Anyone wanting to make a movie about a New Zealand disaster should look at Pike River

By Stephen Coles

The person who came up with the idea of making a Hollywood movie about the aftermath of the Christchurch mosques shootings in 2019 should look a little further back in time.

News of the movie broke this week thanks to Australian actor Rose Byrne saying she was to play the part of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the movie They Are Us. The fallout has been predictable with some saying Hollywood should not profit from tragedies (51 people died in the shootings).

Had FilmNation Entertainment – makers of They Are Us – asked what movie it could make about New Zealand then one idea springs instantly to mind – the gas explosion at Pike River mine in Greymouth that killed 29 men.

If there was any event in recent New Zealand history that lends itself to a Hollywood movie, then the Pike River disaster of 19 November 2010 is it. The film would be a political and courtroom drama like no other, involving big business, a nimble CEO, politicians from both sides, an ambitious union leader, and representatives of the miners’ families.

And if the moviemakers were intent on featuring a high-profile sitting politician then one need look no further than former EPMU (union) leader, former minister of justice, and current minister of Pike River Re-entry – the honourable Andrew Little.

Little was leader of the EPMU when the mine was opened and years later was the one who, on 23 March 2021, pulled the plug on recovering the bodies of miners and contractors for their families, saying it would cost too much money. A month later, the government pledged $1billion-plus for a North Shore bridge cycle way in Auckland (after cyclists blocked the bridge in support of a cycle path).

In the days after the explosion Little said there had been no problems at Pike River and defended its safety record.

Andrew Little speaking on RNZ’s Morning Report 22 November 2010, three days after the first explosion.
The original audio file is here.
Andrew Little
The Honourable Andrew Little.

In July 2013, Solid Energy, which had taken over the mine from Pike River Coal in 2012, was ordered by the court to pay $110,000 to each of the victims’ families and fined $760,000 (note how the government gets the lion’s share).

In the end, Solid Energy (a company owned by the government) paid just $5,000 to each the dead miners’ families before transferring ownership of the mine to the government. However, even $110,000 was nowhere near the mark. The award should have been $millions to each family, not one year’s salary for a miner, and it should have been paid from taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, Pike River Coal’s former CEO, Peter Whittall, the man running the firm when the loss of life happened, had 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act dropped.

He walked away having offered “blood money” to the families (thanks to director liability insurance) amid calls by the EPMU for new corporate manslaughter laws to be introduced.

Speaking on Radio New Zealand in December 2010, former Pike River miner Brent Forrester says the mine explosions were preventable and that miners raised safety concerns leading up to the disaster. Something that Little appears not to agree with during the RNZ interview…

This RNZ interview features Brent Forrester and the then EPMU leader Andrew Little.
The original audio file here.

“Twenty-nine men died at Pike River because of a culture which persecuted the union and put profits ahead of safety,” says the EPMU’s Ged O’Connell in December 2013.

Making a movie about recent events that involve any loss of life is always going to be fraught with difficulties. Still, 60 Minutes and numerous other documentary TV shows and films are made and people watch them.

Many New Zealanders are still hurting over Pike River, the mosque shootings, the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and building failures, the 2019 White Island tragedy, and the Erebus plane crash of 1979.

New Zealand is a small island nation and Hollywood filmmakers need to tread carefully. But even if they do, not everyone will be happy with the end result.

But if any Pike River families are unhappy about Little’s decision to halt recovery work and seal the mine’s only entrance, then there seems to be an easy fix. Block traffic on Auckland’s North Shore bridge one sleepy Sunday morning for 20 minutes. Job done.

WORTH READING: Tragedy at Pike River Mine by Rebecca Macfie.

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