When I asked Barnes whether River of Freedom was released deliberately near the election in the hope the issues raised in it would become part of the public debate, she replied:
“Our timing was very much related to our sound mixer’s small window of availability in 2023, and then getting into theatres for the two-three weeks before the school holidays when the cinemas have booked schedules. We are aware of the timing close to the election.”
Her documentary is a vivid and atmospheric portrayal of one of the most polarising events in New Zealand’s recent history — including reminders of aspects of the Covid restrictions most have probably already forgotten. They include the $2 million Vaxathon on 16 October 2021 to increase vaccination rates, particularly among Māori, with Ardern preposterously warning the public: “The vaccine is a ticket to freedom… Delta is literally bypassing vaccinated people and latching on to the unvaccinated.”
The mainstream media has pretended for the past eight months that an immaculate Chris Hipkins descended from the heavens in late January to save the Labour Party after Ardern resigned, but the documentary shows him at the 1pm Podium of Truth spruiking the “Super Saturday” Vaxathon alongside Ardern in his role as Minister for Covid-19 Response.
Although Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield were most strongly identified in the public’s mind as managing the Covid response, Hipkins was in the engine room for the duration. He held the Covid portfolio from 6 November 2020 to 14 June 2022.
River of Freedom doesn’t attempt to weigh up the pressures the government was under at the time to respond to a virus that had killed millions around the world or to assess the ultimate effectiveness of its response in terms of lives saved or lost compared to other nations. It takes the unwavering view that mandating anyone out of their job because they were unvaccinated was morally wrong just as it is always wrong to force anyone to undergo a medical procedure against their will. (Hipkins’ recent claim that no one was actually forced to be vaccinated has rightly led to a tsunami of public derision.)
What Barnes does is to simply present the protesters’ point of view as an insider — tracking the convoys setting off from the Far North and the bottom of the South Island on Waitangi Day 2022 to the last day of rioting as police broke up their encampment outside Parliament on 2 March.
She has marshalled an impressive range of protesters to give their views — including naval and police personnel mandated out of their jobs — as well as those of visitors to the site.
Sir Russell Coutts gave a succinct summary: “I deal with quite a lot of pretty advanced engineers and scientists [and] without exception, all of them, all of the best ones, very much promote critical review, critical debate, because they want to get the right answer as much as anyone else. And that’s one of the disappointing things through this process is that we really haven’t had that to the extent that I would expect with major decisions. What's behind the modelling, what are the assumptions? What is the data behind it? [Have we] balanced that against all the social, all the economic hardship?”
Unfortunately, the government was not the only culprit in refusing to countenance alternative viewpoints or analysis. The mainstream media largely followed the lead set by Speaker Trevor Mallard in demonising the protesters as “ferals”, and by senior Cabinet minister Michael Wood, who infamously described them as floating on a “river of filth” — a phrase that inspired the documentary’s title.
Among media organisations, few were more critical of the occupation than Stuff. Set on a mission to denounce wrong-think about vaccination among the public, its journalists later doubled down on their stance during the protests by producing a ludicrous piece of agitprop titled Fire and Fury. Released in August 2022, the NZ on Air-funded documentary was fronted by senior journalist Paula Penfold. It cast the bulk of the protesters as deluded fools, led by the nose by a cabal of far-right conspiracy theorists who were aiming to overthrow democracy.
Anyone whose opinion of the protests was heavily influenced by Fire and Fury will watch River of Freedom fully expecting to see a tent crammed with female neo-Nazis, who Penfold’s documentary suggested we might identify by their dedication to essential oils and knitting.
Independent journalist Chantelle Baker (“a conspiracy theorist live-streamer”, according to Stuff), who relayed the daily action inside the protest to a huge online audience, makes a brief appearance in River of Freedom but only to jubilantly announce a High Court challenge questioning the legality of vaccination mandates for Police and Defence Force employees had been successful. The court determined that the government’s mandate was an unjustified breach of fundamental rights protected by BORA — namely the right to refuse medical treatment and limitations on the manifestation of a religious belief.
