Chris Butler and the New Zealand Invasion

Below is a ream of New Zealand newspaper articles documenting Chris Butler’s New Zealand invasion of the 1990’s

NZH-1081304

Chris Butler

Text: An American living in the South Island and said to be working on a film has laughed off suggestions that he is involved in a bizarre religion or drugs.

Waitaki MP Alec Neill claimed in Parliament yesterday that what he called “a mysterious foreign film company” based in Twizel could be a front for a religious cult or an international drug ring. Mr Neill, whose electorate is near Twizel, called American Chris Butler a guru or godfather.

“He’s the leader of an organisation called the Science of Identification Foundation. He is a man of dubious international connections, an eccentric, a recluse obsessed with the need for pure air, ” Mr Neill said.

But Mr Butler laughed at the allegations in an interview on TV One. “We’re just trying to live a peaceful life and do our work” he said, before asking why politicians were concerned about the group.

Mr Butler apparently heads a film company called Ti Leaf Productions Ltd which, according to Mr Neill, arrived in Twizel with film and recording equipment 15 months ago. The MP says no filming has been done.

Christchurch man George Ormond, who helped sponsor the group to come to New Zealand to make films, described Mr Neill’s charges as “outrageous.” He said the MP had no evidence to back his allegations and called his comments, made under parliamentary privilege, “an abuse of power”.

Mr Ormond said on TV3 News that Mr Butler had visited New Zealand six or seven times in the past 15 years and had never had any problems with police or immigration.

He described the Science of Identification as a spiritual group perhaps closest in philosophy to Hinduism.

Mr Neill said Twizel locals were filled with fear and rumour, “and as we try to break the veil of secrecy, it is difficult to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction”.

“Is this a genuine overseas film company, or is it nothing more than a bogus film company, a sham, a vehicle to allow certain Americans to circumvent our immigration requirements in order to remain in New Zealand for other purposes?”

Allan Tibby, who described himself on the Holmes Show last night as founder of Kiwi Kontacts, a liaison company established to bring foreign film companies to New Zealand, said Ti Leaf planned to film scenery in New Zealand for a film, the Lost Prince, an action-adventure, set in central Asia about 1000 years ago. The company made movies in a different way and was under no time constraints. – NZPA

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NEWS

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NATIONAL

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1

Text: The man at the centre of Twizel’s movie controversy says his health has deteriorated after a wave of media attention on the activities of his film company.

American spiritual leader and film company scriptwriter Chris Butler said yesterday that even if his visa was extended past next month’s expiry date, the atmosphere in Twizel was so poisoned he might leave anyway.

Waitaki MP Alec Neill said on Wednesday in Parliament that fear surrounded the presence of Ti Leaf Productions, which he suggested might be a front for an international drug ring or a religious cult.

But yesterday, lying under a blanket on the couch of the tinfoil-lined farm house he is leasing, Mr Butler denied the allegations.

Pale and shaking, he also said he was under enormous stress as a result of the accusations.

Mr Butler suffers from allergic reactions to chemicals and said that was part of the reason for the tinfoil house lining. As well as preventing chemicals being emitted from the house’s exposed wooden walls, the tinfoil was to protect the sensitive video and computer equipment in the house.

Mr Butler said Mr Neill had abused his power and did not have the courage to repeat his defamatory allegations outside Parliament.

He said he did not know what Mr Neill meant by describing him as a man of “dubious international connections, a recluse, an eccentric”.

Mr Butler was the founder of the Science of Identity Foundation, which he says deals with the most important questions of life.

He was employed by Ti Leaf Productions as a consultant on the film because of his expertise in the field of Vedic or Hindu religious practices. They are a focus of the martial arts action-adventure movie, The Lost Prince, which the film company is working on. – NZPA

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The Dominion

Headline: 

Don’t hassle film crew, say residents

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29/03/1996

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Allan Tibby, left, and George Ormond take their petition to Parliament

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Text: MORE than a fifth of Twizel residents have signed a petition calling on Alec Neill (Nat, Waitaki) “to stop hassling” a visiting film company with unconventional spiritual beliefs.

The petition was delivered to Parliament by Allan Tibby of Kiwi Kontacts and George Ormond of the New Zealand School of Meditation, both of whom are associates of TiLeaf Productions, which has been operating at Twizel for 15 months.

There were 358 signatories to the petition out of Twizel’s population of 1656.

Mr Neill questioned in Parliament this month whether the film company was meeting work permit requirements and asked if it was “a front for something more sinister”.

“The people of Twizel do not want a David Koresh and Waco and they do not want a Jim Jones and Guyana, ” he said.

Mr Neill said yesterday he did not regret anything he had said in Parliament. He would be visiting Twizel on Monday to gauge local opinion.

“If nothing else, if I have allayed the fears of the Twizel people and brought the film production company and the people of Twizel closer together and broken down the level of secrecy, then I have achieved a lot, ” he said.

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Text: A new government process will be used for the first time when a film company seeks the right of reply in Parliament to comments made by Waitaki MP Alec Neill.

Under parliamentary privilege, the MP raised concerns that Hong Kong-based film company Ti Leaf Productions, in Twizel to film a martial arts epic, could be a front for an international drug ring or a religious cult.

But under new standing orders recently adopted by Parliament, Ti Leaf’s New Zealand liaison company Kiwi Kontacts has asked for the right of reply in the same forum.

Timaru MP Jim Sutton said he had alerted the company to its rights and Kiwi Kontacts spokesman Allan Tibby was preparing a submission.

Mr Sutton said the right of reply was available to a person who was not a member of the House, who had been referred to in the House by name, or in such a way as to be readily identifiable.

That person could make a submission through the Speaker in writing.

“That person can claim to have been adversely affected by the reference or to have had his reputation damaged but the response must be succinct and strictly relevant to the reference that was made, ” Mr Sutton said.

“It would be true to say that the person replying must adhere to far stricter requirements than the MP who makes the reference.”

The right of reply was available for up to three months after the reference was made and he believed the Kiwi Kontacts reply should be in front of Parliament shortly after Parliament resumed in two weeks’ time. – NZPA

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NEWS

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NZPA

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FILM MAKING; IMMIGRATION; SOUTH CANTERBURY

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Text: WORKERS for an international film company that an MP said might be a front for a religious cult have been offered conditional extensions to their work permits.

