Is it wrong to make a film about the Port Arthur massacre?

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Is it wrong to make a film about the Port Arthur massacre? A trauma expert’s perspective

Richard Bryant, UNSW

A film being made about the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which claimed 35 lives, has been criticised by Tasmanian politicians, survivors of the mass shooting, the local community and police.

The film, to air this year on Stan, is directed by Justin Kurzel who made a 2011 film about the Snowtown murders. Titled NITRAM (the name of the Port Arthur killer spelt backwards), it is being filmed in Victoria and will look at “the events leading up to one of the darkest chapters in Australian history”.

Although it is almost 25 years since the massacre, many have argued dramatising the event in a film is insensitive to those who lost loved ones, were personally injured, or witnessed the horror of that day – and could severely affect their mental health.

People who are deeply affected by exposure to traumatic events can develop debilitating psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others who suffer the loss of a loved one, especially when it happens in traumatic circumstances, can develop prolonged grief disorder, a persistent grief reaction that does not ease over time.

Both conditions are characterised by distressing memories that can be triggered by reminders of the trauma. It is reasonable to think most Australians would find watching a reconstruction of the massacre, or even a film about events that led gunman Martin Bryant to behave the way he did, disturbing.

However, a film about the shootings is likely to be very distressing for those people directly impacted by the massacre, particularly those who still have PTSD or strong grief responses.

We need to remember that PTSD and severe grief can last for decades in some people, as we have seen in many war veterans. Of course, those people directly affected by the massacre can choose to not see the film. However, they will probably be unwittingly exposed to advertising, media coverage and conversations about it, which can all trigger trauma memories.

Intentionally triggering trauma

But is triggering trauma memories necessarily a bad thing? We know from many studies of both PTSD and grief that the best treatments available are psychological interventions that involve reliving the trauma memory in a therapeutic setting.

In this safe and controlled environment, the person can master their emotions and understand the experience better. Thus in therapy, we intentionally trigger trauma memories.

Film still
Justin Kurzel, who is directing this new film, also directed the controversial Snowtown, about the murders of 12 people in Adelaide’s north.
Madman Films

This is done in a very different way, however, to the experience of seeing a film. Whereas a film involves a single exposure, in therapy this process is highly personalised, is imagined for at least 30 minutes in a way that engages one’s emotions, and is repeated frequently so the person learns that the memory is no longer distressing.

In this sense, it is unlikely that seeing a film about the massacre would be therapeutic for someone with PTSD.

However, it could be constructive if it prompted a person to seek evidence-based therapy to address their PTSD or grief reactions. We know that most people with PTSD or prolonged grief do not receive this treatment.

Memory reconsolidation

The other psychological mechanism that is important in discussing the merits and potential pitfalls of such a film is termed ‘memory reconsolidation’.

Each time we recall a memory, it becomes malleable or flexible in our brain. This occurs because of plasticity in our brains, which causes the memory to become unstable and then gradually stabilise again in the following hours. This is important because it means the memory is susceptible to modification during that time.

Administering pharmacological or psychological interventions during the period of memory instability has been shown to ‘update’ the memory. This process suggests a film about the Port Arthur shootings has the potential to not only trigger memories but also contribute to how these memories are reconsolidated – and in turn how a person may feel about the event.

How the film is made

This leads to an important issue about the content of this film. The key question may not be whether it should be made but rather how it is made.

Much criticism of the film, which will reportedly star Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia and American actor Caleb Landry Jones, has been around its possible impact on survivors and the community.

Without minimising the merits of this argument, our knowledge about trauma memories suggests the main challenge for the film’s producers is that it be made with sensitivity to those directly affected by the shootings, and does not aggravate any psychological distress.

If a film depicts much graphic violence or idealises or excuses the shooter’s actions, it could compound the traumatic nature of people’s memories. This could be detrimental to someone whose memories of the event are triggered by the film.

