In world where stories of government corruption are the norm and greed and violence tend to fill the headlines, this film of how the New Zealand government put an end to years of bloodshed in Bougainville, without firing a shot, shows how powerful peace, love and understanding can be.
The story of how the “Pacific Island Paradise” of Bougainville, part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, went from being a peaceful, matriarchal society, to one consumed by a deadly civil war is an unfortunately common one. How that civil war was brought to an end is uniquely Kiwi.
Director Will Watson has spent the better part of the last dozen years putting this feature-length documentary together. There’s always a danger that when someone becomes immersed in a project for that length of time, that they lose sight of the story they started out to tell and get lost in the sea of footage available to them.
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened here.
Instead, Watson has fashioned together a film that takes on a complex subject, makes it easily understandable, then finds just the right combination of images and sound to not only allow audiences to understand what went on, but also to feel for the victims and the brave people, both military and civilians, that brought the war to an end.
The first half of the film is spent giving a much-needed history lesson of the region. Narrator Lucy Lawless explains how years of peaceful existence finally came to an end thanks to a succession of colonial takeovers and collateral damage from World War II.
The breaking point came during the 1960s when the world’s largest deposit of copper was discovered on the island and money suddenly became a reason for outsiders to take interest in the tiny island.
Within a few years an Australian company had dug the Panguna Copper Mine, and from then on, nothing would remain the same.
By 1988, the Australians had been thrown out and civil war was tearing the island apart. Over the next decade, over 20,000 people would be dead, many of them women and children.
The second half of the film tells the incredible story of how the New Zealand army was able to broker a peace deal after 14 other attempts failed. What makes this so special is that, instead of coming in with guns blazing, the Kiwis arrived without any weapons, instead using music and cultural awareness to bring the warring sides together.
In addition to archival footage dating back 70 years, including gripping scenes of guerrilla warfare, Watson has included interviews with just about every major player in this saga, from NZ Foreign Minister Don McKinnon and Army Commander Roger Mortlock to Bougainville peace leaders Helen Hakena and Ruby Mirinka.
This is very much a women’s story and their bravery is nothing short of incredible as they did everything they could to keep themselves and their children alive while many of the local men were shooting and raping at will.
Another major figure is former New Zealand Army Major Fiona Cassidy, who we see return to Bougainville years after she helped broker the fragile peace.
And with music such an integral part of the story, Watson has included a bevy of Kiwi tunes by the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Black Seeds, Anika Moa and Tiki Taane. KORA’s song, Burning, used with combat footage is most powerful.
This is an amazingly inspirational story that proves once and for all that violence is not the answer to violence. I only wish that Soldiers Without Guns could be shown in other war-torn places such as the Middle East, Northern Ireland or South Central LA.
This is a film with a very real, very important message and it is told with intelligence and heart, resulting in a powerful, moving portrait of how thinking outside the circle can save lives.
It will also make you proud to be a Kiwi.