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Aotearoa/New Zealand: 'Patu!' -- 30th anniversary of the 1981 mass protests against the Springbok tour

July 17, 2011 -- Information taken from from Film Archive (NZ) and Wikipedia; video from NZonScreen -- From July to September 1981, South Africa's all-white national rugby team, the Springboks, toured New Zealand. South Africa was still under apartheid rule at that time, and a Commonwealth ban on all sporting contact, known as the Gleneagles Agreement, had been in place since July 1977. The ban was won by an international mass solidarity movement calling for the boycott of South Africa's racist system.

The New Zealand Rugby Football Union, however, was determined to proceed with the long-planned tour, and New Zealand’s right-wing National Party government (led by Prime Minister Robert "Piggy" Muldoon), whose constituency was largely pro-tour, was not going to stop them.

The South African team arrived in New Zealand on July 19. At the first tour match in Gisborne on July 22 protesters managed to break through a fence, but rugby spectators and ground security prevented the game being disrupted. Protesters were injured by police batons. At Rugby Park, Hamilton (the site of today's Waikato Stadium), on July 25, about 350 protesters invaded the pitch after pulling down a fence using sheer force. The police arrested about 50 over a period of an hour; police cancelled the match. Until September, the anti-tour movement grew in strength. Protests continued throughout August and early September, marked by increasing numbers opposed to the tour and excalating police violence.

Long before the team arrived in New Zealand, the country was divided over the tour. For many of those against, the issue was about the immoral white rule in South Africa, but for others, the tour was also a timely reminder of New Zealand’s own unresolved colonial past.

As the start of the tour approached, Maori filmmaker Merata Mita conceived of a 25-minute documentary about how passive protest could affect the NZRFU’s decision to continue with the 1981 tour.

The documentary would eventually become 110 minutes long and involve more than 16 field camera operators. Completed, the film documented how thousands of everyday New Zealanders – Maori and Pakeha, children and grandparents, clergymen and gang members – demonstrated their disgust at apartheid and their dissatisfaction with New Zealand’s race relations. The protests were organised by Halt all Racist Tours (HART), and more than 140,000 people took part. At first peaceful, the protests became increasingly violent as hundreds of police and army personnel were mobilised to ensure the tour went on. Filmed throughout the winter of 1981, Patu!’s world premiere was held at the Wellington Film Festival in 1983.

Violent exchanges

Patu! is not only a record of New Zealand’s most violent exchange of recent memory, but also a documentary made under extreme circumstances. These circumstances explain the film’s stylistic approach to the action it portrays.

Co-ordinating a large team of professional and amateur filmmakers, Mita used footage from protest actions in Auckland, Wellington, Napier, Hamilton and Christchurch. The camera operators were often in physical danger, filming violent exchanges between anti-tour protestors, tour supporters and the police. Peter Wells tells a story of how Mita held a camera operator by the shoulders “tilting him this way and that to avoid the bottles and flying debris” while his eye was looking through the camera viewfinder. These extreme circumstances are evident from the finished film: Patu! contains shots with jumpy movement, indistinct sound and dramatic sequences that could only have come from a camera being held on the shoulder of a running camera operator.

Interspersed with these highly mobile sequences, Patu! also contains many still photographs. This was partly to express important events outside the time and place of the film—such as riots in South Africa—but also to continue the narrative through events for which there is no footage at all. This sometimes happened because filming was too dangerous, because the film was ripped from the camera by bystanders or because police wanted no cameras running during their actions. Mita was filming the protests in Hamilton, where she later recalled running from the worst violence she had ever witnessed:

“It’s the first time in my life I have passed women who were being kicked and punched, I had to keep running. The cameramen who were behind me were beaten. Also, the crowd went for the cameras, they ripped out the film so there was no record of that violence.”

Precious footage

Patu! was made on a small budget. While the New Zealand Film Commission eventually assisted with some post-production funding, original requests to them were turned down. Later, grants from bodies such as the National Catholic Commission would draw sharp criticism from community and church groups, showing that even after the end of the Tour, feeling among the New Zealand public ran high.


A Bay of Plenty Times editorial, in November 1982, summed up the outrage felt at the idea of public money being used for Patu!, describing the grant as “a license to promote the cause of Left-wing elements who flout and disobey the laws of the country.”

Because of the lack of funds, what film stock there was had to be used very carefully. Much of the film, in fact, was shot on stock thrown out by TVNZ, the Film Unit and other commercial film houses. Using both reversal and negative stock, Mita found a problem with matching everything together during editing. Working creatively, she and her editor turned this to their advantage, using the variations in stock to emphasise the film’s narrative and emotion:

“I thought we could get away with using reversal if we made it into something stylistic. Inside Hamilton, we use the negative stock —warm, close to the demonstrators. When we cut out to the Wellington motorway, the colours are colder—reversal.”

Once shot, the footage was carefully guarded. In the course of prosecuting protestors, police endeavoured to get film and photographs of tour protests. For fear of compromising their professional ethics, the media refused to cooperate, so the police sought a court order to allow them to confiscate film and photographs. To ensure that police could not seize any of Patu!, much of the film’s 12,000 metres of footage was sent out of the country for safe-keeping.

Counterbalancing the official view

Documentary, according to John Grierson, is “the creative treatment of actuality”. In the years after its release, Patu! was accused of being biased, and of presenting only the perspective of the protesters.

Like many politically motivated documentaries, however, it can be claimed the film is biased only in that it presents a view different from the official view. As Mita commented to the Evening Post, in September, 1983: “I felt it was necessary to counterbalance the offical and institutional comment about the tour with this point of view from the streets that involved over half of New Zealand by the time the tour ended.”

Other films Merata Mita directed or collaborated on held at the Film Archive: Karanga Hokianga Ki O Tamariki (1979); The Hammer and the Anvil (1979); Keskidee Aroha (1980); Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980); The Bridge: A Story of Men in Dispute (1982); Mauri (1988); The Shooting of Dominick Kaiwhata (1993); and Mana Waka (1990).

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