Films about Port Arthur might be bad, but history tells us where book burning ended up and we need to avoid making those same mistakes, says Charles Wooley.
Films about Port Arthur might be bad, but history tells us where book burning ended up and we need to avoid making those same mistakes, says Charles Wooley.

‘There was no conspiracy... the demented killer acted alone’

OPINION

I have just looked at the online trailer for a movie called WASP.

Trailers usually pick the eyes out of a film. If what I have seen is the gleanings of the best of the cut so far, then this movie about the Port Arthur Massacre appears to be of the B-grade horror genre.

But that doesn't mean, dreadful as it appears, it couldn't become a cult flick.

It looks bad enough.

Now comes the kind of confusion we can always expect in Tasmania.

There are two movies being made on the same subject.

The other is a much more serious film which goes straight to streaming on Stan where I doubt it will find a more interested audience anywhere than here in Tasmania.

That is in part thanks to Madeleine Ogilvie's inadvertent promotion of the movie this week in Parliament.

Ogilvie's question to the Premier was that it didn't seem "right or fair" that a film about such a sensitive subject should even be made.

The film she referred to has the cryptic working title of Nitram.

By questioning why a film about the Port Arthur Massacre should have ever been allowed to have been made, Independent MP Madeleine Ogilvie, has inadvertently given it publicity. Picture: ZAK SIMMONDS
By questioning why a film about the Port Arthur Massacre should have ever been allowed to have been made, Independent MP Madeleine Ogilvie, has inadvertently given it publicity. Picture: ZAK SIMMONDS

It is from Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) and stars Tasmanian-born Essie Davis (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries).

The successful celebrity film couple have a house on Bruny Island where they happen to be part of a long-running community protest over the noise from a nearby salmon farm.

That noise is about to be drowned out by a much louder clamour of protest over their latest movie.

When asked, the Premier sensibly did not set himself up as a film censor though perhaps he left the door open ajar.

"Whilst being uncomfortable with it, this is a production not being shot in Tasmania and from that point of view … there is not a lot we can do as a state, to prevent this production from taking place," Mr Gutwein carefully told parliament.

So, we can presume not a penny of the film's budget came from Screen Tasmania.

Unsaid though was whether our Premier would have sent in the rozzers from Van Diemen's Land Border Force to lock up the cast and crew in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, had they tried to shoot there.

The nature of Ogilvie's question certainly took the politics in that direction and most probably we will hear a lot more of such talk.

Especially when everyone catches up on that other film WASP, described by writer producer director Paul Moder as his, "Stone-cold calling card to the world. It will not be a coke and popcorn movie."

A new film about the Port Arthur Massacre, titled Nitram, which is currently being filmed in Victoria is being director Justin Kurzel, who also directed a film about the Snowtown murders. Picture: Stan Originals
A new film about the Port Arthur Massacre, titled Nitram, which is currently being filmed in Victoria is being director Justin Kurzel, who also directed a film about the Snowtown murders. Picture: Stan Originals

But surely, it is one thing to disagree with a book or film and denounce its insensitivity in some markets but quite another for anyone to make assumptions on our behalf and set themselves above us as the arbiters of what we may and may not read or watch.

Nor is it advisable for politicians to stir the impulses of the mob and ride those demotic forces.

History tells us where book burning ended up.

Film is now the art form of our times and as always with art you can't be expected to approve of it all.

I know we were in isolation for quite some time, but this is still a free country and we are not the Hermit Kingdom.

Not yet.

People are never as stupid as the politicians they elect so often assume. If we find a film hurtful, exploitative, offensive or in bad taste, we can simply exercise our right not to watch it.

This time, you won't even need to protest outside the cinema because the Kurzel movie is being screened on Nine's subscription service Stan.

I will refrain from advising you how to access WASP.

You can watch or not watch either of them in the privacy of own home. No one will ever know.

The crafty folk at Stan knew that they might not be welcome on the Tasman Peninsula, so they shot their movie around Geelong, which is close enough apparently.

The moment Madeleine Ogilvie raised the issue of Justin Kurzel's film in our parliament, everyone was bound to get on a bandwagon which will be more crowded now with the dubious WASP in the mix.

With respect to the credibility of Kurzel and Davis and their Tasmanian connections we should not rush to judgment on their production. Nor should we confuse the two films.

I was recently approached as to whether I was interested in making a 25th anniversary television documentary about the Port Arthur Massacre. Emphatically I was not.

And not just because I live here and want a peaceful life.

I have made three television reports on the Port Arthur Massacre.

The last was an interview with the murderer's mother who was in denial that her son could ever have done such a terrible thing.

It was impossible not to feel sorry for this unfortunate and grief-stricken woman who seemed yet another victim whose life had been destroyed by the events at Port Arthur in April 1996.

Until now I never touched the subject again. As a journalist nothing more remained. All the angles had been covered. Everything had been said.

Family and community members lay 35 floral tributes in the Memorial Pool to remember the victims during the 20th anniversary commemoration service of the Port Arthur massacre on April 28, 201. (AAP Image/Getty Pool, Robert Cianflone)
Family and community members lay 35 floral tributes in the Memorial Pool to remember the victims during the 20th anniversary commemoration service of the Port Arthur massacre on April 28, 201. (AAP Image/Getty Pool, Robert Cianflone)

And there was no conspiracy. The demented killer certainly acted alone.

The program is being planned anyway and should screen nationally next year on Channel 7 on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, when it is likely that every Australian network will revisit Port Arthur.

On top of the two movies in the offing there will likely be even more local protest to prevent free-to-air television documentaries on this sensitive subject being shown in Tasmania.

Electronic prohibitions might work in China but would be futile in this country.

There is no Bass Strait firewall.

The only firewall is the exercise of your own democratic freedom of choice.

But my decision not to make the documentary does not mean that no one else should ever approach the matter.

Just because a subject is horrendous, depressing, still sensitive and raw, is no reason it should not become a film.

The most appalling episodes of inhumanity, the Nazi death camps, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so much of the worst of recent human history have all been the subject of acclaimed books and films; stories that were dark and difficult to bear but that should never be forgotten.

Re-imagined in the best of literature and film we might even get a better understanding of how these things were able to happen.

Sometimes and for some people, liberty is hard to endure.

But in our democratic society writers and artists still have the freedom to take us where they wish.

Whether or not we want to accompany them on that, sometimes, dark journey should be a matter of individual choice.

The alternative is always counter-productive.

Originally published as 'There was no conspiracy... the demented killer acted alone'



Local company picked for prestigious global program

Premium Content Local company picked for prestigious global program

They will benefit from access to leading industry strategists and technical...

SOLD: $879,000 home snapped up in less than 48 hours

Premium Content SOLD: $879,000 home snapped up in less than 48 hours

The two-storey Ipswich home in a luxury estate had plenty of interest

Warrant issued for man’s arrest after failed court showing

Premium Content Warrant issued for man’s arrest after failed court showing

The 24-year-old was to appear in Gatton court on Monday for a string of offences...