Immigration Minister Roger Maxwell said yesterday the extensions had been offered to Ti Leaf Productions workers subject to certain conditions, including that a schedule of planned filming be presented to the Immigration Service.

Waitaki MP Alec Neill said in Parliament last month the company might be a front for a cult.

He said residents at Twizel, where the company is based, were filled with fear.

He also claimed the company had not carried out any filming.

The claims were denied by people connected with the company and a petition signed by a fifth of Twizel’s population was presented to Parliament asking that TiLeaf Productions be left alone.

Ti Leaf’s New Zealand liaison company, Kiwi Kontacts, has asked for a right of reply in Parliament to Mr Neill’s remarks.

Mr Maxwell said he had asked the Immigration Service to check on production scheduling, and if scheduling conditions were not met the visa extensions would not be granted. – NZPA

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Text: Hong Kong film company Ti Leaf Productions still wants to produce a martial arts action-adventure movie in Central Otago, but is searching for a new base.

Ti Leaf Productions staff, including scriptwriter and American spiritual leader Chris Butler, left Twizel on Tuesday, meeting the deadline to vacate the homestead which was its New Zealand base for 16 months.

But staff hope to return in July. Mr Butler has flown to the United States to meet film representatives, while other members have moved to Queenstown.

Allan Tibby of Kiwi Kontacts – Ti Leaf’s New Zealand liaison company – said he would stay in Twizel until July in an attempt to find another base.

Controversy erupted over the film company’s presence in the Mackenzie Country in March when Waitaki MP Alec Neill made allegations about the company in Parliament.

The company had been undertaking preproduction work on its movie, The Lost Prince. Its work permits were to expire on April 30, but Immigration Minister Roger Maxwell renewed them until August 31, saying they could be extended again until April 1997 if certain conditions were met.

The conditions included providing a production schedule and advising the Minister of its progress. Mr Tibby said the company was confident of meeting those conditions.

Meanwhile, the owners of the homestead intend moving back into the vacated house. – NZPA

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The Timaru Herald

Headline: Ti Leaf abandons filming in NZ

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23/08/1996

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Allan Tibby . . . pullout forcing his company to fold

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BUSINESS; FILM MAKING; SOUTH CANTERBURY

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Text: Controversial Hong Kong film company Ti Leaf Productions has abandoned its Mackenzie Country film project The Lost Prince after overseas investors pulled the plug on the venture.

The company attracted national media attention in March when Waitaki MP Alec Neill alleged it was a front for an international drug ring or a religious cult.

And announcing his company’s withdrawal yesterday, Ti Leaf vice-president Sunil Khemaney said legal action against “those responsible for the company’s woes” was being considered. However, he would not elaborate.

The company’s local spokesperson, Allan Tibby, of Kiwi Kontacts, said the financiers were put off by Mr Neill’s “unsubstantiated allegations . . . which snowballed into an avalanche of problems for the film company”.

He said while the investors understood there was no truth in the accusations, they feared Ti Leaf’s reputation had been harmed and that the film’s profitability had been jeopardised.

Mr Neill yesterday had no comment to make on the company’s withdrawal.

Mr Khemaney said the company decided to abandon the project because to continue without adequate funding would not have done the film justice. Visas for staff working on the action-adventure martial arts film were due to expire on August 31.

Ti Leaf personnel have been in the United States for the last three months, working on pre-production for the movie and had hoped to return to New Zealand to begin shooting in the first week of September.

Mr Tibby said his company would be forced to fold with Ti Leaf’s withdrawal from New Zealand.

He said he was distraught and disappointed that his dreams of establishing a successful business and boosting his reputation in the film industry had been shattered.

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The Timaru Herald

Headline: 

Police finish inquiry into film company

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22/10/1996

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FILM MAKING; POLICING-GENERAL; SOUTH CANTERBURY

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Text: Timaru police have finished investigations into Hong Kong film company Ti Leaf Productions, which was based in the Mackenzie Country for almost two years.

The company, which intended filming a martial arts, action-adventure movie called The Lost Prince, left in August after overseas investors pulled the plug on the project.

Ti Leaf Productions attracted national media attention in March when Waitaki MP Alec Neill alleged in Parliament it was a front for an international drug ring or a religious cult.

The allegations were denied, but at the time Timaru police had been investigating the company for several months.

And yesterday, detective Ross Glendining confirmed the police investigation had been closed.

“They are not here any more, so they do not concern us, ” he said. No charges were laid in connection with police inquiries.

The Herald understands Timaru police made inquiries with the United States Customs Department, Interpol and the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

Meanwhile, a complaint from Ti Leaf Productions to the Police Complaints Authority about police action during the investigation is still being considered.

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18/08/1997

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CIVIL LAW; FILM MAKING; SOUTH CANTERBURY

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Text: TIMARU

FORMER Waitaki MP Alec Neill and Pukaki Downs farmers Lester and Robyn Baikie are being sued for $1.75 million for allegedly defaming one-time Twizel-based film company Ti Leaf Productions.

The company also claims the Baikies breached the terms of a lease it had with them.

Complaints against a Timaru police officer had been lodged with the Police Complaints Authority by Ti Leaf staff and an associated company.

In both cases Ti Leaf was claiming the same damages: $1.75 million; interest; an injunction; and an order that the defendants publicly retract and apologise.

The authority rejected one of the complaints made against the Timaru officer, and a decision on the second complaint was still to be published, Senior Sergeant Dave Gaskin said. The complaints involved the officer’s alleged dealings with the two staff members.

The claims against Mr Neill and the Baikies were lodged separately with the High Court at Timaru in the past two months.

National interest focused on the film company after statements made about it in Parliament by Mr Neill in March last year.

Mrs Baikie confirmed they would be defending the charges and Mr Neill declined to make any comment. No date has been set for the cases to be heard.

The film company leased part of the Baikies’ Pukaki Downs farm in November 1994. It intended using the site to film part of a martial arts movie, The Lost Prince. _ NZPA

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COURTS; FILM MAKING; PRICES; CHRISTCHURCH CITY

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Text: The High Court is being asked to reconsider the question of the costs the former Twizel-based film crew Ti Leaf Productions Ltd has to pay.

The High Court at Christchurch yesterday confirmed lawyers for both defendants had sought for a review of Master Hansen’s decision on the question of costs following his reserved decision given last December.

