Excellent review from He Hoaka blog: 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.