written by Kyle Matthews, Masters Candidate of Peace and Conflict Studies

As a participant at protests at and against the Waihopai spy base, just outside of Blenheim, in the mid-1990s, and intending researcher of the nature and history of that protest movement, the release of this movie just fell in my lap with perfect timing and the right hint of outrage.

The spy base has two satellite dishes (hidden behind white covering, hence looking like large golfballs) that intercept communications travelling via satellite. They’ve also been

Waihopai base satellites

accused of monitoring the internet cable that crosses the Pacific. The organisation that runs them, the Government Communications and Security Bureau (GCSB) is a highly secretive organisation, linked with theire quivalents in Australian, Canadian, British and American equivalents in an ex-Cold War spying network called Echelon, that harvests much of our communications looking for terrorists and undesirables. It’s also been used for New Zealand’s economic benefit, spying on trade negotiators.

The GCSB does not appear in the film, but the movie is about their actions, the legislation that governs them, the government that oversees them, and the activists that protest against them. Further information about the spy base and Echelon is available in Nicky Hager’s Secret Power, and the web site of the Anti-Bases campaign Converge.org.nz.

The filmmakers began following the story in 2008, coincidentally filming the annual January protest at the base three months before three Catholic ploughshares activists broke through the fences and security to puncture the covering over one of the dishes. This means that the movie skims over the previous twenty years of the history of the base and the protests against it very quickly. The film frequently returns to the “Waihopai Three” as they tell their almost comical tale of cellphone incompetence, trucks crashing in ditches, and cutting wires in hope, but with a passion driven by a strongly held belief that the base supports the global “war on terror” and is complicit in the murder of innocents in Iraq and other places in the world.

As a history of the last eight years however, it is comprehensive and convincing. Interspersed with the personal tale of the three activists and their successful legal cases, are the blundering around the arrest of Kim Dotcom for copyright breaches, the illegal spying by the GCSB on him and dozens of other New Zealanders and residents, and the progress of the amendment bill to legalise these actions. Numerous experts were represented, notably Secret Power author Nicky Hager, defence and intelligence expert Paul Buchanan, Otago Politics Department’s Robert Patman, and the Peace and Conflict Centre’s own Richard Jackson.

The movie is activist, and certain moments must be taken with that in mind. The appearance of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden at Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” event in Auckland in 2014 is not assessed critically. The timespan I felt also did not do justice to the work of the Christchurch-based Anti-Bases Campaign, who have been putting themselves on the line every year for decades now to raise the issues that the ploughshares protesters and Edward Snowden finally brought to the front page consistently. However you can only show on film what you have.

Parliament scenes were noticeably lower in quality – presumably they have been ripped from the internet rather than accessed in full quality – the crowd sourced budget has driven these minor imperfections. At the time that Wright and King-Jones began filming this story, Edward Snowden was an unknown.

However his revelations about the Echelon spy network and the power of their harvesting of phone, internet and other communications have brought this story to amongst the most crucial for the twenty-first century. Privacy, its breaches, the war on terror, big data, whistleblowers, and what has been termed the ‘post-truth’ nature of politics in the modern world are issues that keep bubbling to the surface. In a world where the fractious relationship between Capitalism and Communism has subsided, the relationship between citizens and their government is the new area of debate, and the movie engages with this challenge fully, telling a captivating story for the informed and those seeking to know more.

The 5th Eye is being screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival, but they hope for a general release, and are confident of a screening on Maori Television in time. Highly recommended.