In that decision Master Hansen ordered the film company to pay either $25,000 to the court registrar as security for the costs or to provide a similar surety, in each of the actions, by January 30.

The defendants (High Country farmers Lester and Robyn Baikie and former MP Alec Neill), who the film company is suing for defamation of $1.75 million each, are both entitled to costs of $1500 each and disbursements, for the November hearing.

The application is set down to be heard in the High Court at Christchurch on February 17.

The Timaru Herald had earlier understood the film company was seeking a review of the Master’s decision to make it hand over the $50,000 before the defamation cases could be heard.

That was not corre

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4/07/2000

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Claims that an overseas company filming in Twizel was a front for a cult and drug operation were pure “small town ignorance, hostility, and bigotry”, Julian Miles, QC, has told the Christchurch High Court.

Mr Miles said the allegations ultimately caused Ti Leaf Productions to lose its investors, abandon film production, and leave New Zealand.

Ti Leaf Productions is suing former Waitaki MP Alec Neill and Pukaki Downs couple Lester and Robyn Baikie for a total of $1.75 million in losses and punitive damages. They are also claiming interest, an injunction, and an order that the defendants publicly retract and apologise.

Ti Leaf Productions was based in South Canterbury’s Mackenzie Country for almost two years from late 1994, filming a martial arts movie The Lost Prince. However, in early 1996, former Waitaki MP Alec Neill alleged in Parliament the company was a front for an international drug ring or a religious cult.

Mr Miles said the Baikies, a farming couple, also defamed Ti Leaf Productions with comments they made, and that the couple had breached the terms of a lease the film company had with them. He said the company had been set up in 1993 when five friends with a common religious belief in Vaishnavism _ a branch of Hinduism _ decided to make a feature movie.

The company leased a house in Twizel for $1200 as a base for filming. Extensive alterations were made to the house to ensure spiritual leader and teacher of Vaishnavism Chris Butler, who was involved with production, could live in the house.

Mr Miles said Mr Butler suffered from extreme chemical sensitivity which required that the house be sealed, and tin-foil-like barrier material affixed inside.

In 1996, the Police and Immigration Department began investigating the company.

Formal investigations did not result in any charges against the company. However, continued rumours led to investors pulling a total of $US1.2 million out of the film and forced its cancellation, Mr Miles said.

“The plaintiff became the victim of small-town ignorance, hostility, and bigotry.”

The hearing is set down for three weeks.

_ NZPA

The Press

Headline: 

Water, power use defended

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5/07/2000

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FILM MAKING; CIVIL LAW; ELECTRICITY; SOUTH CANTERBURY; WATER SUPPLY

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High electricity and water consumption at Ti Leaf Productions’ base in Twizel were caused by health and equipment needs, not a drug operation, vice-president Sunil Khemaney has told the High Court in Christchurch.

The film company is suing former Waitaki MP Alec Neill and Pukaki Downs couple Lester and Robyn Baikie for $1.75 million in losses and punitive damages.

The company abandoned a feature film in New Zealand after rumours it was a front for a religious cult or drug operation.

Under cross-examination from Mr Neill, who is defending himself, Mr Khemaney said the company paid one electricity bill of $2354 for 29 days. Another, for a period of 32 days, had cost $2692.

The house, which accommodated spiritual leader and script-writer Chris Butler and his wife, used about 3000 litres of water a day, he said.

Ti Leaf Productions spent $111,000 renovating a farmhouse for the Butlers’ use.

Mr Khemaney said the house was a production centre for the company. “It was much more than just a house for two people, it was being used as a meeting place for our team.”

He said electricity consumption was high partly because Mr Butler’s poor health required an air filtration system. Water was used by the production crew and for dampening dust on the driveway.

Mr Neill showed the court a 10-minute video which represented the entirety of filming for The Lost Prince.

Mr Khemaney said the video was not intended to be part of the film, which was still at the pre-production stage when abandoned.

When asked whether he considered the video was value for money after more than two years work, and $1.3 million spent on the film, Mr Khemaney said it represented a lot of potential. “I do not believe we received value for money because of the circumstances thrust on us by the defendants, ” he said.

The script, which was in its 69th draft, was unfinished when the film was cancelled.

Mr Neill said both the Immigration Department and police had contacted Ti Leaf Productions, before he made his allegations in Parliament.

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The Press

Headline: 

Film company sees govt at fault for loss

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6/07/2000

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Ti Leaf Productions wrote to New Zealand’s prime minister in 1996 requesting that public officials stop spreading “rumour and innuendo” about the company, the High Court in Christchurch has been told.

Six months later, the film company lost its investors and abandoned production in South Canterbury’s high country, where it was filming “The Lost Prince”.

The film company is suing former Waitaki MP Alec Neill and Pukaki Downs couple Lester and Robyn Baikie for a total of $1.75 million in losses and punitive damages, after they allegedly defamed the company.

Mr Neill alleged in Parliament and in a series of interviews that the company was a front for a religious cult or a drug operation.

The Baikies, a farming couple, also allegedly defamed Ti Leaf Productions with comments they made, and breached the terms of a lease the film company had with them.

Under cross-examination from Bruce Squires, QC, who is defending the Baikies, Ti Leaf productions vice-president Sunil Khemaney said he wrote to the then prime minister, Jim Bolger, in February 1996. In the letter he said the Government seemed to find the company’s religious beliefs objectionable.

He asked Mr Bolger to stop police and immigration officials “fostering and promoting rumour and innuendo”. Those rumours included allegations that Ti Leaf Productions was not a real film company, and was possibly a religious cult or drug operation, and possibly producing pornographic movies.

George Ormond, a spokesman for the company hired to act as a liaison for Ti Leaf Productions in New Zealand, gave evidence that he had organised accommodation and shooting locations for the company.

He said the company experienced trouble with the Baikies from the beginning.

The couple were suspicious about the company and frequently demanded to know when they would begin filming, he said.

Under cross-examination from Mr Neill, Mr Ormond said he had the same religious affiliations as others working for Ti Leaf Productions.

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FARMING

Publication: 

The Press

Headline: 

MP apology accepted in settlement

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7/07/2000

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Alec Neill

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PARLIAMENT; CIVIL LAW; FILM MAKING; SOUTH CANTERBURY; USA

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Former Waitaki MP Alec Neill has apologised to the film company suing him, and has reached a confidential settlement.

