When a City Falls
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 4th December 2011
A year has not yet passed since 182 people lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake, and it’s sobering to know that thousands have still to face their first Christmas in the wake of the tragedy. As the city has got back on its feet and is already making plans for a rebuild, it’s timely to look back at the event that will define 2011 for many of us.
This beautifully photographed documentary starts at the beginning, the first big shake in September 2010, when afterward the locals felt they had been “big-time blessed” in the absence of any deaths. Interviewing workers and families and people on the street, we see good ol’ Kiwi humour in the face of adversity as someone forced to drive through flooded streets remarks wryly “at least now we’ve justified our inner city four-wheel drive”.
Gerard Smyth’s ode to his home city could so easily have been just another talking heads piece about the tragedy of losing loved ones, and indeed it is heartfelt and generous in its treatment of those involved. But this documentary covers all the elements of Canterbury’s three major earthquakes, sharing not just the personal experiences but geological explanation of fault lines and examination of the region’s geography. We see people concerned about protecting the architecturally significant features of condemned buildings; there is talk of the pending rebuild; and advice given graciously by those who have lived through similar destruction in San Francisco, Portland and New Orleans.
The film is a big emotional journey, all the more so as we know what’s coming hot on the heels of September’s relief – there is an inevitable poignancy in seeing Christchurch’s landmarks before they were eventually rendered unrecognisable, and footage of the quakes makes for harrowing viewing whether you were caught up in it or watched on the television news.
But although incredibly moving, the story is not relentlessly grim. Instead, the demonstrations of love and care – between locals, out-of-towners, the Student Army that waded through liquefied earth to clear people’s yards, and the international emergency service workers from Japan, Taiwan and Australia – send out a message of hope and remind us that it’s this sharing and unity that is key to every experience.