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“Detainment”: An Oscar Seeking Short Film Of Child Violence

Last February, a British court sentenced Jon Venables to prison for three years and four months. He was convicted of making indecent images of children and of possessing a pedophile manual. The 778 images were of babies and children up to age 13. Prosecutors described the manual as a “disgusting and sickening document which falls far below any recognizable standard of morality.”

Venables was convicted in 2010 of downloading and distributing indecent images. He was sentenced to prison for two years.

Venables along with Robert Thompson were convicted in 1993 for the torture and murder of James Bulger. 

James Bulger was just two years old when he was abducted. Venables and Thompson were ten years old.  Upon conviction the two killers were given new identities and detained until they turned eighteen whereupon they were paroled into an unsuspecting public.

The details of James Bulger’s murder are sickening. Lured away from the market where his mother was shopping, James was taken to a nearby railway where he was tortured, sexually molested and left dead on the train tracks. The remaining details are too disturbing for me to describe.

At this point, we could rightly condemn the softness of the British court system for giving a new identity to a convicted child murderer who then continued to harm children after multiple convictions. We could rightly condemn an immoral and callous culture that produces ten year olds capable of committing or even imagining such a heinous crime. 

We could argue that these types of crimes are rare and are not unique to Great Britain. We could further argue that in America, these crimes may happen but the penalties would be much harsher.

Let us put all of those condemnations and arguments aside for a moment and ask why a film about James Bulger’s murder was made.

The 30-minute film entitled Detention is written and directed by Vincent Lambe. He used official police transcripts and audiotapes played in court to recreate the police interviews of Venables and Thompson. Lambe employed two child actors to portray the killers as they were before and after the murders took place. The film does not delve into the killers’ background or the impact on the victim’s family. 

Described by one reviewer as “harrowing” the film was nominated for the Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Unless withdrawn due to protest, Detention will be among five short films considered for an Oscar.

Lambe’s reasons for making the film are vague. He argues that he made the film so that society could better understand the nature of the crime and to prevent it from happening again. He said “The popular opinion is that those boys were evil and anybody who gives any alternate opinion or reason as to how it could have happened gets criticized for it, and as a result it stifles debate on the whole issue.” 

In his search for understanding, Lambe did not obtain permission or even consult with James Bulger’s parents. Lambe offers no in-depth psychological analysis of the crimes committed. He offers no social commentary. He does not mention the perverted crimes of Venables since he obtained his new identity. Lambe merely provides a window revealing two ten-year old boys talking to police in lurid detail about torturing and murdering a two-year old boy. 

This film reminds me of what Tom Wolfe said of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood– another true crime tale of murder. In his essay Pornoviolence, Wolfe observed that In Cold Blood “is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset . . . Instead, the book’s suspense is largely based on . . . the promise of gory details.” 

Instead of providing understanding, maybe Lambe created a film to stimulate prurient audience interest. If so, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should add a category for sadistic sensationalism.