Mr Neill withdrew from the case yesterday, on the fourth day of the civil trial before Justice Panckhurst in the High Court at Christchurch.

Counsel for Ti Leaf Productions Ltd, Julian Miles QC, read the statement by Mr Neill to the court.

Mr Neill stated: “On 20 March 1996 I made a speech in Parliament when I queried the legitimacy of an overseas film company, Ti Leaf Productions Ltd, and its adviser and script-writer, Chris Butler.

“At the time, as a result of what I was told, I believed there was some basis for my concerns.

“After further inquiries I now accept that there was no factual basis for those concerns and I accordingly apologise for any damage done to the reputation of Ti Leaf Productions Ltd, Mr Butler, and the persons associated with the making of (the film) The Lost Prince.”

Other terms of the settlement are not being disclosed.

Ti Leaf Productions was suing Mr Neill and Pukaki Downs couple Lester and Robyn Baikie for a total of $1.75 million in losses and punitive damages. It is also claiming interest, an injunction, and an order that the defendants publicly retract and apologise.

After Mr Neill’s withdrawal, the case against the Baikies is continuing, although the four-week hearing may have been shortened by about a week.

In court yesterday, the managing director of Kiwi Kontacts, Allan Tibby, gave evidence about a long series of dealings and some confrontations with the Baikies concerning Ti Leaf’s lease of their property at Pukaki Downs.

Kiwi Kontacts was acting as a liaison and scouting company for Ti Leaf. He told of Mr Baikie threatening him, and saying that he suspected Ti Leaf was not a genuine film company.

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he Press

Headline: 

Investor deterred by bad publicity

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11/07/2000

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FILM MAKING; CIVIL LAW; INVESTMENT; SOUTH CANTERBURY; USA; PHILIPPINES; MARTIAL ARTS; RELIGIOUS SECTS; DRUG ABUSE

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A film investor said he pulled the plug on his $600,000 investment in Ti Leaf Productions’ movie because continuing bad publicity threatened to make it into another Waterworld _ a Hollywood movie dogged at the box office by negative reports about its production.

Nilo Santos, a Philippines-based real- estate developer and arts sponsor, said he had been excited by the potential of the $US1.5 million film, The Lost Prince, until the project became entangled with allegations that it was a front for a religious cult and a drug ring.

Mr Santos was called as a witness in Ti Leaf’s claim in the High Court in Christchurch for substantial damages against Pukaki Downs couple Lester and Robyn Baikie. The company originally sought $1.75 million compensation from the Baikies and former Waitaki MP Alec Neill. Mr Neill settled with Ti Leaf on confidential terms last week.

Mr Santos said he believed the $US5 million profit projected for The Lost Prince was conservative.

The package was the first he had seen which involved the combination of martial arts and teenaged protagonists, a formula which was later used with great success in the movie Mortal Kombat, and he offered to invest $US300,000.

However, in early 1996 bad publicity left him fearing that the project would be more like another Waterworld.

“The bad publicity (about The Lost Prince) which influenced me the most was the allegation that the people behind the film were operating a religious cult or a drug ring. I wondered whether it would form a stigma … and affect the success of the movie, ” he said.

Mr Santos continued with the project because Ti Leaf executive Sunil Khemaney assured him the bad publicity was over _ until another article on Ti Leaf appeared in The Timaru Herald in June 1996.

“For me it was all too much and it confirmed some of my earlier fears that the bad publicity was not over, ” he said. He withdrew his offer of funding, even after he was offered a greater share of the profits if he continued.

Cross-examined by Bruce Squires QC, for the Baikies, Mr Santos accepted that he had never invested in a movie before, nor had The Lost Prince scriptwriter Chris Butler written one, nor had the three teenaged stars acted in a feature film. Asked whether he was an adherent of the same faith as Mr Khemaney, Mr Santos said they held “the same philosophical beliefs”.

A Hollywood screen-writing consultant, Pamela Jaye Smith, gave evidence for Ti Leaf that the Mount Cook region was to be one of the stars of the film.

Miss Smith was hired by Ti Leaf as a story consultant, and worked on the production from Los Angeles, and also for three weeks in Twizel in November 1995.

She said that after two years work, the production was well advanced, and described work on the screenplay, casting, costume design, selection of locations, and rehearsals.

She described Chris Butler of Ti Leaf and his team of first-time filmmakers as “compulsive perfectionists”.

She was convinced that if they had been given a chance, the team would have been able to complete the film. She said the project was feasible with a $US1.5 million budget.

Cross-examined, she said she said she saw rehearsals but no actual filming during her stay in Twizel.

She would not have expected to see filming at that stage, she said.

Yesterday was the sixth day of evidence in the case, which was originally expected to last three weeks.

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The Press

Headline: 

Ti Leaf calls 27 witnesses

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13/07/2000

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FILM MAKING; CIVIL LAW; TENANCY; SOUTH CANTERBURY

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Former Waitaki MP Alec Neill will probably be among 27 witnesses called by Twizel couple Robyn and Lester Baikie as they defend themselves against legal action by Ti Leaf Productions.

Mr Neill was originally named as a defendant in the action, which has now been going for eight days in the High Court at Christchurch. He came to a confidential settlement with Ti Leaf and withdrew from the case, and his apology was read to the court on the fourth day.

As Bruce Squires, QC, made his opening address for the Baikies’ defence yesterday, he was asked by counsel for Ti Leaf (Julian Miles, QC) to specify which of the witnesses that Mr Neill was to call would now be called on behalf of the Baikies.

He named several witnesses and said Mr Neill would “in all probability” be called.

Mr Squires said the Baikies denied there was any breach of contract regarding their confidentiality agreement with Ti Leaf, which had rented their Pukaki Downs property. It was also contested that the Baikies’ actions led to the withdrawal of the financiers of Ti Leaf’s film project, The Lost Prince.

The defence would argue on the defamation claims, that there had been rumours floating around Twizel concerning Ti Leaf’s operations and the bona fides of its filming activities.

The evidence would be that the defendants naturally discussed the rumours because they were concerned that Ti Leaf was renting their property. “But the evidence will be that they were not the instigators of the rumours and any discussion about them arose from their concerns as landlords, ” said Mr Squires. The defences were truth and honest opinion.

