Three events in my lifetime have shaken my belief in the world.
Each of them, for me, made Aotearoa/New Zealand a worse place, a darker place, a place losing its innocence.
The first was an act of terrorism by the French — the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in the Auckland harbour in 1985.
The second, 15 years later in a Taranaki town, was the police shooting of Steven Wallace, gunned down 72 seconds after armed police arrived on the main street of Waitara. A police officer had feared for his life and that of a colleague because Steven was smashing shop windows and the windows of a police car with an officer inside.
The third event was the “terrorist” raids by the police in Ruatoki in 2007. That action (and other related raids around New Zealand) netted 17 people including Tame Iti, who already had a high profile as a Tūhoe activist.
These raids sparked my eight-year labour of love (and sometimes despair) making the documentary The Price of Peace. It’s a story that moves from anger and hatred to peace and reconciliation. Distilled to 84 minutes of film.
On October 15, 2007, I couldn’t believe my eyes as the scenes unfolded on television. Police looking like soldiers. Dressed to the max in black. Faces covered. Military-style weapons in their grip. Stopping every car going in and out of Ruatoki.
Ruatoki is not a town. It’s a valley on the edge of the Urewera forest, home to Ngāi Tūhoe. About 600 people, one school and at least 10 marae.
To the casual observer, it’s a poor place with many run-down houses and broken-down cars. But culturally it’s rich, and te reo Māori is still the main language there. I once stopped a kid on the road to ask directions and saw her struggle to remember the English words for left and right.
Ruatoki a hotbed of terrorists? You’ve got to be kidding me. Not the Ruatoki I know. And not the Ruatoki my mother got to know in the course of the two generations she was their public health nurse.
But that day, when I saw this ninja-like police force on TV, I couldn’t help fearing and praying for Mum’s safety — and knowing that, if she was there that day (as it turned out, she wasn’t), she’d be terrified.
Before the raids turned up on TV that day, a fellow journalist had phoned asking if I knew where Tame was, because he’d failed to turn up for a pre-arranged interview. No doubt because he’d already been arrested.
She rang me because Tame often stayed at my place when he was in Auckland. He is whanaunga (a close relation) of my former partner. That was my connection with this dangerous and terrifying activist.
Over about 15 years, I’d come to know Tame as more than the architect of in-your-face protests as he devised ways to promote Māori rights. The Tame I’d come to know was a softer man with many hats. He’s a father, grandfather, artist, health worker, radio announcer, community leader and, these days, a kaumatua.
Whenever he stayed at my place, life was always interesting. And for me to give his visits that rating says something about him, because my “interest gauge” is set higher than most. That’s a result of spending a good many years as a news and current affairs reporter. I’m not easily intrigued or impressed.
His touch in the kitchen was just one aspect of his appeal. Tame cooked great meals. He was mainly vegetarian at the time, and so was I. So that suited me down to the ground.
One time he came with two Thai farm union representatives. Across the road was a Thai supermarket and I came home from work to the spectacle of these tiny Thai men grinding up all manner of herbs and spices. That was a truly memorable meal. Okay. Not totally Tame’s handiwork, but he deserved much of the kudos.
Another time, Tame put his painting and decorating skills to work when he re-painted a scruffy room in my house. Way back, as a 16-year-old, he’d left Ruatoki for Christchurch on a trade training scheme. And here he was, as an interior decorator, putting those skills into action for me.
So, when news reports blathered on about military-style, terrorist training camps, led by none other than the evil Tame Iti, I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was farcical. My response was to make The Price of Peace.
Actually, I first made a documentary called October 15 which was funded by NZ On Air and screened on Māori Television. That doco followed three families caught up in the raids for three years and it satisfied my need to give the people of Ruatoki a voice about their pain inflicted by the “terrorist” raids.
As history shows, in the end, no one was charged with terrorism. Of the 17 arrested, only four went on trial. They were charged with firearms offences and being part of an organised criminal group.
Nicknamed the Urewera Four, they were Tame Iti (Ngāi Tūhoe), Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara (Ngāti Maniapoto), Urs Signer (Switzerland) and Emily Bailey (Parihaka).
It struck me that the three Māori represented the three iwi most affected by the New Zealand wars and the land confiscations.
After October 15 screened in 2010, I left the raids alone for nearly two years. But, in 2012, the trial of the Urewera Four was due to begin and I felt I should see the story through to the end.
I always believed the end would be a police apology because I don’t see the police as the enemy. I’d been the police reporter on One News for a year or so, and I respected the fact that police often have to walk into situations most of us would run from. They face the aftermath of child abuse, rape and murder. Heartbreak is all in their day’s work.
Around the time of the trial, Ngāi Tūhoe was negotiating with the Crown toward a Deed of Settlement and ultimately a Crown apology. This was an opportunity to not only tell the story of the “Urewera raids” but to delve into Ngāi Tūhoe’s heartbreaking history with the Crown. They’d been through a war. Been starved off their land. And had much of their land confiscated.
