25 Years On, Should a Film Really Have Been Made About the Port Arthur Massacre?

Port Arthur, Tasmania

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information that could be distressing for some.

Since the announcement that production on a film detailing the horrific events of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre was underway, a plethora of people have come forward with their objections to the project and the inherent potential for re-traumatising survivors and victims’ families.

The film, which is being made by streaming service Stan, will not refer to gunman Martin Bryant (to be played by Caleb Landry-Jones) by name, however, the title is his first moniker spelled backwards. 

‘NITRAM’, helmed by Snowtown director Justin Kurzel, will explore the events leading up to Bryant’s murderous rampage and attempt to understand how and why one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history came to be. It’s a chapter that, understandably, many do not want to re-live. 

Among those who have expressed their concerns are a survivor of the deadly attack, the Tasmanian Premier, The Project’s Steve Price and the Police Association of Tasmania. 

For Justin Woolley, who was just 12-years-old when he escaped the mass shooting, a film about Bryant and his actions feels “inappropriate” and “tasteless.” 

Now an author, Woolley took to Twitter to explain that he understands the need to humanise the main character, and that is exactly what worries him. 

“I know well that in order to create a story about this individual it is necessary to generate sympathy in the audience, at least have them relate to the subject,” Woolley wrote. “It is this, in a film portraying the life of Martin Bryant, that I strongly object to.”

On the flip side, fellow survivor John Haddock who sat next to the gunman at the Broad Arrow cafe that day and later hid from Bryant as he carried out his atrocities, says he is ultimately okay with the film going ahead. 

“My first reaction [to the film] was ‘this a tricky one’. Is this appropriate? It brings back terrible memories, even now as I talk about it. But this is fine with me because I read that the film won’t be reliving the massacre. If that was the case I could not bear it,” Haddock told The Guardian.

On Tuesday, December 1, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said that he felt “highly uncomfortable” about the film and revealed that Arts Minister Elise Archer had refused to meet with Kurzel when asked and that the Government would not support the project. 

While Gutwein admitted that there was not much that could be done to limit the film’s production, he shared his hope that the filmmakers would tread carefully with their subject matter. 

“We should place firmly on the record that this is a continuing and ongoing raw issue for Tasmanians and it’s one that will make many people feel uncomfortable,” Gutwein said. “I would hope that the filmmakers would be sensitive in the way that they craft this particular production.”

Colin Riley, president of The Police Association of Tasmania, told The Guardian: “A commercial movie about the Port Arthur mass murderer has the potential to severely affect the mental health of many, many Tasmanians, including current and past members of the Police Association of Tasmania.” 

Following this, on Wednesday night’s episode of The Project, cohost Lisa Wilkinson asked Steve Price, who was at Port Arthur the day after the tragic events took place for his opinion on the controversial film. 

As Wilkinson pointed out, “There are films made about 9/11, World War II and here in Australia about Snowtown. What is different about this one?”

“Well, Lisa, I think it is probably too soon and too close to home. I mean, the 35 people who were killed there, their relatives today I would think would be having flashbacks…,” he said. “I wasn’t there on the day but I was there the next day, it still haunts me. It was an awful feeling and awful place and it would be an awful movie.”

When asked by co-host Joel Creasey if it was fair to protest a film which has not yet been made and of which the content is so far unknown, Price replied, “We all know how it ends and the end is grim and awful. I don’t know what sort of job this filmmaker will make of this movie. I won’t see it. I am sure anyone there on the day will avoid it at all costs. I agree it should not be made,” he said.“

I don’t see the point in making something which was an awful stain on our history.”

That history, thankfully, is one which has not been repeated in the almost quarter-century since that devastating day. 

In the wake of the mass shooting, the Australian government — under Prime Minister John Howard — created the National Firearms Agreement and implemented extensive licensing and registration procedures. The much-lauded gun-buyback program, which saw 700,000 firearms being surrendered, was also created. 

As for Bryant, he was charged with 35 counts of murder and received as many life sentences. 

However, the absence of further mass shootings on Australian soil does not equate to the absence of trauma surrounding the worst massacre in our modern history committed by a single person. 

In addition to the very real concern that a scripted feature will glamorise Bryant and reward him with further notoriety — something mass murderers often crave — give rise to further conspiracies about the attack and result in profit being made from pain, is the danger of triggering PTSD in the survivors who could be traumatised by advertising materials, even if they choose to boycott the film (which many have expressed that they will.) 

Regardless, there are those who make the case that there is no reason for the film not to be made. 

Film critic Glenn Dunks is one such person who shared his thoughts on Twitter. 

“While I understand the desire to not put victims through the trauma of a reenactment film (is that what it will be? we don’t quite know), we have likely all watched stuff on 9/11 or Columbine,” he wrote. “What makes Australian crime so off-limits to artists?”

According to one trauma expert, the key question might not be whether the film should be made, but rather how

Richard Bryant, who is the Professor & Director of Traumatic Stress Clinic at The University of New South Wales, said: The producers would do well to consult with those directly affected by the shootings, as well as mental health experts, to ensure the film minimises exacerbating psychological distress.”

NITRAM is now streaming on Stan. 

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