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"It Was More Than Shaky Ground With Buildings Falling Down"

Talking with New Zealand director, Christopher Dudman, about his Christchurch earthquake documentary "The Day That Changed My Life".

Image via the Documentary Edge Festival

Christopher Dudman was in Auckland when the 2011 earthquake struck his hometown of Christchurch. Watching from 1000 kilometres away, he followed the disaster with the same separation felt by people on the other side the world. As if motivated by this sense of distance, Christopher's documentary The Day That Changed My Life delves into the 24 immediately after the quake in an intensely personal manner.


In case you're wondering, the "my" in that title doesn't necessarily refer to the director himself. In making the film, Christopher sought out eye-witness accounts and mobile phone footage. The film traces the day from several perspectives: a rescue worker, a journalist, a woman trapped for hours under rubble, and a man searching for his wife.

The overall effect is a documentary that feels incredibly intimate and strangely personal. It's brutal, showing just how devastating the earthquake was for the people involved and the city. But there's also an overall feeling of hope and redemption from the people who tell their stories.

VICE: Hey Christopher, let's talk about how this project began.
Christopher Dudman: The original interviews were done by my cousin and I for a museum archive. Through doing that we realised there was material that was very raw and gave people a real sense of what it was like up close and personal. The emotional intensity of what people were talking about felt like it needed a broader audience. We'd all heard about the rubble and the buildings and the statistics, but we hadn't heard the personal stories. That's what drove us to do something more.

There's a scene in the film where someone shooting in the aftermath of the earthquake is told to "show some respect". Was there conflict between showing the reality of the situation and respecting its victims?
It's an interesting dilemma. I didn't want to sanitise the footage. There's quite graphic material in there, and we didn't want to shy away from that. It isn't just about these buildings falling down, it's about people being hurt and losing their lives. We didn't want to gloss over that. We didn't want to be gratuitous about it, but we wanted to be truthful.


I wanted to make it a moving experience. I wanted to take the audience on a journey through that day and come out at the other end with a strong sense of empathy for those people. It was more than shaky ground with buildings falling down.

There's been a lot of discussion about the Christchurch rebuild. You obviously spent there and spoke to locals, how do you feel the process is going?
Things have moved very, very slowly. People are still waiting for things to happen, like insurance and getting their houses sorted. There's a lot of frustration with the speed things have happened or not happened. Life there can be frustrating. The city itself will come back, but it'll take a while.

What kind of personal impact did making this film have for you?
A lot of those interviewed were traumatised—we talked to them quite soon after the event. Those initial interviews had an emotional resonance. People wanted to tell their stories. That was part of the catharsis—part of coming to grips with what they went through. I was just taken aback by how resilient people are. There's hope, and there's a sense that life can go on, that life does go on.

'The Day that Changed my Life' will be screening in Auckland and Wellington as part of the Documentary Edge Festival. For more information click here.

Follow Denham on Twitter: @denhamsadler