The producers would do well to consult with those directly affected by the shootings, as well as mental health experts, to ensure the film minimises exacerbating psychological distress.The Conversation

Richard Bryant, Professor & Director of Traumatic Stress Clinic, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Total Comments: 9
  1. 5

    Why don’t we make the same distinction about screening war movies and telling stories about Remembrance days such as ANZAC Day and October 11th? Surly the returned service men and women saw, and many suffered similar or worse scenes and atrocities as hose in Port Arthur? But we have been doing this for over 100 years, and for many years the survivors and families of victims returned for memorials for some years. I think these comments about the effects of the movie are more about slow news day, or movie propaganda to promote coverage. It is not a movie I would be interested in watching.

    • 5

      I have to agree 4b2, there are countless films made about traumatic events so why is this any different? The thing is, this film is not a documentary, its an entertainment. However, given people seem incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction (consider the recent furore over the current series of The Crown and its dealings with Charles and Diana) it is not surprising that people are complaining about this film before its even made. As you point out, films such as this have been made in the past and not just war films, consider 9/11.
      Does this mean that films should no longer be made unless its all unicorns and rainbows?
      As it is only going to shown on subscription tv, dont tune in if even the thought of it upsets you. It will not be compulsory viewing.

  2. 1

    To me, it’s an appalling decision. I wasn’t even in this country when it happened, living overseas. It certainly made a dreadful impression on me. There are many whose memories are so close to this, who may even have been there. I’m shocked if reputable actors are even considering taking part. It seems as if the film makers are hoping to make money out of it, not considering the grief and pain of others. This was not an action of war; it was a madman, mowing down innocent people, including children. Maybe in 20 years? 50 years? Not now.

  3. 4

    Should suppress history in school?
    Should we ignore the past?
    The woke culture is the only thing that should be suppressed!
    We learn from mistakes done in the past.
    If you feel this movie will trigger you, DON’T WATCH IT AND MOVE ON.

  4. 2

    How sad to see that so many people believe that the best way to deal with reality it to bury their head in a bucket and pretend it didn’t happen. Horrible, sad, traumatic and shocking things happen and yes, they also happen right here in Australia. Making ourselves face the realities in life can only help us to find a way to adapt to the most traumatic events in a mentally and emotionally healthy manner. I feel sorry for trauma victims who suppress their memories of trauma for long periods, sending their life on a defensive, damaged and often dysfunctional path as a result of the emotional scars, then discover, sometimes decades later, that the healing begins with disclosure and confrontation . And yes, I did practice as a therapist working with trauma victims for many years.

  5. 1

    No I will not be watching it. Must be very hurtful for all the families involved. I just hope it does not generate any copy cat events. It is one thing reporting the facts and a completely different situation sensationalizing it in a movie. I am sure the families involved have confronted this tragedy everyday since it happened.

  6. 0

    Making a documentary is one thing, the facts are told…making a movie about this horrific event is another…in a movie, there is a lot of padding and filling in of that is done is what worries me. I feel only disgust for the director and Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia for being part of this.

    Willfish, your training in therapy should tell you that PTSD and severe grief can last for decades in some people, for example, war veterans and rape victims. Reliving trauma in a controlled and safe psychological environment is very different to having it pushed in your face. People directly affected by the massacre can choose to not see the film…true… however, they won’t be able to escape from the advertising, media coverage and conversations about it, which can all trigger trauma memories and cause them unnecessary pain. This is cruel and I certainly will not be watching it.

  7. 3

    Hasn’t there already been a couple of documentary’s and a Crimes That Shook Australia show.
    Was there controversy when they were shown. Any movie or show will only confirm we need tighter gun control world over.

  8. 0

    I think it is unnecessary to glorify this tragic event. it is likely like a commenter already said to generate hurt and maybe copycats. This isn’t about war, where the battle is usually won. WHO WAS THE WINNER HERE. NO ONE.



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