Should a film be made about child murders?

This week Detainment was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Film Category, this has caused an awful lot of discussion and bad press towards the Irish filmmaker Vincent Lambe. This outrage has grown to the point where over 100,000 people have signed a petition for the Academy or Lambe himself to withdraw the film for consideration. At this time of writing it is still in that category.

If you are not aware of Detainment, it details the interviews of two ten-year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson who in 1993 kidnapped, tortured and eventually murdered two-year-old James Bulger. There is no need to go into the details of the murder as it is already shared enough online, but it was a case that absolutely shook the United Kingdom for years. Many questions were asked at the time, “How could two boys do this?”, “Why did they do this?” Answers never really came and the fact that the two were released from Young Offender units at the ages of 18 and were given new identities to live a life that they robbed of a two-year-old boy infuriated the public even more.

You may ask whether Lambe tries to break down the reasoning behind the actions. Or does he reveal the true evil of the two murderers? He does neither, he states that he wanted to show more layers than what the public already knows, to go between the shades of grey.

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Where did Lambe go wrong with this dramatisation to receive such vitriol? To some, he did not ask for permission from the victim’s family as he was sure they would say no. He also decided to show some of the events, not the murder it must be said and nothing graphic, but the lead up to it. Which he should have known would incite rage among many in the United Kingdom if he thought it wouldn’t then he was a tad naive. Some have said that if he had just stuck to the interviews and trial he would not have received such an outrage, and that is where it has to be asked how much detail should go into the dramatisation of the murders of children.

If you remember a few months ago there was a review here of Utoya 22, which documented the mass murder of sixty-nine teenagers on an island in Norway. Not only did the film dramatise the murders, we saw the murders through the eyes of one of the victims and followed her the entire way in one single 72-minute shot. We never saw the murderer and at the time I commended that decision for one reason. If you show the murderers and give them even a second of compassion on the screen then you are allowing the audience to feel towards them, when there is no reason to do so. With Detainment, we see everything through the boy’s eyes, we hear their words and because the performances of the two child actors are so strong, you will feel some emotion for them. But we shouldn’t, should we? The public knows enough (or you will read enough) about their actions to know that they deserve zero compassion from the audience.

The director of Utoya 22 stated that he wanted the film to help people in Norway heal from the events, Poppe like Lambe used interview transcripts, but only the survivors and police versions of events. Lambe only utilised the interview transcripts and did not seek to use the police evidence alongside it. If it was his intent to get a truly accurate picture of the events that day he would have, but his interest was in the interviews themselves and only allowing the story to be told retroactively through the killer’s eyes.

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Another film that followed the murders through the eyes of the killer was another film made about the events of Utoya. In this version, they only follow the killer, through all of his acts and even has him interact with the camera. This version of the events was not as well-received as Utoya 22 for that fact. We did not get to feel for the victims, but just follow the murderer as he commits his horrendous act, which knowing Paul Greengrass directed the film and knowing his work in Bloody Sunday was surprising. In fact, Utoya 22 was more akin to a Paul Greengrass film than his own July 22 film was.

Is Detainment in the same category of being “exploitive” to the victims and families as July 22 accidentally made itself? Not at all, it only shows the events of the murder when it needs too and even then perhaps it did that a tad too often for it’s own good, it most likely lives between the two Utoya’s. It isn’t revelling or using Bulger’s murder as a crux to their own version of the story, but it also does not portray the murderers as the public wants or maybe even needs to see them as.

Lambe and his team have also stuck too close to the realism of the interviews by researching as much of the interview with the boys as possible (all records have been available to the public for over a decade). Their aim was to be accurate, much like Poppe’s Utoya 22 (although Poppe renamed the lead character out of respect for the victim) the survivors thought the film was too real for them and caused some PTSD after their viewing. Detainment may have struck this cord too by being too accurate has he crossed the line with the victim’s family and also the police involved in the case. Some members of the police force have criticised Lambe and the film for trying to portray them as aggressive to the murderers. That the interview rooms were not as hostile looking as shown. Lambe disagrees with this sentiment and states that they only tried to make the scenes as accurate as they could. Whether their interview techniques over those days is the exact same as how the film depicts them to be is only known to those involved, but by reopening even this aspect of the case it has cut further wounds.

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As mentioned at the start of this piece, Lambe has been chastised for the film and even more so for putting it forward for consideration at the Academy Awards in February. The family of James Bulger view him and his film as nothing more than exploitive to enhance his career which Lambe strenuously denies. To the point where he has offered proceeds from the screenings of his 30-minute film to the charity created by James Bulger’s mother. The Utoya films opened this question up to Europe last year and now Detainment opens it up to the world with its Academy Award nomination.

Should films be made that show infamous true crimes? There is no easy answer now that we live in a world where one of the biggest documentary series on Netflix is Making A Murderer, where documentaries and even TV Channels are created to just show and go into detail (to the point of showing crime scenes) of murders. Quentin Tarantino is making a film that will have a scene that depicts the brutal murder of Sharon Tate (something we have seen dramatised many times now). It could be said that we are desensitised to such things nowadays. We have access to executions by terrorist groups in the Middle East on social media almost daily. We can see the worst of humanity with just one click of a button. Showing death and the consequences of death is not new or shocking to us anymore and only we can decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.

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