Plans for a Hollywood movie about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019 have sparked fierce backlash after Muslim groups say the victims and survivors weren't consulted.
"They Are Us" is expected to focus on Ardern's role during the mass shooting at a pair of Christchurch mosques, Al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Center. With a death toll of 51 people, it is the country’s deadliest terrorist attack.
Ardern’s decisive response to the massacre was praised internationally. The film's title is taken from a line in a speech she gave in the wake of the attack, referring to the victims. Adern is set to be played by Australian actress Rose Byrne, according to Deadline.
The killer, Australian white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in August 2020.
But some members of New Zealand’s Muslim community, which is still grappling with the attack more than two years later, have expressed anger over both the film's reported narrative and its timing.
The National Islamic Youth Association started an online petition, now with more than 72,000 signatures, calling on FilmNation Entertainment, the producers of the movie, to shut the project down for allegedly sidelining the victims and centering its narrative on a white woman — Ardern.
Family members of the victims of the attacks and Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, are among those to have signed the petition.
“I was shocked to read coverage of FilmNation's sense of entitlement that leads them to believe they can make this film,” Dalziel wrote in a tweet.
FilmNation Entertainment did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Adibah Khan, a spokesperson for the National Islamic Youth Association, told NBC News that victims and their families had hardly been consulted and the organization was "completely blindsided" by news of the film.
Khan added that while the association commends Ardern on her "amazing and world-leading" response, there are many other voices which need to be heard.
"You cannot produce a film about the response to the attacks without talking about the root cause," Khan said. "We must recognize the deep-rooted prejudices and Islamophobia that are present in our society."
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One of the producers of the film, Philippa Campbell, has pulled out of the project and apologized for her involvement.
“I now agree that the events of March 15, 2019, are too raw for film at this time and do not wish to be involved in a project that is causing such distress,” New Zealand-based producer Campbell said in a statement to public broadcaster Television New Zealand.
Ardern has also criticized the project, telling TVNZ, that the project “feels very soon and very raw” for the nation.
"While there are so many stories that should be told at some point, I don't consider mine to be one of them,” she said.
The Muslim Association of Canterbury, the organization that manages the Al-Noor Mosque, at first questioned whether the timing of the movie was right, in a statement to public broadcaster Radio New Zealand.
However, a subsequent joint statement released the association and movie producer Ayman Jamal said they will work together to address the concerns of those affected by the attacks and consult more victims.
Jamal said that while they consulted some victims' families, they "deeply regret" that they did not speak to all.
"We are devastated by the pain and concerns caused by the announcement of the film," Jamal said in the statement. "This was never our intention and we believe we owe a clarification to those families who lost their loved ones, survivors and witnesses regarding the film, its purpose and intention.”
Jamal added that they spoke with over 20 victims of the attack as well as two imams during initial consultations over a year ago. “At the time the Christchurch Muslim community was going through a lot, and we were engaging only with those families who were ready to share their story with us at that time,” he added.
Weeks after the shooting, New Zealand's Parliament approved changes to its gun laws, putting in place further restrictions on gun ownership.