We at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner enjoy a good film as much as the next person, and relish the opportunity the NZIFF presents to see some of the best cinematic endeavours in the world on our screens.
It is seldom difficult to find a privacy link somewhere in the programme, and I’m looking forward to catching Zero Days, a documentary about Stuxnet, the US/Israeli hack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges that (who’d have thought?) had potentially catastrophic consequences.
Closer to home, we’ve been treated to the premier of The Fifth Eye as it moves from the pavement to the big screen.
It is a film about New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes alliance, the intelligence gathering (OK, spy) network which includes Australia, Canada, Britain, and, of course, the big brother, the United States.
The film offers few new insights, settling instead to repeat the leaks, speculations and concerns aired during Kim Dotcom’s trials and later famously at his “Moment of Truth”, the Snowden papers. The film takes in the law change in 2014 that “clarified” the GCSB’s powers, but it brings little to the table by way of new information about the international intelligence industry.
Waihopai spy base
The strength of the film, and what makes it worth watching is the narrative based around the three Catholic peace activists who, in 2008 breached the security of the GCSB’s Waihopai satellite monitoring base, and attacked one of the protective domes with a sickle, deflating it, and presumably temporarily disabling the installation at a cost (as later claimed by the Crown) of $1million.
To the astonishment of the legal fraternity, a jury acquitted the “Waihopai 3” of willful damage charges. The film will help you understand why. The self-described “bumbling” vandals were driven by a deep conviction as to the righteousness of their task. Their engaging incompetence is best depicted in a scene in which one of the three, given a cell phone to receive the message about when to bring the truck, becomes worried when he hasn’t heard from his co-conspirators two hours after the appointed time. He calls them. “Where are you?” he enquires. “Didn’t you get our text?” comes the whispered response? “What’s a text?” replies the hapless peace activist.
My encounter with the protesters
If the film had begun its narrative 24 hours earlier or finished a few months later, your correspondent might well have featured on the screen. The first we see of the three activists is at a prayer meeting and vigil close to Waihopai in January 2008, evidently scoping out the attack they would carry out three months later.
In January 2008, I was driving from Auckland to Wellington, and stopped to pick up an elderly bearded hitchhiker in Matamata. I didn’t recognise him, but once he described his vocation and mentioned his tenant, I realised who he was.
He was Father Peter Murnane, the Dominican friar into whose custody the Algerian refugee Ahmed Zhaoui had been released after his successful Supreme Court appeal against his detention. He told me he was on his way to stage a peaceful protest at Waihopai. I drove him to Levin, and offered to run him down to the farm where he would be staying. We were met by a lanky, young-looking farmer in overalls and gumboots who Father Murnane introduced as Sam Land. Imagine my surprise when I, by now surely an accessory, saw the two of them on the news, together with their not-very cell phone partner Adrian Leason being bundled into a Police car having carried out their spectacular and costly protest!
Had the film run on from the Crown’s abandonment of the costs case against the three, and shown any interest in actually informing viewers about the accountability framework underwhich the GCSB operates, and one of its Snowden revealed projects, codenamed Cortex, it might have included footage of the film’s producer preventing the GCSB from providing the greater transparency many who oppose the activities of the organisation claim they want to see.
Although that event had to be cancelled, we were able to run it later in the year, and the GCSB released a declassified version of the privacy impact assessment for Cortex. Instead of these facts, the film makers chose to include a tiny clip from the Prime Minister’s interview with John Campbell (“it’s like Norton Anti-virus”) which at the screening I attended received the no doubt hoped for laughs from the audience.
The Fifth Eye succumbs to the temptation of polemics, but nonetheless does a public service in presenting one of the vital issues of our time to the New Zealand public. It raises questions that should be answered - some of which my colleague at www.igis.govt.nz is engaged with right now - but most of all the film tells a quite charming story of three bumbling New Zealanders, acting in a tradition that goes back to Te Whiti o Rongomai and Archibald Baxter who put their lives and wellbeing on the line for their belief in peace.
There will be some who think the Waihopai 3 were misguided or misinformed, but there is no doubting their conviction and the honesty of their cause.
Image credit: NZ International Film Festival.