“I have listened to the concerns raised over recent days and I have heard the strength of people’s views. I now agree that the events of March 15, 2019, are too raw for film at this time and do not wish to be involved with a project that is causing such distress,” Campbell said in a statement.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who will be portrayed by Rose Byrne in the film, has also distanced herself from the effort.
The movie, to be written and directed by Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”), was unveiled last week by sales company FilmNation Entertainment and CAA Media Finance. They have plans to present the project to international buyers at the upcoming Cannes virtual market.
FilmNation and CAA last week described the pic as “an inspirational story about the young leader’s response to the tragic events, and the remarkable achievements of her government and citizens who rallied behind her message of compassion and unity to ban assault rifles in New Zealand.”
The title, “They Are Us,” comes from an empathetic speech Ardern made describing the victims of the attack. Fifty-one people were killed in the armed attack mounted on two mosques by an Australian white supremacist.
Stewart Till, Ayman Jamal and Niccol remain attached as producers. There has been no word that the movie has been canceled or postponed. But the significant negative reactions in New Zealand may make the pic harder to pull off, especially as it planned to film in the country.
Neither CAA nor FilmNation have responded to Variety’s requests for comment.
Many criticisms concern the timing of the project. Although the screenplay has yet to be revealed, the movie has also been slammed for presenting a white savior narrative.
“Concerns raised have varied from the swiftness of depicting what is a very raw event, to the elevation of Jacinda Ardern as the central character in the story, to the veracity of the so-called community consultation undertaken by the producers,” said Guled Mire, a New Zealand Muslim writer and human rights advocate in comments emailed to Variety.
Ardern appeared to be aligned with both critiques. “In my view, which is a personal view, it feels very soon and very raw for New Zealand,” she told local media TVNZ. “And while there are so many stories that should be told at some point, I don’t consider mine to be one of them.”
The announcement of “They Are Us” coincided with the recent Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study, about the reality of Muslims in popular global movies. Tellingly, the study cited that only 4.4% of Muslim characters, or six characters across all 200 films, filled primary roles.
A petition begun by the National Islamic Youth Association describes the presence of the Muslim community in the film as “tokenistic,” and accuses the project of focusing on a white person’s response at the expense of the victims and survivors. The petition, which demands the boycott of the film, has attracted some 62,000 signatures so far.
– Naman Ramachandran in London also contributed to this report.