Culture

Should Films About Mass Murderers Be Made?

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A controversial film about the Port Arthur killer is going to be released next year, and it’s already received a huge amount of backlash from survivors of the massacre and the Tasmanian community.

The Port Arthur killings in 1996 were an incredibly traumatic event in Australia’s history, so should a movie like this ever really be made, and what should we expect from the filmmakers who are telling this story?

What Is The Port Arthur Movie?

The movie is called NITRAM (which is the name of the Port Arthur killer spelt backwards) and it’s being directed by Justin Kurzel, who directed the 2012 movie Snowtown about the South Australian serial killers.

NITRAM is going to focus on the life of the Port Arthur killer in the lead up to the massacre but apparently it won’t depict the actual killings.

There’s obviously a huge amount of sensitivity around this story.

35 people were killed and another 23 were injured at Port Arthur, and it was the worst mass murder in Australia’s modern history.

The filmmakers seem to have acknowledged the trauma around the story by setting up production in Victoria instead of Tasmania.

But there’s still been pretty widespread criticism that the movie is being made at all.

What’s The Response Been To The Movie?

People on social media are calling for it to be boycotted, and one survivor said that even though he believes the massacre should be remembered in other forms of media, it really shouldn’t be turned into a piece of “money-making entertainment”.

There’s a lot of concern that this film and the media coverage around it is going to retraumatise the Port Arthur community, who were deeply affected by the horrendous events.

Even the Tasmanian Premier said he felt “‘highly uncomfortable” that the film was being made but maintained it wouldn’t be right to censor the film.

It’s a really tricky conversation.

Robert Clarke: “Memories of that event are still fairly fresh in the minds of many people. So, I think that is a very important consideration … I’ve also been aware that there is a sensitivity that perhaps the perspectives of those people who survived, and the friends and family of the victims, won’t necessarily be addressed respectfully. So, I think these are some of the concerns that people have and quite rightly so.”

That’s Robert Clarke. He’s talked a lot about how the Port Arthur killer has been portrayed in media in the past and he thinks that there’s obviously a lot of nuance to creating a film like this.

RC: “Clearly there are subject matters, topics that are taboo. And in certain contexts censorship can be appropriate. There are other situations where censorship is clearly not appropriate. Unfortunately there’s this really large and at times quite diverse grey area where we’re forced to talk about it, we’re forced to consider the question seriously.”

There’s been a bunch of commentary online about why a movie that focuses on the life of the killer could trip over the line into empathising or sympathising with him.

RC: “Just because you empathise with someone, doesn’t mean you excuse them … we need to understand what motivates a good person but equally we do need to understand what motivates evil people, evil deeds and the kind of people that perpetuate them. So having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean you are taking that person’s side. It doesn’t mean that you are necessarily letting them off the hook, so to speak.” 

Some film critics are now responding to the backlash by basically asking people to take the wait-and-see approach.

After all, artists and filmmakers should basically have license to create stories about any subject matter without immediate censorship.

In this case, the public can only hope that they do it in a way that’s sensitive to a community’s pain.

The Takeaway

The Port Arthur massacre was an incredibly traumatic event in Australia’s history and people have a right to be worried and angry that somebody is trying to create a film about the killer’s life.

Regardless of how the film turns out, this is a really important conversation to have about what we expect from film and how filmmakers can navigate these incredibly traumatic events when they do insist on covering them.