’t. And I’m ashamed of that, I’m ashamed of that day.”

When it comes to the lasting impression that Patrick wants to give with this On Hate documentary, he says he wants some New Zealanders to feel challenged.

“I want them to feel challenged by what they watch and what they feel, and about how they deal with race, ultimately. I want New Zealanders to be aware and awakened to the threat of white supremacy being able to happen again, any time, through one person.”

“I also want people to realise that fighting hate, or being an active hero against hate, is not about doing it once. It’s about doing it all the time. Hate is a complicated kind of thing that is always part of human society and to beat it, we all have to be better, all of the time.”

Patrick Gower: On Hate premieres on Tuesday 31 August

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