A Curia survey commissioned by The Platform during the protest showed that far from being a hot bed of far-right white supremacists — as Fire and Fury alleged — the encampment was home to a disproportionate number of Māori — at around 30 per cent of the total (compared to 17 per cent overall in New Zealand’s population). Consequently, Barnes gives their views prominence, which is the perfect antidote to Fire and Fury’s patronising depiction of Māori as easily duped puppets.
Screenwriter Dane Giraud summed up the Māori influence on the protest in his review on the Plain Sight blog: “What is also worth noting is that rather than being puppeted by any far right [actors], the disproportionate presence of Māori saw the protest embrace a Māori kaupapa — with whakawhanaunatanga and manaakitanga flowing.”
Barnes mostly avoids advertising hard-line anti-vaccination sentiment among the protesters and focuses on adverse reactions to the Pfizer injections, and the fact many who were vaxxed didn’t believe they were adequately informed about the risks.
Their quiet and deeply sincere conviction that a great wrong was done to them personally, and to democracy in general, is moving, and thought-provoking. Whatever position viewers might take on the protest and the mandates, it’s hard not to conclude these people should have been treated with dignity as conscientious objectors, and not as traitors or scum.
The documentary does, however, gloss over the disruption the protest brought to Wellington’s roads and CBD, and critics will see some of the protesters’ views as astonishingly naive. Several of those interviewed seemed shocked the police would ultimately use force to remove them from Parliament’s grounds after other means of persuasion — including sprinklers and loud music ordered by Mallard — had failed.
One protester who had stripped naked in the crowd to make it more difficult to be manhandled by police said she had found it “degrading” that they covered her face but not her body with a towel. For someone who admitted using nakedness as a protest tactic, it seemed to be a very idiosyncratic complaint.
The documentary was entirely crowd-funded and has had full houses at its openings in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland this month. However, getting cinemas to show it has not been easy. There are only 16 theatres listed on the film’s webpage that are screening the film (although Barnes says the website needs updating and there are now 25 venues, mostly in the provinces).
TVNZ has shown no interest in the project — even though Barnes initially contacted the state broadcaster in August last year to engage with it.
Whether the rest of the mainstream media will take any interest in the film remains to be seen. And if it does, it may be only to discredit it. Certainly, if Stuff’s initial approach is indicative, you’d have to say it doesn’t look promising.
Extraordinarily, early this month Barnes told Chris Lynch, of Chris Lynch Media, that a Stuff journalist had emailed her in late August: “I am going to publish that the documentary is promoting anti-vaccination and anti-mandate views, which Stuff and Disinformation Project [director] Kate Hannah clearly classify as disinformation. Would you or anyone else involved in the production of River of Freedom care to speak with me for the article?”
Barnes said she would answer any written queries and sought an explanation for the term “disinformation”.
In the follow-up email, the reporter’s first question was, “What is the documentary about?” and later asked, “If I called the documentary a ‘disinformation’ film, would you agree with this?” She cited the definition of “disinformation” by the Disinformation Project as “false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a company”. Additionally, she shared definitions for “misinformation” and “malinformation”.
Barnes replied, “I find it unsettling that you, as a journalist, would make such a bold assumption, especially given you haven’t watched the film. I invite you to watch it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.”
“Unsettling” is a very diplomatic term for what most would regard as plainly outrageous behaviour. A reporter intending to accuse a film-maker of disinformation before having watched her documentary would be widely, and rightly, seen as a breach of the most fundamental journalistic ethics, but for Stuff it seems to be just business as usual.
Fortunately for Barnes, she and her crew have not needed to depend on state funding to get the film made and distributed.
As she says: “Even today, after the film’s release, we are still getting donations which are helping our marketing and managing self-distribution into cinemas.
“This incredible public support has enabled us to have perfect creative freedom to make the film that needs to be made, for the people.”
Which is exactly the kind of generosity and solidarity that fuelled and sustained the protest itself — as River of Freedom makes gloriously apparent.
Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by ThePlatform.kiwi and is published here with kind permission.