This month saw the general UK release of the much-loved Australian film, Nitram, about the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in April 1996.
Thirty-five people lost their lives – shot by Martin Bryant, just weeks after the Dunblane shooting.
This sequence of killings down under is generally accepted as a Dunblane “copycat” event, and thus appears to have provided Bryant with both instructions on how to achieve what he wanted, and also the perverse incentive to mount. his own killing spree – in other words, behaving like Thomas Hamilton.
Nitram, who is ‘Martin’ spelled backwards, scooped all the awards at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for Caleb Landry Jones (pictured), who plays the loner and social misfit Bryant.
As for the action in the film, there is no doubt that what is shown on the screen is “inspired by real events”.
I watched the movie myself and it places Bryant at the center of the narrative, almost as if it were a standard account of his life up to the massacre, and in doing so it raised some uncomfortable questions for me. .
Can it ever be justified to have a film that prioritizes the circumstances and motivation of the killer, as opposed to the lives of the victims? And, even though what happened in Port Arthur took place more than a quarter of a century ago, is that historical distance enough between the pain and the trauma of the horror of what s happened, to allow and justify a dramatic and true account of the crime of this event, inevitably partial and incomplete, and in the process of being reproduced and imagined becomes “Art”?
These questions seem to me to raise fundamental questions about the ethical limits of true crime at a time when it has become the most dominant genre not only in film, but also on television and in podcasts.
It was once described as “crime fact that feels like a detective novel”, but now I’m struggling to keep track of all the subgenres of what passes for true crime.
There are those imitated one-day documentaries, which add nothing to our understanding of the case, but are quickly and cheaply put together with a few snippets of news footage and an occasional “talking head” to add gravity to the procedure.
There are “drama-docs”, which claim to be authoritative versions of real-life events; and there are new investigations into old cases that shed new light on what happened and who was responsible for it, and so challenge the accepted criminal justice narrative of the crime by uncovering new evidence or previously ignored cookies.
I was very impressed recently, for example, by Sky’s Murder in the Valleys about the Clydach murders in 1999, which seemed to suggest a very different narrative of this appalling family annihilation from the one that has been accepted as fact, and which led to the conviction of David Morris.
There are also other ethical dilemmas.
Does true crime only serve to re-traumatize the victim’s family by keeping the death of their loved one from public view but now consumed as a form of entertainment? And what should the real perpetrators do about the crimes themselves?
If these are dramatized with actors playing the role, isn’t it the temptation to make these scenes as sensational and exciting as possible in order to keep the audience in suspense, almost as if they were fiction rather what reality?
I would say I am well placed to answer some of these questions, having presented a number of true crime series and documentaries on television over the past 25 years – long before true crime hit its new popularity levels – and acknowledging some of the mistakes I made along the way when I was just starting out in TV.
A good indication of this personal journey and true crime is that I now refuse nine out of 10 requests I receive to act as a “talking head” and have made it clear that I am only willing to participate if I feel that the project attempts to increase the public’s criminological understanding of the offender or the circumstances surrounding the crime.
I avoid the sensational, even though I know it might be popular, and, for example, I’ve always said ‘no’ to offers to pair me up with a ‘psychic’ who – and I’m quoting directly – ‘smacks of murder ”.
I learned that what might be popular in true crime isn’t necessarily uplifting or educational, just lewd and voyeuristic.
Nitram screenwriter Shaun Grant suggested that one of his goals was to have “audiences, especially those who are pro-gun, to sit down with a character who clearly shouldn’t have access to guns and watch because they are so easily allowed to access it for them.”
That seems fair enough, although we should remember that following the Port Arthur massacre, Australia followed Britain’s lead and introduced some of the toughest gun laws in the world. world, and is Grant really suggesting that Nitram will have an impact on American audiences?
What evidence can he cite that movies are causing change in their culture? Jaws may have created the fear of swimming in the sea, and Brokeback Mountain seems to have encouraged greater tolerance towards gay people, but I can’t think of a movie that has helped change attitudes towards gun ownership in the USA.
Perhaps we could think of answering all these questions in another way. Would we Scots be willing to watch a film called Notlimah which dramatizes the dysfunctional family circumstances of Thomas Hamilton – who believed his birth mother was his sister and his mother’s adoptive parents were his birth parents – and imagine that somehow this narrative device can shed light on our worst mass murder?
I don’t think we would.
True crime perpetrators must never lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, they are dealing with the lives of real people in the midst of a tragedy that has struck them and will continue to impact their families. for generations to come. . I know not.
David Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University