Robyn Baikie as first defence witness told of their being approached to rent the property for a group of people who had allergies and wanted to check the property beforehand. The tests conducted were very inconvenient. “They seemed to think they had the run of the place and could ride roughshod over all of us, ” she said.

The lease was eventually negotiated so that filming could be done. The Baikies were told pre-production had been completed in Australia.

She described Ti Leaf as difficult tenants who continually found things wrong with the house. “We began to feel they were doing everything they could to antagonise us, ” she said.

Rumours soon surfaced, including one that Michael Jackson was on his way, because guitars had been seen in the gear and it was believed Jackson had allergy problems.

Earlier, the court heard from Film New Zealand executive Di Oliver, who said that after a two-day visit to the project in January 1996, she had no doubts that the Ti Leaf movie project was genuine.

She said she had heard complaints from Ti Leaf staff that they had been the victims of racial slurs and had had problems with the landlords. During the visit, she also spoke to the local police and shopkeepers, who did not make any complaints about the film staff.

“On February 3 I spoke to Alec Neill and said I’d spent two days in Twizel, and I’d spoken to the technical personnel, the lead actors, the screenwriter Chris Butler, and that I’d formed the view that it was a genuine film company going about its business in a proper manner, ” she said.

Ms Oliver said Film New Zealand was not a lobbyist for Ti Leaf. Its role, however, was making sure everything ran smoothly and that the overseas crew had a positive experience in New Zealand.

Cross-examined by Mr Squires, Ms Oliver said her travel costs and accommodation had been paid for by Ti Leaf and that the visit was not spontaneous.

The hearing before Justice Panckhurst continues today.

Notes: 

Because Chris Butler of Ti Leaf, who was living at the farm, was allergic to fertiliser and to aircraft flying overhead, it was requested that no aerial topdressing be done. The fertiliser was spread by hand by Ti Leaf staff. “It was a joke, ” said Mrs Baikie.

She said: “We were aware of rumours and did our best to stop them.”

However, she said the company accused them of making unfortunate comments and accusations about the film and its personnel.

She said they were often reduced to tears by aggressive and threatening letters from the company’s lawyer

The Press

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Film team ‘dabblers’

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25/07/2000

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Ti Leaf Productions’ film team members at Twizel were either naive dabblers or were “merely marking time in a pleasant location”, a New Zealand film producer said as the civil case began its third week.

Ti Leaf’s High Court case for its $1.7 million claim against Pukaki Downs farmers Lester and Robyn Baikie has ended, and the Baikie’s defence resumed yesterday after a week’s break.

David Gibson, managing director of the Gibson Group, which has a film production company called First Sun Limited, said it appeared that Ti Leaf was approaching its film The Lost Prince “in a most unusual manner”.

He said Ti Leaf approached the Gibson Group in 1994. His company supplied a list of contacts but was not involved. “We felt their emphasis seemed to be on immigration procedures.”

He had since been shown papers relating to the Ti Leaf project and its court case.

In contrast with other overseas production companies he dealt with, Ti Leaf had brought a number of people into New Zealand for a very extended script and development period.

“It seems to have been a particularly protracted and consequently very expensive development period, ” he said. “Ti Leaf appears to have spent about $1m, mostly on general cost of living for the personnel.”

It was a major surprise that Ti Leaf did not have a detailed budget for the project. The script he had read looked like it would need one or two more drafts. It was an extremely ambitious project requiring substantial resources.

“It had major stunt and special effects sequences. It would require a substantial cast of extras, requiring costuming, a number of sets, and it had major art department requirements.

“The script certainly doesn’t fit into the normal concept of a low-budget film. It could not be produced for anywhere near a $US1m budget.”

He doubted whether the script related particularly to New Zealand locations. “It could be shot in any number of countries with mountainous terrain.”

It was unusual there was no evidence of a schedule breakdown relating to locations, sets, and wardrobe.

The project had no indication of the hand of an experienced producer or director.

The files he had seen showed two of the three stars had martial arts experience, but none had acting experience.

He referred to Ti Leaf’s employment of the company Kiwi Kontacts to assist its operation in New Zealand. He said the Kiwi Kontacts managing director Allan Tibbey did not have the experience to advise Ti Leaf of the difficulty and scale of the project. He referred to evidence of Di Oliver, executive of Film New Zealand, “walking Allan Tibbey through some very basic steps in film-making”.

“She is dealing with a man who, quite clearly, knows nothing about how to make a film. I just shake my head, ” Mr Gibson said.

“I venture that the production of this film was well beyond the capabilities of the people at Ti Leaf, ” he said. He questioned how committed Ti Leaf was to making the film, since most of the basic work was lacking.

“They were either naive dabblers, or merely marking time in a pleasant location.”

He believed investors would not have been put off by bad publicity about the production. “Any publicity is good publicity. Plenty of publicists will tell you that.”

Questioned about the script the team at Twizel had been working on, Mr Gibson said: “If the script is deemed to have value, they (Ti Leaf) would be able to use that script to make this film in another part of the world, in the same way they could have made it here.”

Ti Leaf is alleging breach of contract by the Baikies, who rented their farm to the production team, and defamation. The hearing is before Justice Panckhurst.

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The Press

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Suspicions aroused by laptop

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26/07/2000

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An employee of film company Ti Leaf Productions was seen typing on a laptop computer that was not turned on during an inspection by immigration officials, the High Court in Christchurch has been told.

Former Timaru detective Ross Murray Glendining, now a businessman, said he had accompanied immigration officials to the company’s base at Pukaki Downs station, near Twizel.

“There was a line of costumes on the deck and there was a woman working on a laptop computer. I was able to establish on closer examination that the computer wasn’t turned on, ” he said.

“I was of the view that it was just for our benefit.

“I also noticed that every wall of the home had been lined with aluminium foil, and even the phone was wrapped in foil.”

Ti Leaf is suing Twizel couple Lester and Robyn Baikie, alleging breach of contract and defamation, after the company abandoned a feature film in New Zealand after rumours it was a front for a religious cult or drug operation.

Under cross-examination from Julian Miles, QC, Mr Glendining said he never sought a search warrant for the property, and no-one was formally interviewed by the police.

