Tuesday, September 10, 2013

He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan

He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan is the longest film title at the film festival and I managed to forget to write a review of it. It is the story of the New Zealand Army in Afghanistan, or rather it is the story about trying to find out about the New Zealand Army in Afghanistan.

New Zealand is proud of it's tradition of sending troops overseas to fight in other peoples' wars. Starting in 1899 when Prime Minister Richard Seddon offered to send mounted riflemen to South Africa to fight Boers (aka Afrikaners), and was eager to get them to South Africa ahead of the Australians. While the New Zealand government of the day didn't have the power to declare war, it was autonomous enough to have its own armed forces and decide on their use. There was also a sense of competition to please London among what were to become the Dominions. The situation was much the same in 1914 when New Zealand invaded German Samoa as part of a pre-WWI agreement with Britain.

More celebrated is New Zealand's contribution to the Anglo-French invasion of the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli in 1915. New Zealand also contributed to the more successful invasion of the Ottoman Empire in the Palestine Campaign but mostly Kiwis died in World War I trying to repel the German army from France and Belgium. By World War II New Zealand could choose to declare war and again Kiwis mostly fought on the other side of the world, around the Mediterranean, helping Britain with another war. Since then New Zealand moved from helping Britain to helping the US, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately the New Zealand public has never been as keen on fighting America's wars as it was at fighting Britain's wars, which is the nub of this documentary.

He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan contrasts what the New Zealand government and military tell us about what the NZ Army has been doing in Afghanistan (which is what normally appears in the news here) with what journalists in Afghanistan (most notably Jon Stephenson) have found out by talking to Afghans and NZ soldiers. Generally the official story is that our soldiers are rebuilding Bamyan province, and the SAS are training Afghan special forces. Unfortunately closer investigation shows that aid projects are a minor role of New Zealand's Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the SAS is involved in night raids, with or without Afghan forces. They have killed civilians and transferred prisoners to known torturers. The film makers (and Jon Stephenson) are very careful to never criticise Kiwi soldiers, making a clear distinction between them and the top brass and politicians who decide what they do in Afghanistan.

The documentary not only highlights the difference between reality and government and army spin. It also touches on the smear campaign against Jon Stephenson for pointing out the truth. Just as importantly it asks why New Zealand has troops in Afghanistan more than 10 years after Al-Qaeda had been chased out of Afghanistan. Should New Zealand be so complicit in the scope creep of the America's invasion of Afghanistan? Is it time to re-evaluate New Zealand's love affair with other people's wars? Which, since 1899, have been fought with one eye on pleasing a larger and more powerful country on the other side of the world.

Ian's rating 4/5

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