At the heart of negotiations was the return of Te Urewera and te mana motuhake o Tūhoe, or Tūhoe sovereignty. This was groundbreaking and, as a journalist, I knew it was a story that would go down in history.
To me the raids were almost the last chapter in Ngāi Tūhoe’s conflict with the Crown. When police placed the Ruatoki roadblock on the confiscation line in 2007, it felt like they were, once again, trampling on Ngāi Tūhoe mana.
I saw similarities with the 1916 police raid on the prophet, Rua Kenana, and his people at Maungapōhatu, Ngāi Tūhoe’s sacred mountain. Rua led a non-violent community seeking to reclaim confiscated Tūhoe land. The Crown became suspicious of him when he opposed Māori signing up for World War One.
During the 1916 police raid, Rua’s son was shot and killed. Rua was charged with sedition and tried in the Auckland High Court, the same place Tame Iti stood trial.
Rua was found not guilty but sentenced to a year in prison for resisting arrest. When Tame Iti came to court wearing a bowler hat, I’m sure it was a nod to the memory of Rua Kenana.
A week or so before the trial, I decided I would make The Price of Peace but my heart was heavy. I had no funding, and common sense told me I had endless hours of unpaid work ahead of me.
I phoned a director of photography, Jos Wheeler, a Pākehā. My former Tūhoe partner had taken Jos on many trips around te rohe potae o Tūhoe, Tūhoe’s tribal area.
From those trips, Jos knew Tame and many other Tūhoe people and I recognised that he cared deeply about this issue. So I rang and asked if he would do the filming, at least for the trial, with no money to offer. He agreed and hung in from 2012 to our final shoot in 2014. He missed just one day, the day of Tame’s sentencing, but organised someone to fill in for him.
It was a day I nearly said: “Don’t worry. We won’t cover it.” I thought Tame would just get a slap on the wrist and be released. How wrong I was when he and Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara were sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
The haka that Tame led from the dock and the piercing lament of the kuia, as they escorted supporters from the court, are some of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching scenes in the documentary.
I wasn’t alone in my surprise at the verdict. Tame’s eldest son nearly didn’t attend either. He arrived as it ended and asked me what had happened. I was trying not to cry as I told him his father had been sentenced to two and a half years in jail.
Two years later, I couldn’t control the tears as I watched the Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, and a number of senior officers arrive at Tame’s home in Ruatoki. They came to say sorry to Tame’s family for the way they were treated in the raids.
One by one, Tame’s grandchildren placed rau on the ground in front of Mike and his officers. When he stepped forward to pick up the leaves, signalling he came in peace, each child took the hand of a police officer to lead him into Tame’s home.
There I listened to Mike’s apology and I could tell it was genuine. I knew him a little bit. As a reporter on 60 Minutes, I’d travelled with a film crew and Detective Sergeant Mike Bush (as he was then) to Manila, in the Philippines.
He was investigating Brian Curtis (a drug lord and a Paremoremo Prison escaper) who was found after eight years, with a new life, a de facto Philippine wife and a three-year-old daughter.
Mike Bush had struck me as an honest cop and genuine human being. Later our paths crossed again when I was travelling in Thailand in 2004.
By then, he was the New Zealand police liaison officer in Bangkok. And he was at ground zero during the aftermath of the tsunami. It was a hopeless and horrifying task.
After the apology in Ruatoki, a weight lifted and the path was open to move forward. For me, the moving forward meant completing the documentary, and screening it at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
Tame and I went to screenings in Auckland and Wellington. We saw people moved to tears. There was a standing ovation. People sang and shared their stories.
Then, in October, the documentary screened in competition at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto, Canada.
I had always wanted to go to this because it’s the largest indigenous film festival in the world. Mainly, I wanted to meet Mohicans and Samis and other First Nations people.
When it was time for the festival awards ceremony, the producer, Christina Milligan, and I didn’t even dress up. For us it was just another event in an interesting and busy schedule.
Then we came to the Best Documentary Award. The presenter was Alanis Obomsawin, a pioneer of Canada’s First Nation film-makers. She was a friend of our own late Merata Mita — and Canada’s equivalent of Merata as well.
Alanis led up to the announcement of the award winner by referring to the humour and rage and optimism and cynicism. That had me assuming she was talking about an Aussie doco I’d seen that day. And I was thinking: “Good choice. The judges have got it right.”
Then, she mentioned this doco being, in part, a family story. And I thought: “Wait a minute. She’s talking about our film.” And so she was. We’d won.
That was neat. But, thinking back, the neatest of all the screenings and of all the responses was the very first screening — a private preview for the people of Ruatoki. That was especially neat, because I made The Price of Peace for them.
© e-tangata, 2015
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.