Aramoana: Twenty-two Hours of Terror
I was only nine years old when David Gray killed 13 people, too young to remember with any sadness or clarity the tragedy beamed into our living rooms that November day in 1990. Though I have almost no recollection of the Aramoana massacre, Robert Sarkies’ recent film reconstruction, Out of the Blue, managed to distil what little memory I may have had, bringing it sharply into focus. For all the film’s contentiousness, it is a thoughtful and composed treatment of unfathomable events, replete with an authenticity that can solely be attributed to the book on which it is based. Published in 1991, and reissued last year to coincide with the film’s release, Bill O’Brien’s Aramoana: Twenty-two Hours of Terror strives initially to make sense of why David Gray killed. Forcefully, it also stands as a dedication to the community at the centre of New Zealand’s worst mass murder.
In accounting for the violence that erupted in the sleepy coastal settlement on November 13, O’Brien’s onsite experience as media liaison, and his subsequent correspondence with many of the residents and police personnel involved, lends warmth to an otherwise dry, unobtrusive dissection of a killer’s rampage: a global phenomenon of disturbing regularity, as suggested in the book’s prologue and in O’Brien’s later non-fiction work, Agents of Mayhem (2000). In the earlier Shattered Dreams (1996), he cautiously extracted the stories of murder victims’ families with a sensitivity indicative of his time served in the police and, crucially, with victim support. In Aramoana, survivor is the operative word. Although O’Brien is quick to acknowledge the fallen – beginning with a sombre monument to the deceased (listed in chronology of death, the names and ages reveal neither women, children nor elderly were spared), his compassion for those killed is gilded by an admiration and respect for those who outlasted Gray, their stoicism evident in the vivid testimonies he collates.
If this is an uneasy read – morbidly fascinating, yet terribly sobering – courage is affirmed at every opportunity. Moments of profound bravery are dwelt upon: Julie Anne Bryson’s escape from a hail of bullets, having returned to her burning home in search of her two girls, Jasmine and Rewa, knowing full well that Gray lay in wait; Sergeant Stewart Guthrie’s heroism in leading a group of police into the unknown, for which he was awarded posthumously the George Cross; and, perhaps most unassumingly Kiwi of all, Helen Dickson’s encounter with Gray. After dodging gunfire, she provided comfort for a seriously injured Chris Cole. Despite having artificial hips, she crawled to her house, called 111, and then returned to wait with Cole for an ambulance that never came. With all the casual murmur of a “She’ll be right mate”, Sarkies’ film depicts the pair’s exchanges with a southern nonchalance. The situation may be grave, but there’s defiance and modesty in their calm – the spirit of Aramoana, in a sense.
Structurally, O’Brien relays the course of events in two halves: the first is told primarily from Gray’s perspective, a psychological profile with all the routine of a police procedural; the second shifts abruptly to the point of view of those caught in the crossfire. The book begins as a portrait of a rather ordinary human being, who slowly but surely deteriorates in condition, and even, strangely, takes on the guise of a 60s anti-hero. But O’Brien can’t possibly rationalise Gray’s mode of thinking during the ordeal, and leaves his side the moment the killing begins. Unkindly, he does not revisit the point of view of a man who, for the first five chapters, is rendered with an undertow of sympathy. It’s in these initial passages that the book is at its most searching: a rational, unsensational imprint of a New Zealander who liked beachcombing, science fiction, travelling, and camping. Deducing that Gray suffered from a mental disorder, most likely schizophrenia, O’Brien’s only oversight is to neglect to remind us that this was an individual, however unforgivable, who needed help.
Gray’s intelligence, sense of humour, and fondness for children does not make the cut in Sarkies’ film; nor does his love of reading, which is reduced to the stigma of reading about New Zealand guns. Out of the Blue may not be a biopic, but its narrow focus tends to make Gray conform to the stereotype of a loner obsessed with firearms. The method to his madness is confined essentially to one scene: an altercation with a bank teller over a $2 fee. Gray’s volatility emerges over time in O’Brien’s text, but there the warning signs are offset by distinctly human anecdotes. Sarkies, on the other hand, amplifies Gray’s myopia and paranoia; dangerously, this verges on a heightened caricature of a movie serial killer. Granted, it’s an ever-so-concise portrayal of Gray only days before he snapped. But the book sheds light on what the film cannot. It is revealing as a demystification of a man the media described inaccurately and in haste; it is assured in its vindication of the police response – which appeared hesitant and ill-equipped in the film, but in the circumstances was the only possible reaction. The book is also cruelly chilling, haunted with numerous “if onlys” and “what ifs”.
While Aramoana’s validity is in setting the record straight, its screen adaptation is more open to debate. A recent surge of films about 9/11, for instance, feel grotesque in their exhumation, inhuman in their spectacle. Yet America is such a confessional society – they’ll make a movie about anything. For New Zealanders to make a movie about Aramoana should be considered a positive step forward. As O’Brien had hoped, Out of the Blue provides the necessary closure for all. But the very power of the subject in its proximity is also unshakeable: it is where the numbing headlines of Columbine and Dunblane are brought into perspective, and the bubble surrounding Aotearoa as a South Pacific haven is burst. As I wrote, reviewing the film last October, the subject is too important to avoid, yet it may be too painful for some. We ignore it at our peril.
Tim Wong is a Wellington reviewer, and editor of online film and arts journal The Lumière Reader.