Joe Hendren

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Film: Sedition: The suppression of dissent in World War II New Zealand

This afternoon I saw Russell Campbell's latest film 'Sedition: The Suppression of Dissent in World War II New Zealand'. The screening was introduced by Russell Campbell himself, who gave a quick introduction and acknowledged the presence of the CO veterans who were able to come to the premiere.

The film begins by introducing the key protagonists alongside their experiences of the first world war. Following the war, decorated soldier Ormond Burton, became a Methodist Minister and lifelong pacifist, faced imprisonment four times for speaking up against the slaughter of the second world war. Early leaders of the Labour party, Peter Fraser and Bob Semple were convicted of sedition for their strong opposition to conscription during the first world war, yet were both in the cabinet during the second war that introduced conscription, demonised the anti-war movement and cracked down hard on dissenters and consciencious objectors.

Most of the film is made up of interviews - allowing concies and those put in detention camps to tell their stories. There is a marked emphasis on the activities of the Christian Pacifist Society and other religious based groups - one interviewee relays the view of Burton that pacifism could only be true pacifism if grounded in Christian belief. But this is more likely to be due to the greater prominence of religion at the time (and who happened to be interviewed) than editorial decisions.

One of my favorite stories was the account of a meeting held in Wellington on the 9th of February 1940, following public threats by Wellington's right-wing mayor to close down any meetings of the Anti-Conscription Council. Ormond Burton got as far as 'ladies and gentlemen' before being arrested, and A.C. Barrington managed three minutes. The mayor spoke without interruption from police, only to be drowned out by a chant of 'Heil Hislop' from the crowd. There is also the story of Chris Palmer and Merv Browne, who made a cross country escape in 1944 from their dentention camp to Wellington to spread the peace message.

It was so great to see so many CO veterans at the screening, including many who appeared in the film. At the Question and Answer session afterwards, each got a chance to stand up in turn, and allow the crowd to acknowledge their struggle and the courage of their convictions.

Sedition is well worth seeing :)

Sedition uncovers untold stories - Press Release

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At 1:25 am, Blogger Bomber said...

Bloody interesting doco. I saw the second screening at the Auckland International Film Festival a few weeks ago.

The whole "camps" system was slightly unsettling was it not? The camp Hautu they went on about later became part of the Tongiriro prison farms system and once held Aurthur Allan Thomas. I know this because when I was sent there in '96 (long story) an inmate told me. So I found myself rather connected with the tale. The Director fielded quite a few questions at the end with one of his subjects.

The best bit (for me) was when I asked Campbell what made him decide on the title. He answered it and then mused that the offence had been revived to prosecute someone recently and looked around for someone to confirm it. At which point I said that he was speaking to him.

At 3:42 pm, Blogger Idiot/Savant said...

I haven't seen it, but I should point out that CO's in WWII were prosecuted for subversion (and specifically for interfering with military recruiting), not sedition.

At 11:43 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...


The whole camps system was very unsettling - I remember at one point some of the captives described them as concentration camps and 'facist'. It appears he was quickly shut down for 'overexaggerating' - without actually recognising the reasons for making such a comparision.

I'd imagine Russell appreciated you making yourself known - perhaps he should interview you for the DVD :)

At 11:55 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...


I can't recall if Russell gave an explanation of why he chose the name (other than Tim's fame :) ). By calling the film "sedition" it does give the impression this charge was also widely used during WWII. Interesting that you note that this is not the case.

As I understand it most of the charges came from three sets of regulations, each more repressive than the last, following the passage of the Emergency Regulations Amendment Bill in 30 May (1940?).

At 12:01 am, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

I was also somewhat uncomfortable to learn during the film that NZ air crews were involved in the infamous bombing of Dresden at the end of WWII.

If war crimes are to be regarded with any degree of seriousness, they need to apply to the winners as well as the losers - but I suspect NZ would have been quite alarmed at any chance the Geneva book ever be thrown at our boys.

At 5:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The title takes its cue from the WWI offence that Peter Fraser was convicted of. Though different terminology was used in WWII, the effect was precisely the same: to define opposition to government policy as criminal, and hence legitimise the taking of political prisoners.

At 1:54 am, Blogger Idiot/Savant said...

Russell: and they certainly did that in abundance, though in the guise of barring speech "intended or likely to cause undue alarm to the public" or "intended... to cause unlawful resistance... to military training or service" instead of the WWI favourites of "exciting disaffection" and "inciting lawlessness".

This is a perfect example, and exactly the sort of case where the freedom to criticise the government should be most strongly protected. Instead, the author was jailed for twelve months.

Though it should also be noted that much of this persecution was done under public nusiance laws; IIRC that's what saw Barrington arrested in the example cited above. Fortunately we have the BORA now, but we will not be safe until it is entrenched.

At 4:51 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Hi Russell,

thanks for stopping by :)


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