David Wilson: Would we watch a film about Thomas Hamilton? I don't think we would
THIS month has seen the general, UK release of the much-garlanded Australian film, Nitram, about the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in April 1996.
Thirty-five people lost their lives – shot dead by Martin Bryant, just weeks after the Dunblane shootings.
This Antipodean sequence of murders is generally accepted as a “copycat” event of Dunblane, and which therefore seems to have provided Bryant both with instruction about how to achieve what he wanted, and also the perverse incentive to mount his own killing spree – in other words, to behave just like Thomas Hamilton.
Nitram, which is “Martin” spelt backwards, swept up all the prizes at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards and won the Best Actor accolade at the Cannes Film Festival for Caleb Landry Jones (pictured), who plays the loner and social misfit Bryant.
As for the action within the film, we are left in no doubt that what is shown on screen is “inspired by true events”.
I watched the movie myself and it places Bryant front and centre of the narrative, almost as if it is a standard, coming-of-age account of his life up and until the massacre, and in doing so it raised some awkward questions for me.
Can it ever be justified to have a film which prioritises the circumstances and motivation of the killer, as opposed to the lives of the victims? And, even if what happened in Port Arthur took place over a quarter of a century ago, is that enough historical distance between the pain and trauma of the horror of what happened, so as to permit and justify a dramatic, true-crime account of that event, which inevitably has to be partial and incomplete, and in the process of being re-produced and imagined becomes “Art”?
These questions seem to me to raise some fundamental problems 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 TV and within podcasts.
It was once described as “crime fact that looks like crime fiction” but I now struggle to keep track of all the sub-genres of what passes as true crime.
There are those knocked-off-in-a-day documentaries, which add nothing to our understanding of the case, but are quickly and cheaply put together with some clips of news footage and an occasional “talking head” to add gravity to proceedings.
There are “drama-docs”, which purport to be authorised versions of real life events; and there are re-investigations of old cases which throw new light onto what happened and who was responsible, and so challenge the accepted criminal justice narrative of the crime by uncovering new evidence, or previously ignored witnesses.
I was very impressed recently, for example, by Sky’s Murder in the Valleys about the Clydach Murders in 1999, and which seemed to suggest a very different account of this dreadful family annihilation from that which has been accepted as fact, and which led to the conviction of David Morris.
There are other ethical dilemmas, too.
Does true crime simply serve to re-traumatise the victim’s family by keeping the death of their loved one in public view but which is now being consumed as a form of entertainment? And what should the true-crime makers do about the crimes themselves?
If these are dramatized with actors playing the part, isn’t the temptation to make these scenes as sensational and titillating as possible so as to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, almost as if this was fiction, rather than fact?
I would suggest that I am in a good position to answer some of these questions, having presented a number of true-crime series and documentaries on television over the last 25 years – long before true crime reached its new levels of popularity – and through recognising some of the mistakes I made along the way when I was just starting out on TV.
A good indication of this personal, true-crime journey is that I now turn down nine out of every 10 requests that I receive to act as a “talking head” and have made it clear that I am only prepared to participate if I feel that the project is attempting to increase the public’s criminological understanding of the offender, or of the circumstances surrounding the crime.
I steer clear of the sensational, even if I know that this might be popular, and, for example, I have consistently said ‘no’ to offers to pair me with a “medium” who – and I am quoting directly, “senses murder”.
I’ve learned that what might be popular within true crime isn’t necessarily edifying or educational, but merely prurient and voyeuristic.
Nitram’s screen writer, Shaun Grant, suggested that one of his goals was to have “the audience, especially those who are pro-gun, to sit with a character who clearly should not have access to firearms and watch as they are so easily granted access to them.”
That seems fair enough, although we should remember that in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre Australia followed Britain’s lead and introduced some of the toughest gun laws in the world, and so is Grant really suggesting that Nitram will have an impact on American audiences?
What evidence can he cite that films lead to changes in their culture? Jaws might have created a fear of swimming in the sea, and Brokeback Mountain seems to have encouraged greater tolerance of gay men, but I can’t think of one film that has helped to change attitudes towards gun ownership in the USA.
Perhaps we might think about answering all of these questions in another way. Would we Scots be prepared to watch a movie called Notlimah that dramatized the dysfunctional family circumstances of Thomas Hamilton – who believed that his biological mother was his sister, and that his mother’s adoptive parents were his biological parents – and imagine that somehow this narrative device can shed some light onto our own worst mass-murder?
I don’t think that we would.
True-crime makers should never lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day they are dealing with real people’s lives in the midst of a tragedy that has befallen them, and which will continue to have reverberations for their family for generations to come. I know I don’t.
David Wilson is emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University