What kind of film would Gerard Smyth have made had the February 22, 2011, earthquake never happened? That question might come to you a few times as you watch Smyth’s feature-length (106 minutes long) Christchurch quake doco, When a City Falls. Smyth, a Christchurch cameraman and documentary-maker (he did the Alun Bollinger film, Barefoot Cinema), got started on this straight after the September 4, 2010 quake – the surprise 7.1 quake that did plenty of damage but killed no one – and the narrative of the following five months is preserved in When a City Falls. That period is now prelude, mined for poignancy in hindsight: the Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, Barry Jones, shows off the intact interior of the Basilica, so wisely quake-strengthened some years earlier; a Christchurch resident remarks that the city must be blessed, that someone is watching over us. Then the really bad one hits: no one feels blessed anymore; the Basilica is seriously damaged and must be dismantled. Other architectural treasures that were marvelled over in the previous section are equally ruined.
So Smyth might once have made a shorter, happier film, full of stories of good fortune and miraculous escapes, keep-calm-and-carry-on responses to the city’s mountains of silt and the flooded streets, Kiwi humour in adversity, and so on. And then the bad one came – which means that Smyth has already communicated the most important truth about the February quake, which is that it seemed unthinkable because we thought it had already happened. More than 100 people died in the CTV building alone; 182 people died in total. This was all exhaustively covered at the time, but Smyth’s version of the afternoon that stretched into evening, with the fires that kept burning in the CTV building, the armies of rescue workers, the silent crowds waiting in Latimer Square, is still startling, pieced together from his own urgent footage and other sources, and playing out unmediated by reporters or news readers. Did you ever see the blocks of stone come off the Anglican Cathedral, like a rockfall? That was new to me.
Covering the aftermath was always going to be harder for Smyth (or anyone). How to balance the complex tasks, the sensitivities involved in interviewing surviving family members about their losses, while also surveying the ways that the disaster affected different parts of town and documenting both the progress over weeks and months – in the post-quake timeline, demolitions are a form of progress – and the shifts in the general mood? It would require you to have several different perspectives at once, to work on several different scales at the same time.
Smyth doesn’t try to get all that in. His film is largely an individual response not a comprehensive one. Like columnist Jane Bowron – and there is some overlap with her book of columns, Old Bucky and Me – Smyth starts from his inner-east Christchurch neighbourhood and works out. His – and Bowron’s – Christchurch is one where Piko and its surrounding shops were central and Merivale and Riccarton go unmentioned. Smyth weeps off-camera at the sight of the ruined Basilica, where he had once been an altar boy, and we note that his Christchurch is more Catholic than Anglican, generally bohemian and working class, or at least egalitarian. From a Press feature on the film (by Bowron):
The Film Commission flew down a few days after February to look at Smyth's footage and quickly saw it was something that wasn't being shown on mainstream TV. From the rushes, initially the Film Commission thought it a political film because the people seemed to be working class with the middle to upper classes of Christchurch absent from the footage.Smyth is not reporting the official lines or following the official timeframe. His is an earthquake story largely free of CERA, Bob Parker and Gerry Brownlee, one that focuses instead on community responses and individual ways of coping. Beyond Smyth’s inner-east neighbourhood, the emphasis is on Avonside, Bexley, Aranui, Linwood and Lyttelton, with trips to Sumner and Kaiapoi. It is the Christchurch of Lianne Dalziel and Garry Moore, rather than Merivale and Christ’s College. The bigger picture, as reported in most media – events like the "share an idea" expo, or the red-zone land offers and insurance wrangles – has been deliberately overlooked in favour of smaller stories. And there is a good chance that in the years to come, personal accounts like these – Bowron’s book, too, and Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book – may ultimately matter more than the stories composed in the clean and neutral language of most journalism.
"They didn't take into account that people were looking grubby and unshaven till I said, 'That person there's the wife of the Crown prosecutor, that man employs 43 people, that guy's a doctor'. We all got levelled to the same person," Smyth says, at pains to describe the film as grassroots and very much "of the people".
The film is personal in both choices and style: Smyth stays off-camera but we get to know him from his quiet responses and his gentle questions. He appears to be a sensitive interviewer, and some of these stories are – no surprise – very tough indeed. There is the young woman whose father was killed by rocks above Lyttelton (she found his body). There is the widow of architect Don Cowey, who was killed in his garden. There is – and this might be the strangest and most affecting of all – the story of how elderly people comforted rest home workers.
The structure is loose, the events of September 4, December 26, February 22 and June 13 are the natural chapter breaks, and the ending was always going to be problematic (at what point will we say that the event has ended?). Not all critics have been convinced (see Peter Calder) by a trip to the US with urban designer James Lunday to see how San Francisco, New Orleans and Portland recovered – Portland from a post-manufacturing slump not a natural disaster – but these scenes seem to both summarise and extend the endless conversations that Christchurch has had about its rebuild since February. People outside need to realise that the utopian daydreaming of such conversations – will we be the green city, the safe city, the creative city, the new model city? – can often seem like a way of coping.