Whilst I adore disaster movies, when the real thing happens, it is devastating and heart wrenching. Christchurch in New Zealand knows this more than most as local resident Gerard Smyth documents expertly and sensitively. When A City Falls covers the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. It also covers how a community rebuilds and in doing so is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen.

The terror as seen from high up a commercial building.

The disasters faced

The series of Canterbury earthquakes that hit Christchurch across 2010 and 2011 and the choices residents make afterwards.

The story

Gerard Smyth manages to tell a poignant multi-layered story with When A City Falls. I’m not sure what he was filming at the time but after his opening introduction, he simply points the camera at everything and everyone around him and lets the residents speak.

Liquefaction is a huge issue for Christchurch

The first earthquake hits in 2010 and is considered something of a miracle. Not one single person is killed. It seems crazy for such a large scaled and nearby quake but despite a lot of damage and plenty of injuries, no one would pass in the quake. Immediately we follow several different towns people. From the emergency services keeping their cool to a local baker keeping his store open, the community of Christchurch pull together. There is plenty of New Zealand humour and stiff upper lip behaviour. The Pooman starts working massive shifts to repair the sewage works and surveyors are in to prop up historic buildings. The Student Army band together through social media to start dealing with the main problem – liquefaction.

Liquefaction takes place when ground close to the surface becomes water logged and looses all its strength. Its literally being shaken to jelly. When A City Falls dives briefly into the past to show that Christchurch is entirely built on drained swamp land. Overtime people have noted that parts of the shorelines have become boggy and so when the earthquake hits, all becomes sludge and mud. People are literally living in a bog.

How anyone was pulled from this rubble alive is astounding.

However, Christchurch vows to rebuild and make things better again. Then almost exactly a year later, an even bigger earthquake hits. This time, the city is not so lucky. At 7.1 on the Richter scale, already wobbly structures fall and more chaos ensues. Watching the chaos unfold, we visit different areas of Christchurch to see the devastation. Each area has a story to tell. Some are of community spirit and banding together, others are of awful tragedy of losing loved ones. One of the focal points of the movie is the CTV building where 116 of the 185 people who lost their lives were killed. It is horrifying to see.

This time, people are less prepared to stay. Some choose to leave, some choose to rebuild and those who stay are tested further when a third quake comes in – each time liquifying the ground beneath them. The demoralisation is clear on many faces but so is the resolve. We see the various rescue efforts, homegrown help groups, demolition crews, plans to rebuild and hear stories of courage. It makes humbling viewing.

Ultimately, When A City Falls leaves us with an interesting question. How does Christchurch want to rebuild? The documentary closes with a visit to America to see how San Francisco, Oregon and New Orleans have built different types of cities post disaster or economic guttering. It doesn’t answer the question but shows the art of the possible and leaves Christchurch with the choice. Of these visits, its the one to New Orleans that hits home. We speak with a mother who six years on from Katrina now has a home and new purpose with her daughter. She imparts words of wisdom and compassion as she knows that Christchurch is at the beginning of a long battle back to a happy home.

A message of hope from New Oreleans.

Why is it worth watching?

Told entirely using home footage, news audio clips and on the ground interviews, it is a rare insight into the very heart of a disaster unfolding before your eyes. It is woven in such a way that you don’t even learn peoples names yet your brief moments with them all make impacts. It might be setting up a free water tap from their garden, shovelling mud or providing food – each person is working for the community in their own way. There’s even a brass band giving off Titanic vibes. It is amazing to know that in the darkest of times, the human spirit to help each other is what reigns supreme here.

From a rebuilding perspective, there is also an interesting slant on things too. If the city is built on land that is simply going to turn to sludge at every shake, why would you continue to build there? Could it ever be made ‘safe’ whatever the criteria for that may be? You see a lot of homes and businesses torn down post quake and different residents have differing views about staying or going. It is a complex issue which the movie offers a glimpse into.

Ultimately though, When A City Falls is about human resilience and connection. If you want to see goodness in the heart of danger – this is the documentary for you.

This baker refuses to give up and fights to serve up bread again one day.

Favourite quote

I thin…why me, why it, how come? All that stuff… and I come back to its random. Its absolutely random.

A CTV building survivor on surviving the collapse.

Three memorable moments

  • The interview with a lady who found her father in the hills, under rocks.
  • The immediate aftermath of the second quake as the footage shows thousands of people roaming the city in ruins and confusion.
  • Seeing the baker getting his business back going again after living rough for months.
Marking which builds have been searched and if any bodies were still inside was a multi-national job.

Conclusion

When A City Falls is one of the most engrossing and powerful documentaries I’ve had the privilege of watching. Both tragic and humbling at the same time, it speaks to me on a community level that humans can and will come together in a crisis. At least, they did in Christchurch. I wish the community there every bit of strength and good fortune for the future and hope that their regrowth means a clean slate to build with quakes in mind.

Rating: 5 / 5 (Personal Favourite)

Visit the films page for more info on the cast, crew, artwork and screenshot gallery.

If you enjoyed When a City Falls, then you may like…

  • 102 Minutes That Changed America – The Twin Towers as told through entirely amateur footage.
  • Tsunami: Caught on Camera – Survivor footage and interviews of the 2004 Tsunami.
  • Pray for Japan – A documentary about how Japan rebuilds following their 2011 disaster.
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I Love Disaster Movies is part of the Higher Plain Network. If you like what I do, and would like to help me make better and more content then please consider supporting me via Patreon for as little as $1 or £1. Thank you.

2 thoughts

  1. There’s a New Zealand TV movie titled “Aftershock” (2008–not to be confused with several other films with that title) about a fictional earthquake devastating Wellington. Its pseudodocumentary approach caused the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management to demand its broadcast come with warnings that it was not an unfolding real-life event.

    The movie is hard to get (I found it on DVD in Japan under the title “Magnitude 8.2”) but it’s rewardingly horrific and depressing, as the bulk of the movie concerns the survivors, cut off from rescue, coping with loss of life, injuries, lack of urgent supplies, and the breakdown of civility.

    Trailer (low resolution): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p81cdT12bdI
    Japanese DVD (WARNING: Region 2 DVD, and pricey): https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/B002R0JZQG

    1. Hi Grokenstien! I was able to catch this streaming on Amazon and I have a review it scheduled for later this month. I’d never heard of it before until about a month ago. Thanks for letting me know about it!

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