He acknowledged he did not introduce himself as a police officer, but denied suggestions he had arrived at the property posing as an immigration officer. Freelance cameraman Brian High, who visited the property in March, 1996, repeated many of Mr Glendining’s observations yesterday. He also claimed sound recording areas and a camera that he saw at the site were not suitable for producing a feature film.

When questioned by Mr Miles, he acknowledged he was not an expert in sound recording, but he denied he had wrongly assumed the mixing for the film was being done at the property.

“I went out there to view a film production company and I didn’t see any film production there, that’s all, ” he said.

Yesterday, forensic accounting specialist Murray Lazelle commented on several “unusual” aspects in the financial records he had seen.

Mr Lazelle said he was surprised there was no evidence of a budget being prepared, and commented that aspects of the loans financing the film seemed unusual.

He also said he was unable to reconcile the claimed costs with bank statements and invoices provided to him.

Under cross-examination, Mr Lazelle accepted that some of his concerns were irrelevant because the loans had never been advanced.

He also conceded that the close relationship between the investors and the film maker may have influenced loan arrangements.

he Press

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Call asking for inquiry taped, former MP says

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27/07/2000

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Former Waitaki MP Alec Neill says a woman who urged him to inquire into the activities of Ti Leaf Productions was actually associated with the film company, and she was taping the telephone conversation.

He told the High Court yesterday that he was upset when he realised later that the call had been taped. He had believed it was a Twizel resident with a genuine concern, and he also found out that Ti Leaf paid for or contributed to the payment of the telephone account where the call was made from.

On the final day of evidence in the civil trial _ now in its third week _ Mr Neill said the caller, who gave her name as Sue Harrison, had been worried about her children, or the children of the community.

“She phoned me to lodge a formal complaint about the film people, and requested that I conduct a formal inquiry, ” he said. “I responded to these concerns because I believed they were genuine.”

He said he later learned that the conversation had been taped, and transcribed. He raised the matter in a meeting with Allan Tibbey, of Kiwi Kontacts, which was working with Ti Leaf on its film production operation based near Lake Pukaki.

He said Mr Tibbey acknowledged that he had taped telephone conversations, and he knew Sue Harrison. He asked Mr Tibbey why he had taped that phone call, and was told: “We had to find out what was going on.”

Later in the meeting, Mr Tibbey denied he had taped that call, but acknowledged that he had heard the tape.

Mr Neill produced a copy of a page from the telephone book, showing the listing of the phone number where the Sue Harrison call had been made from. He also said he had established that Ti Leaf had paid or contributed to the payment of that phone account.

Mr Neill said he had tried to find Sue Harrison, who was also known as Sue Stone, in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, but had been unable to find her. Mr Tibbey had said she was a friend of someone in the production crew, but he could not remember who.

He said Mr Tibbey had been able to communicate with her, and a brief of evidence from her, which had been signed, dated, and witnessed, was handed to the judge, Justice Panckhurst, but was not read in court.

Mr Neill yesterday gave evidence of his involvement in inquires concerning the activities of Ti Leaf Productions in 1995-96, which led to a speech in Parliament.

He was originally named as a defendant in the civil claim. His evidence was delayed almost a fortnight because his brief of evidence had to be rewritten when he apologised to Ti Leaf and withdrew from the case in the first week, That meant some of his evidence could no longer be given and Justice Panckhurst considered his brief of evidence overnight on Tuesday, and ruled out some further parts of it.

The legal action has continued against Pukaki Downs farming couple Lester and Robyn Baikie, who rented their farm to Ti Leaf. Ti Leaf is claiming $1.7 million for breach of contract and defamation. Its film, The Lost Prince, never went into production.

Waikato Times

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Ti Leaf decision reserved

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28/07/2000

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Did a High Country couple scuttle a $3 million film by spreading “lurid, disgraceful, and appalling” rumours about Ti Leaf Productions, or were they acting responsibly in alerting the authorities to doubts about the legitimacy of the company?

Those are the conflicting views on which Justice Graham Panckhurst in the High Court in Christchurch has to decide a substantial damages claim against Lester and Robyn Baikie by the Hong Kong-based film production company.

Justice Panckhurst reserved his decision yesterday after hearing more than two weeks of evidence about events surrounding the collapse of Ti Leaf’s production of its film, The Lost Prince, in 1996.

The Baikies had leased their farmhouse to Ti Leaf but the deal became acrimonious after rumours began circulating that the company was a religious cult and involved in drugs.

The rumours were reported in Parliament by then Waitaki MP Alec Neill in February 1996. He was sued by Ti Leaf but settled his case on undisclosed terms on the fourth day of the trial after making a public apology to the company.

The Lost Prince collapsed four months later after an article in the Timaru Herald quoted the Baikies’ criticisms of Ti Leaf’s bona fides. The Baikies have since accepted that the drug allegations were false.

Julian Miles, QC, for Ti Leaf, said the Baikies were responsible for the loss of the $1.3 million Ti Leaf had already spent on the film by causing two major investors to withdraw.

The Baikies also breached a confidentiality agreement signed with Ti Leaf stopping them saying anything negative about the company. Mr Miles said the Baikies defamed Ti Leaf by repeating the rumours which had been circulating in the Twizel area. Ti Leaf also seeks aggravated damages and interest since 1996.

Bruce Squire, QC, for the Baikies, said the couple had been misquoted in a Timaru Herald newspaper article, which had been published in breach of an oral “off the record” agreement.

It was Mr Neill’s statement in Parliament under privilege which had done the substantial damage to Ti Leaf’s reputation, he said. The Baikies rely on a defence of qualified privilege because, as concerned landlords of Ti Leaf’s base, they repeated allegations to the police and to their MP, Mr Neill.

Mr Squire said the Baikies’ comments were not negative as described in the confidentiality agreement.

Justice Panckhurst did not indicate when he would deliver his decision. _ NZPA

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The Press

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Movie firm wins case
$1.3m claim reduced

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5/10/2000

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Damages totalling $5500 have been awarded to Ti Leaf Productions after a three-week trial in which it claimed $1.3 million for the sinking of its film project, The Lost Prince.

Justice Panckhurst said it was a genuine film project, but the company lost its direction and he doubted that the martial arts-action-adventure film would ever have been finished.

