It’s not unusual for me to find myself voicing an unpopular opinion. I’m pretty used to it. I am outspoken, passionate and can be reactionary which has got me into a few scrapes over the years. I often wonder if this comes from an internal need to question. Do I enjoy taking the unpopular opinion by a means of playing devils advocate? Highly possible. But regardless I like to try and explore every aspect of an issue before I settle on a stance (if that ever happens) and typically my way of doing this is full speed ahead in one direction joyfully throwing in a few U-turns along the way.
Over the last three days I’ve seen various posts on Facebook concerning a short film called ‘Detainment’ and it’s Oscar nomination. The film is a reconstruction of the police interrogation of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993 using original audio interview footage. Yes THE Robert Thompson and Jon Venables that were found guilty of kidnapping, torturing and murdering two year old James Bulger in Liverpool when they were only ten and eleven themselves. The filmmaker has come under fire for neglecting to ask James Bulger’s family permission for telling the story, the films overly generous portrayal of the killers while the Oscars have been criticised for short-listing a film that is raising ethical questions in the press. Some people are questioning whether an awards ceremony of the highest level should take ethics into account in their judgement of art.
This is a case that is very close to my heart. I am 36 and I remember 1993 vividly. The story of a toddler calmly led away by two young boys and then brutally beaten and murdered is not one you forget. It truly gripped the nation and we were all equally horrified as the full picture was painfully painted. What really shook me was that I was the same age as the boys that did it. I remember at the time wondering what led them to hurt that boy, who had hurt them and how many times they thought about stopping on that long walk from the shopping centre to the train tracks. I watched a documentary on the interrogations of Thompson and Venables last year and was surprised to hear Detectives that worked on the case admit that they should have taken more care with a clearly delicate situation. The feeling of the piece was that in retrospect these ten year old children, who albeit had committed a heinous crime, were still children and should have been treated with more sensitivity especially during interrogation. This raises ethical questions of a different nature. Unfortunately the British public fuelled by the British media wanted a witch hunt and still do. The two boys were tried as adults and subjected to hefty, lengthy sentences. Very little was written about them besides the standard ‘evil monster’ copy.
Is it possible that our thirst for vengeance overrides our better judgement?
Without having seen the film I am still not surprised to hear that Jamie Bulgers mother feels the filmmakers have been too sympathetic towards Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Of course she doesn’t want anyone to recreate that awful moment when her son lost his life. She is grieving. She also lost her son in such a terrible, public way that no doubt makes it impossible for her to ever really cope with her grief, perpetually re-living that moment when she took her eye off her child and never saw him again. I expect guilt fuels a lot of her pain and I am truly sorry for her loss. But that doesn’t mean I agree with her.
When it comes to the idea of consent for telling a story I do find it tricky. The reality is that I do not have to ask Jamie Bulgers Mum every time I tell someone the story of what happened to little Jamie Bulger. As an actor I do not ask every person I meet if I may, at some stage, steal some aspect of their personality for a character. As a writer I don’t ask permission to take snippets, stories or even sentences from life to enhance my writing. It is not unusual in this industry to borrow from reality; it’s more often than not how we achieve a believable result. Would it have been better practice if the filmmaker had informed the family of the plans to turn this story into a film? Yes. But would that have had any baring on them making the film? Probably not and I don’t think it should. Just because someone, like Jamie Bulgers mother, doesn’t want a film to be made that at the end of the day is more about Robert, Jon and the police investigation than it is about Jamie, does not mean that it shouldn’t. The Bulger case has been generally left alone because it was so sensitive leaving no room at all to question the treatment of the child killers, the psychology at play and how this was able to happen in a modern, civilised society. But by doing this we are placing a block on a major incident in order to preserve some sort of memory or respect when really all we are doing is refusing to learn from the mistakes of the case because we are afraid of feelings.
Nobody gave a fuck when Aileen Wournos’ ex girlfriend sold her story to a major production company giving them the story line for Monster. Or when Charlize Theron won an Oscar for that very role, as Aileen cried into her pillow on death row. Aileen, convicted of seven murders, tried to get her voice heard, tried to get the film shutdown, tried to prevent her incredibly painful past of brutal sexual abuse (that undoubtedly helped turn her into a very frightened, very damaged killer) from being plastered over the screen but failed. No media storm. No problem.
There’s more than one similarity here. Both are critically acclaimed films that were made about people who objected to their stories being told. Both films were made anyway and both people objected because they are attached to their pain. They are attempting to claim ownership of the fact that something happened and restrict any future interpretation of those events. Aileen Wournos did not want to accept that she had been so badly brutalised by her father and brothers that it turned her into a killer and Denise Fergus cannot and does not want anybody else to view her sons murderers in any other way than the dehumanised killers the Press in the nineties branded them as. I would even go so far as to say that as a Nation we are all still harbouring unresolved pain from this murder; it’s no wonder we are all up in arms about it.
When it comes to the question of ethics at the Oscars I am of the (unpopular) opinion that Art should only be judged on it’s merit as a piece of Art. That’s the beauty of it. Age, skin colour or criminal record does not change the quality of that piece of art or other peoples ability to enjoy it. I don’t like Michael Jackson’s music any less because he was accused of child abuse, I still think that Kevin Spacey is a phenomenal actor and no matter how racist she is I will always love the sound of Lauryn Hill’s voice. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom to be creative first and foremost. None of us own the rights to our experiences, they are merely experiences we are going through in this life. We can neither delete them or pin them down to replay and relive them over and over again. And we can never control how another person sees, judges or experiences anything no matter how attached we are to it.
It may be an unpopular opinion but it is my own.