‘Tasteless’: Survivor condemns film about Port Arthur mass murderer

Justin Woolley is a survivor of the Port Arthur massacre. Source: Holly Kate Photography/ Getty Images

News of a new film, chronicling the life of the murderer behind one of Australia’s worst mass shootings, has sparked upset and disbelief amongst survivors.

Survivors of the Port Arthur massacre and Australians, who vividly recall its horrific events, have expressed outrage over a new movie reportedly chronicling the life of the mass murderer involved. 

Thirty-five people were killed, and 23 others were injured, in the shooting spree at the historic Tasmanian site in April 1996.

The tragic events prompted the newly-elected Prime Minister John Howard to introduce nationwide gun reform, just twelve days after the shooting. 

Sydney Morning Herald reported the movie, titled 'Nitram', is being made for Nine-owned Stan and produced by Good Thing Productions. It will be directed by Justin Kurzel, best-known for his feature 'Snowtown'.

The Feed has chosen not to name the perpetrator of the mass shootings in this article, as is the request of the victims and survivors.

Justin Woolley, a survivor of the massacre and true crime author, told The Feed that the film’s focus on the perpetrator of the horrific event is “tasteless”.

“The language in the announcement of this film that it will be a ‘study of one of the darkest chapters in Australian history’, and will focus on the study of a man being driven to do something so horrific, immediately raised alarm bells,” Mr Woolley said.

“My belief is that in cases of terrorism or mass shooting we should not mention the perpetrators by name, robbing them of the notoriety they so often crave,” he added.

John Howard marks the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Port Arthur.
John Howard marks the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Port Arthur.
AAP

Mr Woolley says he was 12 years old when he and his younger sister were in the Broad Arrow café buying lemonade and looking at souvenirs, 10 minutes prior to the shooting. 

He says when the shooting began, they had walked out to rejoin the rest of their family on the grassy slope of the hill, which overlooked the cafe.

“We were, above all, extraordinarily lucky. When the shooting began we all thought it was some kind of historical reenactment,” he said.

“When we turned to look in the direction of the sound it became clear it was not. From our position some hundred metres up the hill we saw people flooding out of the café, screaming,” he added.

“It was a surreal sight. I have a vivid image of the man who emerged last, a man with long blonde hair, moving slowly.”

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Mr Woolley says his grandfather realised the bullets, “while not specifically aimed at us, were coming in our direction”. He says his grandfather made the family move and take cover in nearby ruins.

“As we ran, I turned back to see the sight that would repeat in my nightmares for a long time, a woman diving under a tour bus to hide and him, the blonde man crawling underneath after her,” he added.

“Our family was lucky, we all left together, scarred by the event of course, but alive. It is reasonably obvious to understand why myself and other survivors, particularly those who are families of the victims, would be opposed to this film.”

In Tasmania, the first sea-level benchmark was put in place at Port Arthur. The sea levels had risen by about 16 centimetres since 1841.
In Tasmania, the first sea-level benchmark was put in place at Port Arthur. The sea levels had risen by about 16 centimetres since 1841.
Pixabay / PixbayBlade

The Alannah & Madeline Foundation was established by Walter Mikac, in honour of his daughters and their mother, who were murdered in the shootings. 

Mr Mikac was not available for an interview, however, The Alannah & Madeline Foundation CEO, Lesley Podesta told The Feed that victims and survivors are the critical people in these stories. 

“I can tell you that every time an event such as this takes place, that the hurt and pain becomes very real to those people who were there and lost loved ones,” she said.

“We can’t go anywhere in Tasmania without someone talking to us about their relationship to that day,” she added.

Ms Podesta says the organisation doesn’t believe it’s “appropriate to glorify or platform” the perpetrator of such “outrageous violence and crime against innocent people”.

“We choose not to mention the perpetrator’s name or ever publicise him in any way, shape or form,” she said

“We don’t believe in censoring or trying to stop artists from making statements about the world, but what we do say is that we don’t believe there should be platforms to provide celebrity to perpetrators,” she added.

Over a three-month period, hundreds of guns were handed during the second national gun amnesty since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996
Over a three-month period, hundreds of guns were handed during the second national gun amnesty since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996
aap

Sydney Morning Herald reported that the film - now in its third week of shooting - will not show any scenes of the shootings. Instead, the paper said it understands the film will focus on events leading up to the day.

The paper also noted the film was shot in Victoria, rather than Tasmania, due to the sensitive nature of the events. 

In a press release, Stan Chief Content Officer Nick Forward said of the film, “Stan is pleased to again collaborate with Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant and we have complete faith in the NITRAM team’s creative vision and ability to handle the film’s subject matter with sensitivity and respect.”

Ms Podesta says that not naming the perpetrator is the “least” the film can do, but pointed out that the film’s title is the perpetrator’s name spelt backwards.

“By continuing to use the perpetrator’s name, in whatever form they have, they are continuing to put a spotlight on that gentleman.”

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein
Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein
SBS News/Sarah Maunder

In state parliament on Tuesday, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said he was uncomfortable about the film being made.

“I have to say I feel highly uncomfortable about this and I think many Tasmanians will,” he said.

“Whilst being uncomfortable with it, this is a production that is not being shot in Tasmania and from the point of view of what we can do as a state, to prevent this production from taking place.”

Outrage about the film has also brewed on social media, with many calling for its production to be stopped.

“The Port Arthur massacre IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT.  Nobody needs to… relive what happened. That man ruined so many lives,” one person tweeted.

The Shooters Union has also spoken out against the film.

“We believe a movie about the tragic events at Port Arthur is in appalling taste, and will only serve as an excuse for people to further vilify innocent and responsible law-abiding firearms owners across the country,” they wrote.

Mr Lee Knight, a forensic psychologist at the University of NSW, believes there is a “strong public interest” where the film is concerned. However, he added it would need to be done delicately and in consultation with the victims of the shooting.

“The thing to consider is, what do the victims want? Whilst it could traumatise some victims and their families, if done correctly, it could give them the opportunity to have their stories told,” he said.

Port Arthur
Port Arthur historic site, 2016
Getty Images

Mr Knight believes the film may also help increase awareness about the warning signs of criminal behaviour.

“Research in this area is very limited but mass shootings can be driven by getting payback on the world for perceived wrongs,” he told The Feed.

“My understanding is [the perpetrator of Port Arthur] was of low IQ and likely had autism spectrum disorder. His capacity to problem-solve and deal with his perceived wrongs were probably significantly impaired,” he added.

“None of that excuses or justifies his behaviour.. but it starts that understanding of the phenomenon.”

Ms Podesta says The Alannah & Madeline Foundation has continued to be a source of pride and hope about something positive that came out of the horrific shootings.

“People need to be able to think deeply about the causes of violence in our community… But that’s a different issue to giving a platform to an individual perpetrator of violence,” Ms Podesta said.

“We will continue to fight for the gun laws that were created after Port Arthur and that we keep arguing are so essential. We never want to see a Port Arthur again.”

The Feed has contacted Good Thing Productions, Stan Australia and John Howard’s office for comment.