The film company sued Pukaki Downs farming couple Lester and Robin Baikie, who leased their Twizel farm as a base for the project. Ti Leaf cited breach of contract and defamation. A defamation action was also taken against then Waitaki member of Parliament Alec Neill, who apologised and settled for an undisclosed sum early in the trial.

“There was a claim of $1.3 million and they have succeeded in getting a judgment of only $5500, ” said the counsel for the Baikies, Bruce Squire, QC, of Wellington. “From our point of view, we are pleased with the result.”

Justice Panckhurst has reserved the question of costs, and submissions will be made by both sides. Mr Squire said costs were a matter for the judge’s discretion.

A 49-page judgment issued in the High Court at Christchurch has ended the case in which Ti Leaf Productions’ witnesses told how their project was affected by a statement in Parliament by Mr Neill on March 20, 1996, in which he questioned whether it was a genuine film company, or was a front for a religious cult or an international drugs ring. He told Parliament: “The people of Twizel do not want a David Koresh and Waco, they do not want a Jim Jones and Guyana.”

Mr Neill repeated his comments in interviews outside Parliament, which gave rise to the defamation claim.

Justice Panckhurst found that soon after Mr Neill’s speech, public opinion and sympathy moved in favour of Ti Leaf, and it became plain that there was no substance to the allegations.

Even so, investors were concerned about the bad publicity, and after a further article in the Timaru Herald in June 1996, in which the Baikies were interviewed, they withdrew their backing for the project.

His Honour said Ti Leaf had encountered problems with the project in Australia and then moved to New Zealand to develop the script around the high-country landscape and film it in the region.

It leased Pukaki Downs station with clauses in the agreement that its staff could have “quiet enjoyment of the property” and there would be no negative comments made to the media, government agencies, or the public. The court heard that apart from the media comments, the Baikies also spoke to Mr Neill about their concerns, and the rumours circulating in the district.

The head of the project, American Chris Butler and his wife, had special terms in the lease about firefighting, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. Mr Baikie found that their demands restricted normal farming activities. “Almost all of those associated with Ti Leaf were followers of Mr Butler and shared a religious belief in the Hindu teachings of Vaishnavism, ” Justice Panckhurst said.

“The group’s different approach to living, coupled with the desire to be left alone and for privacy, proved a potent mix in a rural environment where conformity was the expectation of at least many in the community.”

He awarded $500 damages for the breach of contract, and $5000 for the defamation claim, after ruling that he had real doubt that the film would have been made regardless of the Baikies’ public statements.

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he Press

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Case with no winners

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6/10/2000

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HENZELL John

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Lester Baikie at his Pukaki Downs station homestead, near Mount Cook, where the Lost Prince was to be filmed.MP Alec Neill: settled the case against him.

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CIVIL LAW; FILM MAKING; ETHICS; SOUTH CANTERBURY; OTAGO; COURTS; ECONOMICS; RELIGIOUS SECTS; TRIALSBUSINESS

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Small-town gossip in the Mackenzie Country contributed to the collapse of a multimillion-dollar film project run by an offbeat religious group. But were the New Zealand authorities complicit in the rumour-mongering? JOHN HENZELL reports.

The Mackenzie Country was said to be awash in early 1996 with rumours and gossip about Ti Leaf Productions, the Hong Kong feature film company reportedly making The Lost Prince in the area.

Among the tales doing the rounds was that the crew were almost universally adherents of an esoteric brand of eastern religion and, after 15 months in New Zealand, had not so much as completed the movie script or started filming. Scriptwriter Chris Butler was said to be the spiritual leader of the California-based Science of Identity Foundation and used the name Siddha Swarupananda Swami. The stories claimed that he had had the Pukaki Downs homestead lined in tin foil, all the carpets replaced with tiles, a complex and energy-guzzling air filtration system installed, and the farm’s water supply augmented by trucking in water from Twizel.

All of that was true.

Perhaps because of that, others stories that began circulating seemed more plausible. To some it was a small step from the words “Californian Swami” to “cult”, while the quantities of water, power, and tin foil being used suggested an involvement in drugs. Cynics used the lack of any actual filming as proof that plans to make The Lost Prince were just a sham to fool the authorities.

None of that was true, a point conceded in the High Court in Christchurch once Ti Leaf’s lawyers had presented their evidence against Lester and Robin Baikie, who had leased their homestead at Pukaki Downs station to Ti Leaf for Mr Butler’s use, and National MP Alec Neill.

It was a case with no winners.

Mr Neill settled his case in the first week of the trial by apologising to Ti Leaf and paying them an undisclosed sum. He declined to comment any further, but admits the whole experience has cost him “a lot” of money.

The Baikies did not win either. Labelled “busybodies” by Justice Panckhurst, their comments to a Timaru Herald reporter (they said their comments had been off the record) were deemed to have defamed Ti Leaf and breached a contract not to make negative comments about the film makers.

Ti Leaf lost too. It won its claim of liability in court but, having sought in excess of $1.3 million for the money which it had already spent on The Lost Prince, was awarded the sum of $5500 in damages. His Honour ruled that for all the enthusiasm and self-belief of the nascent film makers, the project was “doomed” to fail before any filming actually occurred.

Others associated with Ti Leaf are also among the losers. Take expatriate New Zealander Allan Tibby, a follower of Vaishnavism and a minor investor in Ti Leaf who started up the liaison company Kiwi Kontacts to facilitate filming of The Lost Prince.

“My intention (from The Lost Prince) was to buy some land somewhere in the Mackenzie Country and use the Ti Leaf production as a springboard to bring crews down from Asia to do shooting down here, with a view to do something more serious in the film industry internationally, ” Mr Tibby said. “There are not that many locations that have this type of scenery and this type of grandness, and yet you have all the modern amenities nearby and the benefits of an English-speaking country.

“The whole thing just fell apart. Who’s going to deal with me after that? `Let’s hook up with this guy _ we want to be labelled a cult’. I doubt if I’ll come back (to work in New Zealand in the film trade) again.”

New Zealand’s international reputation is on the list of losers, too.

Sunil Khemaney, a Californian businessman who was one of the principals of Ti Leaf, told The Press outside court that the most troubling aspect of the “nightmarish” two years the Ti Leaf team spent in New Zealand was that the false claims were not just being made by the “small-minded bigots” which the group had encountered elsewhere in the past, but by people in positions of authority.

