Film Review: The Price of Peace, Taame Iti & Operation 8

Read the complete analysis of alleged Maori terrorism in the Urewera

Director Kim Webby

The NZ Film Festival billed this film as an in-depth profile of Taame Iti and that it is not. But it is nevertheless a powerful and moving film about a defining chapter in his life and I do highly recommend it.

It is the story of Taame’s arrest on 15th October 2007 accused of terrorism, his subsequent trial in 2012 along with three others, and of events surrounding and subsequent to the arrest and trial. The film does traverse some of his life from his infancy and schooling in the Urewera, leaving home to become an apprenticed tradesman in Christchurch, and on into later life as an activist and Ngai Tuhoe nationalist.

Taame himself told me after he had viewed the film that it did not capture the essence of who he is; nor have any of the tens of thousands of words written about him over the years, or the many documentaries and TV news items made about him. That in-depth profile, one that does show who he really is, is yet to be made. He has plans afoot to ensure that it will be made.

As well as Taame’s story it also recounts the history of the blighted relationship between Ngai Tuhoe and the Crown, and documents the settlement Ngai Tuhoe has recently reached with the Crown. The two separate but closely related stories were unfolding in parallel as the film was made. Both stories are told in historical and contemporary contexts. On film Tamati Kruger relates that he and Taame agreed at the time that the events of the long drawn out court process would not be allowed to affect the settlement negotiations with the Crown. In the film however the two strands are interwoven, the one a reflection of the other.

A personal aside. I found a comment by Taame in the film quite amusing. It was in relation to the activists, mainly Wellington based, who came to the Urewera in 2006/2007 to support the Ngai Tuhoe cause and to attend the weekend “Rama” or wananga he was running, called military training camps by the Police. When I interviewed Taame recently he spoke quite fondly of the activists and of the pleasure he obtained from exchanging ideas with them. In the film he referred to them as “anarchists, vegetarians and fundamentalists” which may not exactly please them but I’m sure was not meant to offend. The funny bit is that I’m a vegan myself and before I interviewed him Taame shouted me a delicious vegan salad for lunch. I wonder if he lumps me in with the fundamentalists! I suppose in his eyes I might be a hard core dietary fundamentalist.

I like Taame Iti. He has a unique way of looking at the world and at events. He has an interesting and creative mind and is never boring. He presents ideas through artistic or theatrical metaphor and symbolism although he can be verbally adroit as well. It is reminiscent of old time Maori use of metaphor and symbolism in everyday speech as well as in formal oratory, through voice, movement and gesture; a style now largely lost to antiquity. His style shines through in the film if you can move beyond the preconceptions almost everyone has about him.

Part of Tamati Kruger’s evidence during the trial was shown. I was in court in 2012 when Tamati was in the witness box and I remember it well. In his evidence for the defence he explained that Taame was a leader among many leaders in Tuhoe and that his role was to explain the Tuhoe viewpoint. In doing so he often made people uncomfortable. In fact he often made Tuhoe people uncomfortable and he often made Tamati Kruger uncomfortable as well. I thought it was a great moment in the film. Perhaps because I like the way Taame Iti makes people uncomfortable. In my own way I try to do the same I suppose, without the theatricality.

In 2006 and 2007 he obviously made the Police and Helen Clark uncomfortable too.

At the screening I saw at Sky City Theatre in Auckland on Wednesday 22nd July 2015 the theatre was about three-quarters full. Kim Webby spoke briefly afterwards. She acknowledged her upbringing at Opotiki and her closeness to Ngai Tuhoe, and that her mentors in matters Tuhoe have been Tamati Kruger and Taame Iti. She also acknowledges that this film is intended to present a Tuhoe perspective. That does not detract at all from the quality of the film.

The earlier screening of the film on Sunday 19th July attracted a sell-out audience including, I am reliably informed,  the 2012 trial judge Justice Rodney Hansen and his wife. Taame Iti, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Tamati Kruger and Taame’s trial lawyer Russell Fairbrother were also present.

In relation to Taame’s story there are other scenes from the trial in 2012 including the reading of the charges at the beginning, and at the end of the trial the haka led by Taame after Justice Hansen sentenced him and Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara to two and a half years in prison on various arms charges after the jury had not been able to reach a verdict on criminal group charges. Urs Signer and Emily Bailey were not sentenced at that time and later received nine months’ home detention. The criminal group charge that the jury could not agree on had been substituted for the terrorism charges that the Solicitor General would not allow in 2007. Justice Hansen in his summing up, partly shown in the film, clearly believed the evidence presented to support that main charge, and gave great weight to that evidence when sentencing on the lesser arms charges. He believed that the activity in the Urewera was evidence of an “armed militia” intended to be used as “Plan B” if “Plan A”, the Tuhoe settlement negotiations, failed.

The film crew followed Taame during the trial and captured his thoughts and feelings as the trial unfolded. There were many thoughtful moments and some quite humorous. Throughout it all, and afterwards, Taame steadfastly maintained his innocence. The film did not delve into the evidence at all, other than to show parts of it as it was presented to the court.

I have been analysing the police intelligence operation for over three years now, and based on information I have been able to unearth and on interviews with some of the participants in the wananga including Taame Iti, I believe that he was innocent. I will be writing more about that in future essays. The film however does not show any evidence to support Taame’s assertion of innocence.

Intertwined with Taame’s travails was the history behind the Ngai Tuhoe claim against the Crown and the progress of that claim. The film concluded with apologies made in both of those strands.

Firstly there were apologies made by Police Commissioner Bush to the whanau affected by the police paramilitary operation on 15th October 2007, to the Ruatoki community and to Ngai Tuhoe. His welcome to Taame Iti’s home and his apology to Taame’s whanau was shown in full. The response of Maria Steen, Taame’s partner and a victim of the operation, was deeply moving. The Commissioner’s apology seemed to be heart felt and genuine. However it must be noted that no-one has yet been held to account for police behaviour on that day. During this scene in the Iti home Taame told Police Commissioner Mike Bush that if the Police had wanted to know what he was doing they could have simply knocked on his door.

Commissioner Bush later made it clear that he was not apologising for the arrests and that he believed the police were right to bring the charges against Taame and his co-accused.

The second apology was the official apology made by Treaty Minister Christopher Finlayson on behalf of the Crown as part of the settlement that was eventually reached. In that settlement Ngai Tuhoe effectively gained a measure of autonomy over Te Urewera after battling the Crown for generations. The denouement of the film came in the juxtaposition of those two separate apologies.

This was a powerful and moving telling of the two stories told as much through the feelings and emotions of the participants as through the facts of the events. It led us through the anger and the grief, through the prolonged physical and psychological resistance and the resilience of Ngai Tuhoe, to a touch of optimism after the settlement and a ray of hope for a different and perhaps a better future for Ngai Tuhoe people.

Taame seems content to focus now on his art and his art gallery in Taneatua as he contemplates life after the struggles. When I met with him he seemed at peace, accepting of the price he has personally paid.

“The Price of Peace”

Director: Kim Webby
Producers: Christina Milligan, Roger Grant & Kim Webby
Photography: Jos Wheeler
Editor: Cushla Dillon
Music: Joel Haines

“Price of Peace” on Facebook

Links: The Operation 8 Series