A timber cross memorial to the 35 people killed in the 1996 Port Arthur massacre (Image: AAP/Robyn Grace)

Midst a global pandemic and the collapse of the relationship with our most important trading partner, we are reminded that there is no situation so bad that the arrival of an Australian filmmaker cannot make it worse.

In this case it’s Snowtown director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant with their planned feature Nitram, on the Port Arthur massacre. Or not on the Port Arthur massacre.

As voices of protest increased following the announcement of the film, the filmmakers rushed to clarify that this would not be a thrill killer quickie oh no, but a study of the conditions that produced the event and its perpetrator, without featuring the event at all. Apparently it’s a contribution to making sure the event “never happens again” etc. It will air on Stan, which is your go-to place for in-depth social policy discussion. 

One’s suspicion that the movie won’t really get to grip with the social causes — or pre-conditions — of the Port Arthur massacre is strengthened by the fact that Kurzel’s Snowtown never got to grips with the social causes of that event either.

The “Snowtown” killings were in fact the “Elizabeth” killings; the gang of killers arose in the outskirts of Australia’s premier “new town”, planned in the ’50s as an ideal community, with civic centre, modernist sculptures of human aspiration et al.

When the “whole community” approach was abandoned, Elizabeth and nearby Salisbury became a place to ship all Adelaide’s benefits-dependent public housing tenants – and then to corral the minority of highly dysfunctional families into specific areas. This essentially created a sink, combining victim families — those completely fallen apart — and predator ones, led by sexually violent men.

From this crucible arose gang leader John Bunting, childhood rape victim, client of the care system, butcher by trade, and a man obsessed with the ’70s “secret family” killings in Adelaide, the still-mysterious notion that a tight-knit group of establishment figures were responsible for a series of ritual murders in Gomorrah-on-the-Barossa.

Bunting presented himself as an avenging angel, rooting out child abusers among the poor and suburban masses, a mirror of establishment corruption. It’s a dark and fascinating story of how the collapse of a commitment to community, and its sharp reversal into a policy of human dumping, can produce evil as a material, emergent condition.

Almost none of this appears in Snowtown; indeed the portrayal of Bunting’s lead accomplice is wilfully sympathetic, presenting him as far more passive than wiretap transcripts show him to be. Above all, the film skips any examination of the lassitude, incompetence and contempt for the poor by sections of the police, which permitted the Elizabeth/Salisbury/Snowtown killings to go on far longer than they needed to.

Given this history, one doesn’t hold out great hope that the filmmakers will avoid the trap of making Martin Bryant far more interesting than he actually was. Though they’re not featuring the actual massacre, the knowledge of it as conclusion will confer a dark halo on the movie itself. The film will trade on the paradox that what really draws our fascination in these massacres is the event itself, the terror of death meted out for no reason at all, the moment of it, the horror of dying like that.

Since that can’t, or couldn’t, be shown, the number of movies about serial killers — which can be rendered as police procedurals, or focus on escalation, Jekyll/Hyde character etc — vastly outweighs the attention given to massacres. Nitram suggests that may be about to change.

Such a project has emerged in Australia perhaps because we largely eliminated them with the gun-control measures that followed Port Arthur, coming at the end of a decade-long period which saw a massacre a year, and all of them except Port Arthur and Hoddle Street fading into history.

Even the US appears to have limited them, after a two-decade period of random massacres — the standard McDonald’s massacre — was followed by a decade of high school killings. McDonald’s massacres were a product of late modern anomie; high school massacres, of the social divisions arising from the emergence of a knowledge society.

One doubts Nitram will deal much with that either. Its inevitable drift will be towards the overvaluation of the perpetrator as a creative individual, the massacre his life’s meaning, a bit of zero sugar Nietzsche for the streaming era. But that can’t be admitted, by either Stan or the filmmakers, so it’s wrapped in the language of social control that’s become ubiquitous due to campaigns against everyday violence.

Perhaps this movie will open the floodgates to massacre-as-entertainment on a global scale. How proud we would be. What a time to be alive. Or not, as the case may be.

Peter Fray

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