This included Mr Neill, who used Parliamentary privilege to question whether Ti Leaf was “a bogus film company … to circumvent our immigration requirements” and described Mr Butler as “a guru or Godfather … of a Hare Krishna-type movement and he is a man of dubious international connections”. Mr Neill repeated fears he said had been raised by his constituents that The Lost Prince was a front for a religious cult which was involved in international drug-running, raising the spectre of “a David Koresh and Waco … (or) a Jim Jones and Guyana”.

It also included the police in Timaru, by whom Mr Neill claimed in his statement of defence to have been briefed that the Australian police, Interpol, and the FBI were helping in the investigation and/or monitoring of the film makers “on suspicion of money laundering, international drug connections, and/or drug manufacturing and distribution, (and) breaches of the Immigration Act”.

Mr Neill contended that the Timaru police also advised him that “the group was a cult, that a visit by police to location on or about January 10, 1996, endorsed beliefs that the film was `a sham’ … that the film making was a front to allow overseas persons of a specific spiritual grouping to have the ability to enter and remain in New Zealand, that the cult leader, Chris Butler, was a person of dubious connections”.

For all the investigations by the police and, at Mr Neill’s prompting, by the New Zealand Immigration Service, no criminal charges were ever laid and the participants’ visas were extended.

For Mr Khemaney, being unusual meant they were a target for prejudice and rumour-mongering, but elsewhere it had been restricted to a minority of “small- minded bigots”. He stressed that the majority of Twizel people were supportive and friendly.

“You would hope the Government would not be so easily influenced. That’s what happened here, the New Zealand Government was influenced by the actions of a few small-town bigots. It became complicit in their bigotry, ” he said.

“I can understand the odd news article from a reporter who wanted a sensationalised article or the odd small- town bigotry, but for it to get to the point where it got to, with the involvement of Immigration and the Police and an MP, it’s just … I don’t know what lesson is to be learned from that.

“These were vicious rumours, but what people failed to appreciate was how life- changing and damaging it was for the people at the brunt of it. It wasn’t just faceless international corporations _ a lot of people’s lives were impacted.”

Among the lives affected were those of the volunteers among the crew, New Zealanders and Australians who shared the crew’s religious affiliations and who offered to work for nothing as a way of gaining experience on a feature film to be released internationally. Their efforts were rewarded instead by connection with a venture tainted by failure.

For Twizel businessman Rick Ramsay, the deputy mayor of the district, the Ti Leaf crew had been high profile in the town, but generally tried to keep to themselves. Combined with some alternative behaviour by some members, it created an “information vacuum” which was filled by rumours and gossip by a minority.

“They weren’t like the other film crews who were down in the pub. It was certainly different from the situation most people were used to. But they paid their bills and I think Twizel made them welcome, but they were different, ” he said.

“Everyone knew the house was lined with tin foil and that the house had been converted to something else with air conditioning and a filter system. I don’t think that would be a surprise to anyone.

“I had a fair bit to do with the film crew and one of the points I made to these guys was that if you don’t let the community know what’s going on, you’re likely to feed the rumour mill. If you let a vacuum be created, you end up with something that could be avoided.”

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The Evening Post

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Film makers fail to get damages increased

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18/09/2001

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Hong Kong film makers have failed to have $5500 damages increased for a Mackenzie Country project that went wrong, amid claims of cults and odd practices.

Ti Leaf Productions had appealed a High Court judgment awarding them contract damages of $500, and $5000 for defamation.

The film project collapsed when backers withdrew. Ti Leaf said it had spent more than $1.1 million by then and it wanted compensation for the money lost.

In a decision released yesterday, the Court of Appeal dismissed Ti Leaf’s appeal. It also dismissed a cross-appeal from Robyn and Lester Blaikie against having to pay $25,500 towards Ti Leaf’s costs for the High Court case. However, the Blaikies were awarded $4500 costs from Ti Leaf for the Court of Appeal case.

The Blaikies owned Pukaki Downs Station, where co-producers of the film were living.

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The Timaru Herald

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Court action dropped at last minute

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22/11/2001

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The long-running court battle between high country farmers Lester and Robin Baikie and Hong-Kong based Ti Leaf Productions is over.

Ti Leaf was to have sought leave to apply to the Privy Council this week, but at the last minute, abandoned that course of action. According to the Baikies’ solicitor Tim Gresson, that means the case _ having gone to the High Court, then the Court of Appeal _ is now over, seven years after events began.

“It’s a great relief for the Baikies, and they’re delighted with the outcome. It has been extremely traumatic, they were faced with a huge claim.”

As well as the emotional strain, the case has cost the Baikies financially. While the original claim against them was for $1.75 million, the High Court awarded Ti Leaf $5500 damages and $25,000 costs. The Court of Appeal later awarded the Baikies $4500 in costs.

Ti Leaf took the Baikies to court over comments they made about the company, its shareholders and employees, relating to matters arising in the course of a tenancy agreement between the parties.

In late 1993, Ti Leaf Productions approached the Baikies, because their 12,000-hectare farm, Pukaki Downs Station, near Twizel, was thought to be a suitable location for filming a low-budget production called The Lost Prince.

The Pukaki Downs homestead was to be rented to the American script writer, director and co-producer of the film and his family. Because of severe allergy problems, they required substantial alterations to the house and special terms in the lease governing farming practices on the property.

The Butlers moved in to the homestead, and the Baikies moved to another house on the property. Problems between landlord and tenant surfaced almost immediately.

The Butlers alleged they did not have quiet enjoyment of the homestead and its surrounds, and expressed concerns about rabbit shooting, fertiliser and herbicide use and burning-off.

The Baikies were concerned as to whether Ti Leaf was seriously engaged in the production of a film. They considered the nature and extent of modifications to the homestead were strange, and the desire for privacy, including a guard caravan on the access road, was regarded as abnormal in a high country farm setting.

The Baikies raised concern with their local MP about cast and crew members’ compliance with the terms of their New Zealand work permits, and the rumours concerning drug manufacturing and cult-based activities on the part of Ti Leaf personnel.

In 1996, the tenancy agreement was extended, and included a new condition that none of the parties would make any negative comment about the other to the media, representatives of government agencies or any member of the public.

Ti Leaf alleged the Baikies breached that term of the contract in a newspaper article.

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