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River of Freedom, a doco about the Wellington anti-mandate protest

In brief
  • River of Freedom, a documentary about Wellington’s anti-mandate protest, debuted at the Civic Theatre in Auckland.
  • It features a wide range of voices from the three week long occupation of the Beehive lawn from February to March 2022. 
  • The independently funded film paints protesters in a much more favourable light than the government funded Fire and Fury documentary by Stuff. 

NZ News Essentials goes to the movies!

NZ News Essentials went to the Civic Theatre in Auckland for the premiere of the feature documentary film River Of Freedom. The name, of course, is a play on the ‘river of filth’ comment about the protest by ex Cabinet Minister Michael Wood (who, somewhat ironically, was later forced to resign over ethics violations). 

The film, directed by Gaylene Burns, includes a look at the lead up to the 3-week occupation of the Beehive lawn, in Wellington, in February and March 2022. This occupation  was in response to the Government’s imposition of vaccine mandates. The film also examines the High Court win in which compulsory vaccination for New Zealand Police and Defence Force staff was found to be unlawful. It documents the protestors forceful eviction by Police on 2 March using pepper spray, ramming shields and sponge bullets. 

The documentary strikes an empathetic tone and is packed with emotional testimony from a range of dissident voices.​​ This includes an ex-police officer who joined the protest, doctors and others. Even gang members are portrayed as standing shoulder to shoulder with protestors in opposition to mandated vaccinations. 

Many featured in the film are well known, due to their outspoken opposition to the vaccine mandates at the time, like Dr Matt Shelton and lawyer Sue Grey. 

Participants in the protest

In a key segment, featuring music by Eric Clapton, who donated the use of a song, the filmmakers detail results of a Sean Plunket and Curia commissioned poll. It suggested nearly 46% of the protesters voted for Labour or Green in the 2020 election. There were also a significant number of Te Pāti Māori voters present. 

As well, nearly a third of protesters polled were Māori. 

River of Freedom, a doco about the Wellington anti-mandate protest - Centrist
Kate Hannah of The Disinformation Project. Image from Youtube.

River of Freedom vs Fire and Fury

The film does a good job of representing the makeup of the protesters as compared to the Stuff circuit doco Fire and Fury made by Paula Penfold. 

In Fire and Fury, the inconvenient truth that a huge number of the protesters were left leaning is completely ignored. The large Māori contingent present at the protest is explained away as being “manipulated” by “those people” and “those movements”. The implication in Fire and Fury is that Māori men and women were somehow not capable of thinking for themselves. Instead, they naively fell in with radical and “dangerous” conspiracy theorists, far right white supremacists and anti-vaxxers. 

Penfold’s piece plays up the anger and frustration expressed by protesters against a backdrop of sinister music and commentary from the likes of Kate Hannah of The Disinformation Project. It also discusses extremism in NZ, insinuating groups are working together for nefarious ends, with little evidence, and that the protest was a product of that. 

River of Freedom shows how people worked together to provide protesters with food and amenities over the course of several weeks. 

You could say Fire and Fury had more elements of looking from the outside in, while River of Freedom was the converse.

A tale of two fundings

It’s notable that Fire and Fury relied on government funding to paint an outrageous picture of many anti vaccine mandate figures as nothing short of Nazis and white supremacists. 

River of Freedom received no government money and was independently funded through crowd sourcing and private means. The film contained zero references to Nazis and white supremacists. 

And whereas Fire and Fury was granted awards despite its pro-Government bias and being lampooned by critics, Stuff reporter Frances Chin emailed Barnes to inform her River of Freedom was to be labelled “disinformation” by the publication, as defined by Hannah and The Disinformation Project, without Chin having viewed the film. 

Chris Lynch Media reports that it was only in the follow up email to Barnes that Chin asked “What is the documentary about?” 

River of Freedom is playing in select theatres across New Zealand.

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