Sunday, February 12, 2012

Film review of When a city falls: scripting contemporary lament

A 500 word (monthly) film review by Steve Taylor (for Touchstone magazine). This one is about contemporary lament, in particular the Christchurch earthquake. Film reviews of a wide range of contemporary films (over 65), each with a theological perspective, back to 2005 can be found here.

When a City Falls. A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

At the heart of the First Testament, and the experience of the people of Israel, is the disintegration and destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The resultant pain and trauma generated a type of literature known as lament, as vehicle to share experiences of suffering and hope for restoration.

Located in various Psalms and the book of Lamentations, Biblical lament is structured around three themes, those of naming suffering, petitioning for help and the expression of hope that change might happen. These themes provide a way to reflect on Neil Graham’s documentary “When a City Falls.”

Graham lived within the central four avenues of Christchurch city and applies the tools of his trade, the video camera, to document the recent earthquakes that struck New Zealand’s second largest city, Christchurch.

Much of the movie is an eloquent naming of suffering. We hear Graham literally weep over the desolation of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, document the rescue efforts amid the concrete tomb that became the CTV building and trudge wearily through the constant re-liquefaction that blighted the city suburbs.

This initial montage of images is woven together with a number of narrative threads. First, the time line, stretching from the unexpectedness of the first earthquake of 3 September, 2010, through the death of February 22, 2010, to the upheaval created on 13 June, 2011. Each major earthquake is skillfully introduced using diverse media, from night-time talkback radio, through noon-time tourist video, to child chat on computer webcam.

Second, interviews with survivors and victims. These generate much petitioning for help, as people seek loved ones among the quake damage, record their fear as the shakes continue and express their frustration as bureaucracy struggles to cope.

However, Graham’s camera work does provoke some ethical questions. As lament is enacted, in the form of a minute’s silence in Lyttelton following the February earthquake, Graham’s camera serves to intrude. Footage of his walk around the gathered, grieving crowd turns a grief that was personal into a spectacle for media consumption.

Amid the anguish there emerges much to admire. These include the constant moments of humour, the inspirational creativity that is Gap Filler and the response to the unexpected arrival of volunteers. “I’m not on my own. There are people that care. Oh God.”

The movie ends with the expression of hope. Graham interviews developers, urban designers and residents in San Francisco, Portland and New Orleans. They suggest a rebuilt Christchurch, comprised not of suburbs of strip malls linked by cars, but of urban environments in which human communities walk and play. It certainly resonates with the urban vision found in Isaiah 65, that following the fall of Jerusalem will emerge a new city of urban equity and intergenerational harmony.

The Christchurch cinema was comfortably full. Residents around me sniffled, giggled, then finally cheered at the expression of confidence of Christchurch as “the world’s most earthquake resilient city.” Which makes “When the City Falls” a well-crafted expression of contemporary lament.

Posted by steve at 06:50 PM


  1. The filmaker was Gerard Smythe. He was cameraman, writer and producer, not Neil Graham. Although Gerard lives in central Christchurch now, he was previously a resident of Lyttelton and was involved in the beginnings of the Volcano Restaurant there which was destroyed in the quake – perhaps not as much an intruding stranger as it seemed.

    Comment by Alistair Mackenzie — February 13, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

  2. Thanks Alistair. I was not in www when i wrote the review, so couldn’t check the precise details. My thinking was based on 2 scenes – first when some folk in central chch tell the person holding the camera the police are looking for him. second, the minute of silence at Lyttleton, in which the camera pans the crowd and settles on a man overcome with grief.

    I know as a university researcher that any work with human subjects needs ethical approval. I wondered how the man overcome with grief would feel having his emotions shown on the screen. I wondered how I would feel if I was gathered for the minute of silence to see a camera recording me and the crowd and how that might alter my grieving. I still think it’s intrusive, even if a known local.


    Comment by steve — February 15, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  3. Steve thanks for the review. My name is Gerard Smyth. I was the producer director cameraman and interviewer.Neil Graham was a funder and had nothing to do with the filming. Hardly a precise detail as you state qbove. Nor did you get right your understanding of the ‘camera settling on a man overcome with grief’. That is not so. The guy was crouching and listening to the pastor. To say he was overcome with grief is nonsense. Which also makes a nonsense of your extrapolation of my supposed motive of turning this into a ‘spectacle for media consumption’. I take expection to that. Secondly -yes the police were looking for me. And why that was so,I went on to explain. I said in the film “I told them I lived here’ I was filming outside my house!! The policemen went away. Of all the reviews I have read, this one is easily the silliest. Cheers Gerard

    Comment by Gerard Smyth — April 16, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  4. Thanks Gerard. I presume your comment about this being the silliest review didn’t apply to my conclusion “Which makes “When the City Falls” a well-crafted expression of contemporary lament.” Take the bouquet.

    You pick up on the one paragraph in which I raise ethical questions. It seemed to me, watching the movie, that this film dealt with grief, took a lot of pictures of people in grief. I know from human experience that not everyone likes to be photographed and that when they become aware of a camera, they tend to change their behaviour. Can I ask if you consider that as a filmaker as you film? How do you decide what to film and what not?

    As a University lecturer, I need to gain ethics approval in order to work with human subjects. People have to sign a form, in which they say they realise what the material is going to be used for and that they have permission to withdraw the right to have their responses if they wish at any time. Do you have similar considerations, whether personal, or industry, that shape your filmakng?

    It was these types of wonderings that made me wonder about this being a spectacle for media consumption.

    I appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond and I hope you’ll be able to respond to my questions, even if you do consider them silly, so that I can learn more about the practices of filmmaking.


    Comment by steve — April 16, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  5. Gerard,

    A further point, that came to me when I was reading Satre’s The Look this morning. The book is based on the idea of looking at someone else through a keyhole, and how the person looking suddenly feels things differently when suddenly they become aware that they are being looked at.

    So, I’m asking – do those who are part of grief, feel “differently” when they notice a camera looking at them? And do you feel “differently” when they notice a film reviewer looking at you?

    Which explains my “ethical questions … around the implications when a grief that was personal into a spectacle for media consumption” – yours and everyone who watches the film.

    Not saying it’s wrong, just left me pondering the ethical question, in a world dominated by media exploitation of intimacy, what is the role of media in times of extreme tragedy?


    Comment by steve — April 19, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  6. Gerard, Just watching the film again here in Australia. On the film you say the police are looking for you because they don’t want you filming. I wonder why the Police don’t want you filming?


    Comment by steve taylor — February 22, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

  7. I saw the movie here in Melbourne tonight. Very moved. I’d like to listen to the music – how can I get a copy – can’t find it on tikidub, itunes or anywhere.

    Comment by Peter — February 23, 2013 @ 12:14 am

  8. Peter,

    I don’t know about a sound track, but the opening music sounds very similar to part of Tike Tanne’s first solo album, Past, present and future.


    Comment by steve — February 23, 2013 @ 10:50 am

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