• Avant Garb

Oscar Nominated Short Film Sparks Controversy

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

Written by Andrew McGowan

Illustration by Elisha Osemobor

In Movies with McGowan, staff writer Andrew McGowan looks at recently released cinematic entertainment from critical and theoretical perspectives, shedding light on their social and political significance in contemporary pop-culture.

Among the five short movies nominated for Best Live Action Short Film in this year’s Academy Awards, one of them has ignited immense conflict. Directed by up-and-coming Irish director Vincent Lambe, Detainment recounts the events and immediate aftermaths of the James Bulger murder. A true story, the Bulger murder was committed by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten-year-olds from Liverpool, England, in 1993. Bulger was just a toddler himself, and his killers go down as the youngest convicted murderers in all of history. Lambe’s movie is a disturbing retelling of the story, focusing on the ten-year-old boys and their interviews with the police following the murder. Switching off between sympathetic and disgusting, the movie’s depiction of the two killers is enough to make any audience member feel uneasy and questions its ethics.

One key figure who has spoken out against the film is Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother. Having never been consulted about the film’s production or distribution, Fergus has ridiculed the film’s existence from its very beginning, saying that it creates an all-too-gratuitous image of the killers and forces her and her family to relive the terrible event. A petition titled “Stop the Jamie Bulger movie from being shown and taken off the Oscars shortlist” has since gone across the Internet and gained over 90,000 signatures. Much to Fergus and her family’s disgust though, the Academy still keeps Detainment as an esteemed nominee. Lambe has recognized the family’s backlash with empathy and understanding, but claims that withdrawing the picture would be to silence the movie’s important message and truthful story. After all, despite its moral ambiguity, Detainment in many ways remains a brilliant film, with intense emotion, a stellar script, and some of the most impressive child-actor performances one can ask for. Having been made already, whether the movie is truly in the service of a more telling message or just a piece of pure voyeurism is perhaps up to the audience. Either way, Detainment raises some interesting questions regarding the rights and ethics that go into making feature films, especially when based on real people and unsettling events.