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Opinion: The death of James Bulger still haunts me

We have an ethical responsibility to face up to the dark truth that children perpetrate violence and equally we have an ethical responsibility to show empathy for victim’s families, writes Shane Dunphy.

James Bulger (aged 2) from Liverpool was murdered in 1993.
James Bulger (aged 2) from Liverpool was murdered in 1993.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IN 1993 WHEN the story of the two-year-old’s abduction and murder broke in the media, I was on college placement in a residential childcare unit.

The details of the story seemed like something from a horror movie. Such wanton cruelty committed by such young children beggared belief. James Bulger’s murderers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were ten-year-old boys. 

Every time I saw the court-room illustrations of the pair, it was as if I was looking at depictions of some of the kids I worked with every day – troubled youngsters who had often committed crimes in their short lives, but who all had deep reserves of decency and strength despite their histories.

Children, I was taught, do not commit crimes. They make mistakes and mistakes can be used as opportunities for learning and change.

But then I would look at a photo of James Bulger who was little more than a baby and the true horror of his death would wash over me. The fear, the anguish and the pain of his final moments are too awful to consider.

Yet we must consider them – he is entitled to that.

As a child protection worker, a father and a grandfather, I understand the desire of his parents, not to mention society at large, to punish the people who inflicted such an unspeakable death on such an innocent.

James Bulger became everyone’s son, everyone’s little brother, everyone’s nephew.

And that may be central to the controversy surrounding Vincent Lambe’s short film Detainment, which reconstructs the questioning by police of Thompson and Venables (the script is based on transcripts of the actual interrogation), intercutting the action with dramatized footage of their walk with James Bulger from New Strand Shopping Centre, in Bootle, where he was abducted, to Walton and Anfield Railway Station, where events reached their tragic conclusion.

Detainment has been nominated for an Oscar, so in an artistic and critical sense, it is already a success. However, there has been a visceral reaction from many corners and the commentary seems to focus on three main issues:

Firstly, James Bulger’s parents were not consulted about the making of the film, and his mother has spoken out strongly, requesting that it be withdrawn. She asserts that certain images have been profoundly upsetting for her.

Lambe has apologised for causing her pain, but has refused to withdraw his film.

Secondly, there has been widespread criticism of how the film deals with Thompson and Venables – they are portrayed too gently, some have said. The film humanises them, normalises them, even. I can attest that the boys are shown as confused, scared and distraught, and it is difficult not to feel sympathy for their plight.

Thirdly it has been suggested that any film covering this type of subject matter is deeply distasteful, and therefore should not be granted release. I’d like to tackle this final point first.

Children perpetrate violence

Children commit violent, abhorrent crimes all the time.

Depending on which study you read, anywhere from 60% to 80% of all sexual and physical abuse experienced by children is perpetrated by other children, and the James Bulger case is not an isolated incident – there have been numerous murders committed by individuals too young to vote both before and after this case made the news.

Ignoring that fact will not make it go away, and I would go so far as to say that putting it in the national consciousness is not a bad thing. We need to be talking about these uncomfortable topics if we ever hope to do something about them.

I feel we have an ethical responsibility to face down these darker truths.

As long as the material is handled sensitively and is not turned into lurid, voyeuristic entertainment, I don’t have a problem with it.

From what I have seen of Detainment the portrayal was not lurid. 

Humanised

Which leads me to the second point: the humanisation of Thompson and Venables.

While I haven’t sat through the film in its entirety, I have watched quite a few scenes from it, and have discussed the movie with a colleague of mine from British child protective services who has seen the whole thing.

He and I agree that what the movie presents is an accurate portrayal of two distressed children.

These are kids who have done something unspeakable, the consequences of which they had not truly grasped. In the scenes, I watched the dawning realization is all too evident on the actors’ faces.

I also think that the footage shows that the boys knew what they did was wrong.

I do not think that Detainment in any way tries to excuse its protagonists. Far from it: the pair almost instinctively dehumanise James Bulger by referring to him as ‘that boy’.

Although once or twice, when the real horror is tangible, Thompson calls him ‘the baby’.

Whether we like it or not, murderers are human beings. It would be wonderful if they were all darkness and bile. We could write them off, then, as an evolutionary throwback, but that is not the case.

Thompson and Venables committed a foul deed, and that deed is part of who they were and it can never be erased. But they were also young lads whom life had dealt a tough hand, and whose anger at the world was expressed in a tragic manner. That cannot be erased, either.

James Bulger’s family

The final issue, and for many the most pertinent, is the fact that James Bulger’s family were not consulted at any point during the film’s development or production, and this does raise some very serious ethical questions.

At the time of writing 242,000 people in the UK have signed an online petition calling for Detainment to be withdrawn from consideration for the Oscars.

Obviously, James Bulger himself cannot consent to his story being told. But when his death makes up such a significant part of the narrative of the film, it seems reasonable that his family, especially his mother and father, should have some say in whether that event is re-enacted as part of a drama.

On the other hand, there is the fact that Lambe has not presented an imagined version of events. The film is, in many respects, a docu-drama, which takes the transcripts, which are publicly available documents and builds the film around them.

The director has argued that had he spoken to the family, the contents of the transcripts would not have changed at all but the contents of his film probably would have done.

He feels that by keeping his distance, he was trying to be impartial.

Critics have posited that this is a cop-out and that Lambe is using his artistic integrity to shield the truth that he was trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

That may be true. Only Vincent Lambe will ever know for certain.

What we are left with is a challenging and upsetting film, a testimony to one of the darker events in our recent history. 

Maybe it is right that a film like this should have such a difficult birth.

We have an ethical responsibility to face up to the dark truth that children perpetrate violence but equally, we have an ethical responsibility to show respect and empathy to victim’s families. 

There was certainly an ethical responsibility on the filmmakers to contact the family of James Bulger and by failing to do Lambe has displayed a surprising lack of empathy. 

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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