The controversial film’s first Tasmanian screening was described as ‘like going to a funeral’. How will it be received in a town that won’t speak the killer’s name?

There were no posters advertising the Tasmanian premiere of Nitram at the independent State Cinema, which took place on Thursday night.

Justin Kurzel’s new film dramatising the lead-up to 1996’s Port Arthur massacre, opened to a quiet, small crowd in the mass shooter’s home town of Hobart. Its trailers were not included in any other scheduling, and the film’s opening lagged two weeks behind its national release.

It has been 25 years since the horror unfolded in real life and yet for many the idea of this film is too much, too soon, and too close to home.

In Hobart, everyone seems to know somebody who was involved in the hellscape of that day, if they weren’t themselves. Thirty-five people were killed, including children, with 23 more seriously injured, and countless lives irrevocably changed. The killer is in Risdon prison, about 10km down the road from the only cinema showing the film in the southern half of the state.

The tragedy and the gunman are rarely mentioned in private conversation here, let alone publicly. The Mercury newspaper and the local ABC have guidelines against printing or broadcasting the perpetrator’s name – not just to avoid giving him any notoriety, but also because it’s still too painful. Images of him – or even his likeness in the form of actor Caleb Landry Jones, with his blond hair long and greasy for this role – can be too much to bear.

Journalist Kim Napier worked for Hobart’s Triple T radio in 1996 and covered the tragedy as it unfolded. She told Guardian Australia that coming across a still from the film featuring that hair triggered her trauma from the time.

“It makes me feel physically sick,” she said. “That hair is intrinsically linked with him.”

The State Cinema in North Hobart
The State Cinema in North Hobart is the only Tasmanian cinema showing the film. It is 10km from Risdon prison, where the gunman resides. Photograph: Loic Le Guilly

Napier won’t be seeing the film. “It was 25 years ago but if you scratch the surface it’s still really, really raw,” she said. “It changed the psyche of the state. I have no interest in seeing that film. I don’t agree with censorship, have the film available if people want to see it, fine. I don’t.”

The 200-seat cinema confirmed there were only around 40 viewers for Nitram’s first screening, at 1pm Thursday. Around 100 showed up for the 6pm showing. Unsurprisingly, many of those in the audience were not originally from Hobart, or were barely born in 1996. But some were.

Tania, who didn’t want to give her full name, was living in Hobart in 1996, spending most of her time in the hospital looking after her dying husband that April. She thought the film was respectfully made but was still very affected by it. “I just felt sick,” she told Guardian Australia on the way out of the cinema. “It was like going to a funeral. You come out and just feel … numb.” She said she came because she wanted to make sense of that time. “I sort of feel like it [the tragedy] overshadowed my husband’s death in a way. He died the next day but everyone here was already in mourning. We didn’t grieve properly, [so] it never ends.”

Caleb Landry Jones wins best actor at Cannes film festival
The film was a success at its July premiere at Cannes film festival, where Caleb Laundry Jones won best actor for his acclaimed performance. Photograph: Kate Green/Getty Images

Tania said she wouldn’t be mentioning the film tomorrow at work, and she didn’t know anyone else planning to come. “My parents wouldn’t see it,” she said. “My brother won’t – he is a policeman and he went down to the scene.”

Another local woman, who did not wish to be named, said she had only found out about the screening a few hours beforehand. “I do think it’s really good it hasn’t been advertised,” she said. “And they didn’t say his name, it was sensitively done. It’s just a very sad story.” Like Tania, this woman said she didn’t know anyone else who was going to see it and she didn’t feel she could ask.

Caleb Landry Jones and Justin Kurzel in Cannes in July
‘There are days where I think “should it be played here?”’ says director Justin Kurzel, right. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

Kurzel, the film’s director, lives in Hobart and always knew screening Nitram locally would be fraught: last year’s news of the film’s production was met with met with anger. It was filmed in and around Geelong rather than Tasmania out of respect for survivors and locals. The day before the release Kurzel told ABC Hobart that he questioned whether it should be shown in the state.

“We’ve been very nervous about it playing here,” he said. “I must admit, there are days where I think ‘should it be played here?’

“I think we wanted to, as respectfully as possible, offer an opportunity to Tasmanians, for those who do want to see it to see it, and for those who don’t to not be forced to see trailers and images that are going to be traumatic.

“For those that are curious about it and do want to be involved in a conversation about it, it’s there to be seen, at the same time I completely understand there are going to be a large number of people that feel as though it’s something that they shouldn’t.”

  • Nitram is in selected cinemas now, and will be available on Stan on 24 November

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