Culture

From Nitram to The Stranger: Daniel Morcombe film reignites debate about ‘profiting from pain’

The seemingly unresolvable ethical dilemma of basing films on true tragedies and crimes, especially without the involvement of victims’ loved ones or survivors, is again up for debate ahead of the Australian premiere of a controversial new film, The Stranger.

Thomas M Wright’s film, which debuted at Cannes in May and premieres at the Melbourne international film festival on Friday, centres on the lengthy undercover police operation to capture the man responsible for the 2003 murder of 13-year-old Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe.

Starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris, The Stranger does not depict the shocking crime or even use Daniel’s name because, as director Wright told Variety in May, “I couldn’t presume to know anything of the experience of that family. But I could see that there was a story about empathy and making meaning in the wake of violence – not violence itself.”

But in July, Daniel’s parents, Bruce and Denise Morcombe, called for audiences to boycott the film ahead of its premiere in Melbourne and general release later in 2022.

“The movie is not supported or sanctioned in any way by the Morcombe family,” the parents wrote on the Facebook page for the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.

While they have not seen the film, the Morcombes said its sheer connection to Daniel’s murder had upset them: “Its appalling storyline ignores our family’s pain and chooses to profit from 13 year old Daniel Morcombe’s death. In a twisted way, it also provides oxygen to a sadistic beast by notarising his evil acts.”

The Morcombes had previously declined an offer from production company See Saw Films to contribute to the film, and described the decision to go ahead without their cooperation as “a low act”.

From left: Joel Edgerton, Thomas M Wright and Sean Harris at the photocall for The Stranger at Cannes film festival in May
From left: Joel Edgerton, Thomas M Wright and Sean Harris at the photocall for The Stranger at the Cannes film festival in May. Photograph: Stéphane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

“Out of our deepest respect for the family, the name of the victim is never mentioned in the film and the film does not depict any details of the murder. Nor is the family represented in the film in any way,” See Saw told Guardian Australia. “When the film was first in development, the producers approached the family to make them aware of the film. They declined to be involved. It is a decision we continue to respect.”

Where can the lines be drawn – between personal grief and trauma, the pursuit of art to make sense of tragedy, and the commercial realities of the film industry?

‘A really difficult balancing act’: entertainment or social commentary?

Australian cinema has a robust history of adapting real crime stories. Last year, a similar controversy arose with the release of Justin Kurzel’s film Nitram, based on the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Like The Stranger, Nitram did not use the perpetrator’s real name or depict the shootings; instead it focused on the months before the shooter acquired his deadly arsenal.

But for many Tasmanians, the memory was still too raw to stomach, 25 years on; in Hobart, the premiere screening was half empty. A spokesperson for a foundation set up in memory of its victims said: “Films like this do nothing to help the understanding of such grotesque, violent and inhumane acts … we understand it’s a really difficult balancing act. But we’re not interested in giving the perpetrator a moment in the sun.”

Andrew Dominik’s 2000 film Chopper, based on the autobiographical books by convicted felon Mark “Chopper” Read, was lambasted by some in the media for heroising a violent thug. “He’s a character in a movie,” Dominik said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “I’m not trying to marry him.”

John Jarratt’s turn as killer Mick Taylor in the 2005 film Wolf Creek was based on the Australian serial killer Ivan Milat and Bradley John Murdoch, who murdered British backpacker Peter Falconio in the Northern Territory. And Kurzel’s 2011 debut Snowtown was based on the grisly “bodies in the barrels murders” in South Australia in the 1990s. After relatives of the victims complained about the film to South Australia’s Commissioner for Victims’ Rights, a consultation process was set up between the film-makers and the relatives ahead of its general release.

Prof Jane Stadler, an academic who has written extensively about cinema and ethics, told Guardian Australian that the intended effect on the audience – and the strategies used to achieve it – should be taken into account when judging a film.

“The choice of focus – is it from the perspective of the protagonist or the antagonist – influences those who we may feel care, concern or understanding,” she says.

While true crime docudramas such as Catching Milat and Netflix’s Unbelievable typically situate the audience with victims and their families, lines are blurred when it comes to films that seek to transform real crimes into fictional entertainment, as these “often place the audience in close psychological proximity to the killer and their victims, to augment excitation and fear as the crime takes place,” Stadler says.

“This leaves film-makers open to accusations that they are profiting from pain, sadism and death … especially when the subject matter is real murders within living memory.”

Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram
Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram

Take Wolf Creek, as an example. “Fans of horror and thrillers enjoy feeling fear in the safety of the cinema, and that is what made Wolf Creek successful,” Stadler says. But Wolf Creek included depictions of what Milat and Murdoch really said and did, “which also put the audience in the ethically uncomfortable position of enjoying a leisure and entertainment activity based on a real person’s agony and terror.”

Stadler says it is understandable that any perceived commodification of victims’ experiences could be viewed as insensitive, intrusive and traumatic. However, in social realist films such as Snowtown and Nitram, she believes the intended effect is societal insight and cultural critique – not entertainment.

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“Such films may foster ethical insight, elicit moral emotions such as righteous anger or compassion, and channel care and concern toward prosocial action or the prevention of social problems,” she says.

However, good intentions do not mean that these films only have a positive impact, she says: “[The Port Arthur gunman] was reportedly inspired by media coverage of mass shootings, and delighted by the media attention he garnered. Media stories of all kinds may fan the flames of gun violence by stoking shooters’ desire for attention and notoriety and fuelling a macabre fascination or voyeuristic tendency in the public.”

‘Does my name belong to me?’

While The Stranger is the latest film to stoke this debate, it is not a new one, nor one unique to Australia.

In July 2021, Amanda Knox, the US exchange student who was wrongfully convicted and then acquitted of the murder of her housemate in Italy, shared her feelings about Stillwater. The film, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon, was directly based on her story and time in prison – but she was not involved.

“Does my name belong to me?” Knox wrote. “Does my face? What about my life? My story? Why is my name used to refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions because others continue to profit off my name, face, and story without my consent.”

In China, the film-makers behind The Playground are being sued by the family of Deng Shiping, a school administrator who was murdered and buried in a sports field after attempting to expose corruption in the construction industry. His body was discovered 16 years later. A popular tag on Chinese social media site Weibo, viewed more than 300m times, has described the film-makers as “consuming the dead”.

And there have been countless films based on high school shootings in the US over the past two decades, including Gus Van Sant’s controversial 2003 film Elephant, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was based on the 1999 Columbine massacre. According to reports, that film was watched by a 16-year-old gunman weeks before he killed nine people at a Minnesota school shooting in 2005.

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Dr Tim Dean, a senior philosopher at the Ethics Centre in Sydney, says it is human nature to try to make sense of horrific events, and to ask why and how they happen, “to restore our sense of understanding of the world and our sense of agency in the world”.

“As a philosopher, I mourn the loss of the cultural tools that we used to have to make sense of the darker aspects of life,” he says.

“When you think about fairytales from 200 years ago, they are far darker than the tales we tell children today. The mythologies that we passed down from generation to generation weren’t just about positive events, great triumphs and heroes … there was an entire genre of tragedy.”

However, fictionalising and rehashing crimes will always be a traumatic experience for some, especially the loved ones of victims or survivors.

“We have a need to understand and confront the full gamut of human emotion and human behaviours. So I do think that there is a legitimate argument that art should be able to explore this,” Dean says. “But it has to be done sensitively and needs to be done in good faith. And that’s always going to be a vexed issue.”

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