'Retraumatizing': Leaked Script of NZ Terror Attack Movie Blasted by Victims' Families

A script for a movie retelling of New Zealand's 2019 mosque attacks has rocked the island nation with controversy, as family members of victims depicted in the film call the project "unethical," "horrifying" and "a false narrative." As a result, the film, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, has reportedly been placed on hold.

The movie, titled They Are Us, had intended to follow New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the terror attacks on two Christchurch mosques in March 2019. In the attacks, which targeted the al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, 51 Muslim worshippers were killed. The shooter also live-streamed the attacks on Facebook.

In June, Niccol told Dateline that "They Are Us is not so much about the attack but the response to the attack [and] how an unprecedented act of hate was overcome by an outpouring of love and support."

However, a leaked script obtained by Newshub has outraged New Zealanders across the country, and in particular, the families of victims, some of whom called it "worse than the livestream" of the terror attacks.

According to Newshub, the script for They Are Us depicts the shootings in graphic detail over the course of 17 pages, translating to about 17 minutes of screen-time—"meaning it'd play out virtually in real-time."

Additionally, "[15] deaths are depicted in graphic detail, almost all of them named victims."

Salwa Mohamad, whose husband and son were killed in the attacks, told Newshub that the project is "unacceptable."

"The movie is just like the livestream. It's worse—worse than the livestream. It would encourage others to do the same, or even to make it better, to avoid the mistakes the terrorist made," she said. "I just want to ask the producers: if one of their loved ones was killed, would they like to see that and see how they died in a movie?"

The project has also drawn ire for purportedly "changing facts," as Mohamad put it. "They are making their own facts. It's not true what I read in that scene," she said.

Ambreen Naeem, whose husband and son were killed in the attacks, echoed that sentiment to Newshub, calling the script "distressing and [retraumatizing]."

The outrage over the film extends beyond its graphic portrayal of the shootings. In response to the script, New Zealand political commentator and lawyer Linda Clark described the film's depiction of Ardern—where she's described as a "slender figure," "dressed in a slip" and "sobbing alone" on the night of the attacks—as "emotional, objectifying and pretty sexist."

Jacinda Ardern Hugging
A script for a movie retelling of New Zealand's 2019 mosque attacks has rocked the island nation with controversy. Above, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacina Ardern hugs a woman at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington in 2019. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

"Clearly the script is based on real events, but it's not real and it's not realistic," Clark said. "It's written as if an American wrote it, for an American audience, with no understanding of how New Zealand looks at these issues and how our politicians behave."

Others, meanwhile, feel that the film's focus on Ardern, a white woman, rather than the experience of the attacker's Muslim victims, is problematic.

Controversy continued to brew as reports came out that the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), a government agency that supports New Zealand filmmaking— could potentially profit from the film. However, in an email to the public, the agency "confirmed that no Government money has been given or promised to the They Are Us project, and the NZFC has had no role in the development of the concept or script."

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the leaked script appears to have resonated with those behind the project. As of Friday, Niccol released a statement noting that the film will be put on hold "until full consultation with New Zealand's Muslim community has taken place," reported 1 News.

He said: "I am deeply saddened by the pain caused to families of the victims due to the wrongful distribution of our draft script for They Are Us."

"The script was far from final and never intended to be shared with the affected members of the Muslim community at such an early stage," he added, noting that the "sole purpose of the script, which was released without permission, was to gauge interest of potential financiers."

Meanwhile, Newshub reported that Ardern has spoken up regarding the controversial film.

"Whilst I don't have the ability to stop any piece of television or any piece of [a] film being made, what I can ask is for those producers to listen," she said. "Listen to those who are most deeply affected."