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When A City Falls: Movie Review

By tvnz.co.nz's Darren Bevan

Published: 3:30PM Tuesday November 22, 2011

  • When A City Falls

When A City Falls

Rating: 8/10

Cast: The people of Canterbury

Director: Gerard Smyth

Sometimes, a film makes itself.

So it is with When A City Falls, the documentary film about the series of earthquakes which rocked Canterbury this year and last, and changed our worlds as New Zealanders forever.

Christchurch resident Gerard Smyth  really didn't have to do much when they hit - he simply picked up his camera and let the documentary make itself.

Basically made over an 12 month period and beginning with blue skies and daffodils on the Canterbury plains, Smyth follows the events which unfold in the Garden city and nearby. As Smyth's own voiceover at the start of the film intones: "This is a film I could never have planned to make".

But what emerges is a grippingly, emotional piece on the human condition and how we as human beings respond in times of tragedy and personal loss.

Also, what comes out is a deeply humbling study of what makes us Kiwis and showcases the very best of human nature.

Smyth's strength in this film is the people around him. He's smart enough to realise that this story is powerful enough to not need voiceover and limits it to simply asking questions.

These are images from the quake which have haunted (and continue to do so) many; but When A City Falls also benefits greatly from this approach by letting the people involved tell the story rather than a pompous voiceover. That works wonders by giving it a more original feel and an immediately identifiable stranglehold on your emotions

Plus when the footage of that fateful day on 22nd February is shown, the powerful ferocity of what unfolds is even more affecting because the screen simply shows what happened.

Countless faces are caught in crowds, moments framed by time and the film-makers; and the people Smyth uses are nameless but their stories are universal and instantly recognisable as well as heartbreaking, humbling and inspiring.

That's the thing with When A City Falls - there are a million stories to tell and a million voices to be heard with an event such as this. And it would've been easy to let it descend into doom and gloom.

But what's been done here ends up being uplifting in spirit and unique as we follow everyday people trying to live their lives and cope with what nature dealt to them thanks to help from strangers, their communities and from further afield. The fact Smyth's had unfettered access to what was going on means a lot of the footage is new to many of us but horribly recognisable in many ways.

Also, Smyth and his team choose to tackle some of the problems from the quake; be it the arguments over heritage buildings' destruction, people's shops torn down by accident and even heads to New Orleans and San Francisco to proffer up some help for the region.

When A City Falls won't be an easy watch for those involved in this - but I'd suggest it offers a little piece of healing up as it demonstrates quiet dignity and moments of resilience and pure humanity that will shine through.

Truly inspirational and utterly important, this doco demands to be seen and will ultimately stand as a testament to Cantabrians and this nation as a whole.

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