From the Port Arthur film to true crime – where is the line on telling stories of real life atrocities?
Sensitivity to trauma should be fundamental, but some of the objections to Nitram have been frustratingly vague
In the immediate aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, local communities contended with what many considered another obscenity: the sometimes shameless and insensitive intrusions of the media. Those freshly traumatised were hounded; the killer’s sister was harassed for years.
Remembering the massacre on its 10th anniversary, a former ABC producer said: “The honest answer is that I found it to be rather a big rush, as far as the adrenalin goes, to be at the centre of this story that was the biggest story in the country, if not the world.” I don’t cite this to condemn him, or to pretend that I haven’t been similarly excited by breaking stories, but to show you the obvious: that between competitive journalists and their traumatised subjects there is a profound chasm, and invoking the “public interest” doesn’t always bridge it.
Journalists are predictably effusive when defending the virtues of their profession, but far less articulate about its sins. With the recently announced film examining the Port Arthur killer, Nitram, we’re discussing the value of a feature film, and not a work of journalism, but you’ll forgive the affected for distrusting any sort of commercial media.
My first book was a non-fiction account of the murder of a young woman.
Because of the trust and articulate candour of the victim’s parents, the book largely became a study of their grief and recovery. Believing that most journalism involves some betrayal, I was literally kept awake thinking about how best to approach, interview, and then write about them. As a young journalist, I felt chastened by both my lack of experience and their terrible surplus of it. Regardless, I politely asserted my independence at the start.
I’m not boasting. Sensitivity to trauma should be fundamental to the storyteller, but there are other, sometimes competing, principles — like intellectual independence — and I wasn’t always sure if I upheld it.
When the book came out, and I spent a couple of months on the publicity circuit, I shared a stage with an interlocutor — the very bright and unsentimental Gideon Haigh. At one point, Gideon said that my judgement of the killer’s motives almost mirrored the judgement of the victim’s parents. The implied question was obvious: had my sensitivity become deference, thus compromising my judgment?
I don’t recall my response. Probably I said that there are competing principles that aren’t easily reconciled, if they can be at all; that much of the process is earnestly improvised; and that I don’t want to write hagiography, but that when it comes to traumatised people, I will always, and unapologetically, tread carefully.
While the parents were grateful to tell their stories in detail, freed from the inane constraints and reductive cliches of the early newspaper articles, the process was also profoundly exhausting to them. And for all of my sensitivity, and pretensions to “literary” journalism, I was still writing a commercial book about the suffering of others.
Yes, this is muddled — welcome to the ethics of storytelling.
As someone who wants Nitram made — or, better said, as someone who does not want it cancelled — I can only hope that its makers are morally serious; that they’ve wrestled the duelling principles of sensitivity and artistic independence, and that they will ultimately be deft, and courageous interpreters of the killer’s life. But I have no reason to think that they won’t be, and I’m embarrassed to even say this: the film hasn’t been made yet, and I have no right to speak of it.
If art and journalism can be intolerably slick, shallow or exploitative, surely it’s more intolerable to preemptively assume the worst, and censor it. If you’re a victim of child sexual abuse, say, it would be rare that a week goes by without your encountering a news story about it. This isn’t cause to stop reporting it. Our country has been wilfully silent, and then forgetful, about more than one atrocity.
If one objection to the (as yet non-existent) film is insensitivity, another is the potential for glorification, or the humanising of evil. This deserves serious consideration. In the United States, the “no notoriety” campaign — which asks mass media to avoid, or limit, the naming of mass shooters and the sharing of their image, has slowly become more influential. Intuitively it makes great sense, and there’s research to suggest that mass shootings are clustered.
The problem, though, would be its unconditional application. It’s one thing to limit a killer’s exposure in mass media in the aftermath of an atrocity — it’s another to constrain serious acts of storytelling. One of the more remarkable works of journalism I’ve read in recent years is Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us about the Norwegian white supremacist and mass killer Anders Breivik. Recently, I considered writing a similarly detailed account of the life of the Christchurch terrorist, and felt external resistance and apprehension. Would such a book be possible now? I’m not sure. And would I really be comfortable attempting it? I can’t answer that either.
Some of the objections to the making of Nitram — by those directly unaffected by the massacre — have been visceral, and frustratingly vague about principles. I would like to ask if they think Downfall, The Killing Fields, or United 93 should have been made? What about Elephant, Hotel Rwanda or Son of Saul? Why, or why not? The focus of each is different — does that matter? In some, the perpetrator is the lead. In others, they’re peripheral to their victims. Some films show fidelity to historical record; others are more interpretive. And understand that historical records themselves are often incomplete or interpretive.
So where, precisely, is the line drawn? Is it a question of time elapsed since the atrocity? Or is it the scale of atrocity? The Holocaust and Port Arthur massacre are both obscenities, but are categorically different. And should this prohibition only apply to film? What about books? If so, which books — novels or non-fiction? Both? If we feel so strongly about prohibiting certain films, wouldn’t it be fairer if government agencies declared blacklisted subjects, so that directors knew in advance which projects won’t attract funding?
This would be absurd, impractical, and illiberal. “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression,” Saul Bellow wrote. “If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.”
We should insist that those with the privilege and responsibility of telling others’ stories thoughtfully weigh the costs and benefits of a project. But ultimately outrage, however understandable, should not have veto power over our culture. Yes, art — or storytelling — can be prurient and exploitative. That’s the unfortunate cost of culture.