Do we have the right to tell true stories?

Detainment – Trailer + 3 Scenes from Vincent Lambe on Vimeo.

There has been an outcry in the UK over Vincent Lambe making a film about an awful murder that happened over twenty years ago. The film is based on the true story of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy who was abducted in the UK in the early 90’s and found brutally murdered two days later, the most shocking aspect of the case was that the main suspects were just children themselves – two ten-year-old boys. Detainment is based on their interview transcripts, the film dramatizes the police interviews which took place at the time.

This live action short film has been shortlisted for a 2019 Academy Award. It is a case that shook the nation and the family of James Bulger are upset that the film has been made.  However, after watching it we do feel it has been responsibly and very well made, the direction is superb, the acting impeccable and it does deserve an Oscar. 

The question is, do we have the right to tell true stories? Many films are based on true stories with re-inactments of horrendous crimes. If a film is fact based and the director is aiming to get people talking about and stopping crime, should we stop films like this being made? To get such a backlash about an incredible film that was made with good intentions doesn’t seem fair and as Mr Lambe states “stifles debate”. Understandably, this event was tragic.

Detainment stars Will O’Connell (Game of Thrones), David Ryan (Vikings), Tara Breathnach (The Tudors), Morgan C. Jones (Legend of Cambria), Brian Fortune (Game of Thrones), Kathy Monahan (Vikings), and introduces two exceptional young actors, Ely Solan and Leon Hughes, who have been critically-acclaimed for their astonishing performances.

Based on the merits of the film, we hope it gets a well deserved Oscar nomination and win.

Official statement from Vincent Lambe

The James Bulger case affected me in the same way it has affected millions of others and it breaks my heart to think of what the Bulger family has gone through. ‘Detainment’, the short film I directed is based on interview transcripts and records and it is entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever. It was never intended to bring any further anguish to the family of James Bulger, but rather to examine why children commit serious crimes.

I had a lot of apprehensions about making the film as it is such a hugely sensitive subject – one of grief and anger and so horrific that many people tend to shy away from absorbing any more facts about the case. The popular opinion at the moment is that the killers were simply born evil and anyone who suggests an alternate reason is criticised. As a result, it has stifled debate on the issue. I do feel their actions were evil, but I think it is important to gain a deeper understanding of how it could have happened because dismissing children as “evil” could lead to more similar crimes being committed. I think one of the most important things to be learned from the case is that if children are not properly cared for, they can become dangerous. While it is a painfully difficult case to understand, I believe we have a responsibility to try and make sense of what happened.

There is more than one perspective on the case and I believe there ought to be room for measured public debate on the circumstances in which this terrible crime occurred. However, as we set out to make a fact-based film that was impartial, we did not attempt to contact any of the families involved and instead relied solely on the factual material which has been public knowledge for 25 years. The film is based on transcripts and is almost entirely verbatim. 

I have enormous sympathy for the Bulger family and I am extremely sorry for any upset the film may have caused them. With hindsight, I am sorry I did not make Mrs Fergus aware of the film. I would be happy to meet with her privately now to make that apology in person, to explain our reasons for making the film and offer my heartfelt reassurance that I never intended any disrespect by not consulting her.

The film is in no way sympathetic to the killers and does not attempt to make excuses for their horrendous actions. There has been criticism that the film “humanises” the killers, but if we cannot accept that they are human beings, we will never begin to understand what could have driven them to commit such a horrific crime. The only way to prevent something similar happening in the future is if we understand the cause of it. Representing the boys as human beings is a true reflection of what happened at the time, during the events depicted in the film, and must remain a legitimate subject for discussion in a grown-up society that wants to prevent crime and understand how trauma and troubled childhoods can lead to serious crimes being committed by children, young people and adults.

I have the utmost respect for former Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, but I was extremely surprised by his comments. The only explanation that I can think of is that he most likely had not seen the film at the time he made them, but instead based them on the short clip which was shown on ITV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’.

His comments regarding the portrayal of Mrs Venables are entirely inaccurate as throughout the film she is shown to be supportive of her son and encouraging him to tell the truth. There is only one scene (the clip played on ITV, which is entirely verbatim) where she momentarily shouts at her son and the detectives ask her not to get angry with him. I think this is the scene Mr Kirby is referring to, as the clip was played on ‘Good Morning Britain’, but I think if Mr Kirby had watched the entire film, he would agree that it is an accurate portrayal of Mrs Venables as being a supportive mother, encouraging her son to tell the truth, based on his own description.

I believe Mr Kirby’s remarks about the film being “distasteful” are extremely unfair as all reviews have been positive and many high profile critics have specifically commended the film for being responsibly made, respectful to the victim and sensitive to the family of James Bulger. An expert on the case, David James Smith, award-winning journalist and author of ‘The Sleep of Reason’, which is widely regarded as the definitive book on the James Bulger case, comments in his review that the film is “authentic” while also being “sensitive to the on-going trauma”. While the information in the film has been public knowledge for a very long time, there were a lot of details that we chose not to include. I thought about it a lot because it is such a sensitive story and wanted to ensure that it was respectful to the family of James Bulger and responsibly made without showing any graphic details.

Contrary to Mr Kirby’s remarks, the film clearly shows the boys detained in a very hospitable environment and the detectives are shown to be gentle in their questioning of the boys. We did a lot of research regarding the interview rooms and the procedure. The positioning of the table and the detectives was important to us. In order to make the interview procedure less intimidating for the boys, the table was pushed aside and the group sat around it in a semi-circle. It is an important detail which a lot of other reconstructions have missed. The boys were treated with great care by the police and others during and after their interviews and the film shows this. There is a soft drink can on the table in Jon’s interview room, a teddy and comics by his bedside and in Robert’s juvenile detention room, there are comic books, crayons, colouring pencils and playing cards clearly visible.

I hope that Mr Kirby will watch the full film and reflect on his comments. I would also encourage anyone who questions the accuracy of the film to compare it to the interview transcripts and records as it is almost entirely verbatim. ‘The Sleep of Reason’ by David James Smith is an excellent resource which offers a thorough collation of the facts and detailed accounts of the police interviews with both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

When the film reached the Oscar shortlist (along with 9 other films), it came as a complete surprise to me, but I believe that it is the result of a well-made and balanced film, and not the subject alone. The film was not made for financial gain and nobody involved in the making of the film intends to profit from it. It is extremely rare that any short film even makes back it’s production costs due to the limited market for short films. As a gesture, we would be happy to offer the film, free of charge, to any theatres in the UK for screening purposes on the condition that all proceeds from screenings would be donated directly to the James Bulger Memorial Trust.



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