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Controversial film on Port Arthur massacre wins Cannes Film Festival prize

Caleb Landry Jones, the man who portrayed the Port Arthur mass murderer in the Australian film Nitram, has won the Best Actor award at the annual Cannes Film Festival.

It is the first Australian film to be chosen for the prestigious competition in a decade, but its focus on chronicling the life of the perpetrator has upset some of the survivors.

Port Arthur municipality Mayor Kelly Spaulding told SBS News the award brings up old wounds.

“I would have been happier if it had never been made,” she said of the film.

“It doesn’t help our area in a positive light. It still hurts for a lot of us down here and we don’t want anymore negativity. People go through the same feelings and it brings back those same memories.”

Thirty-five people were killed, and 23 others were injured, when a lone gunman went on a shooting spree at the historic Tasmanian site in April 1996.

Rather than focus on violence, the film delves deep into the psychological reasons behind it and depicts the attacker’s pre-murder existence.

Screenwriter Shaun Grant said he thought very carefully about how to approach the subject matter for film.

“It took me a long time to decide to write it, it was an idea that was in my head for many years and I was very trepidations about it because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, but it was something I felt very passionate about and I think there is a very important message in the film,” the told reporters in Cannes.

Caleb Landry Jones pictured with the Best Actor Award during the closing ceremony of the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival.

Caleb Landry Jones pictured with the Best Actor Award during the closing ceremony of the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival.


During the production, some survivors of the massacre expressed outrage over the film, raising concerns it would glorify the murderer.

In December last year, 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.

American actor Caleb Landry Jones said it was “rather daunting” playing the role of a mass murderer.

“It was very evident that people were going to be angry,” he told reporters in Cannes.

“Some people probably pegged the film to be a certain kind of movie. But it is a very sensitive piece and very respectfully made.”

The film’s director, Justin Kurzel, said the piece had a purpose.

“It is difficult to talk about and it is a painful memory,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival.

“The memory of what happened in Australia that day changed the gun laws significantly and the culture of guns in Australia. I really hope it starts a discussion about how these horrific tragedies happen, in some countries it happens on a regular basis.”

The tragic events prompted the newly-elected prime minister at the time, John Howard, to introduce nationwide gun law reforms, just 12 days after the shooting.

Mayor Spaulding said if a deeper discussion around gun law reform does emerge from the film then that would be welcome.

“After sitting down with (survivor) Justin for quite some time, it was a bit of a relief that it was focussing on gun reform, because good things do come out of that.

“If this movie does promote some discussion overseas and we do see some reform hopefully it will save some lives out there; and that’s pretty much all we can focus on, is those positives.”

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