SALT LAKE CITY — An Oscar-nominated short film has come under fire for “humanizing” the two killers of toddler James Bulger, who was just 2 years old when he was brutally murdered by 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in Liverpool, England.
The film, “Detainment,” directed by Irish filmmaker Vincent Lambe, is based on transcripts and interview tapes from Venables and Thompson’s police interrogations.
The details of the horrifying and highly publicized case rocked England, The Washington Post reported. On Feb. 12, 1993, James Bulger was kidnapped by Venables and Thompson from a mall near Liverpool, where he had been shopping with his mother, Denise Fergus. The boys then led him to train tracks near the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, where they threw paint in his eyes, threw bricks at him, and beat him to death with an iron pipe before leaving his body on the tracks. He was later run over by a train. Venables and Thompson became England’s youngest convicted murderers in nearly 250 years and were sentenced to eight years in prison, according to the Post.
Fergus issued a statement Tuesday about the film on Twitter, calling for it to be removed from the Oscar considerations.
“I cannot express how disgusted and upset I am at this so-called film that has been made and now nominated for an Oscar,” Fergus wrote. “It’s one thing making a film like this without contacting or getting permission from (James's) family but another to have a child re-enact the final hours of James’s life before he was brutally murdered and making myself and my family have to relive this all over again!”
Ralph Bulger, James’ father, told the Daily Mirror, “Hollywood should hang its head in shame. There are some things that should be off limits and the murder of a baby is one of them … To Hollywood, it is just another film. But to me and my family it is a living nightmare.”
There is currently a Change.org petition circulating to remove “Detainment” from the Oscars shortlist, the Post reported. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had over 100,000 signatures.
Lambe has since apologized on Twitter for not consulting the Bulger family before making the film, but added that he didn’t contact any of the families involved, relying “solely on the factual material which has been public knowledge for 25 years.”
Lambe also argued that his film doesn’t aim to humanize Venables and Thompson, but rather “make room for measured public debate on the circumstances in which this terrible crime occurred,” according to his tweet.
“The popular opinion at the moment is that the killers were simply born evil and anyone who suggests an alternate reason is criticised,” Lambe wrote. “As a result, it has stifled debate on the issue. I do feel their actions were evil, but I think it is important to gain a deeper understanding of how it could have happened because dismissing children as ‘evil’ could lead to more similar crimes being committed. I think one of the most important things to be learned from the case is that if children are not properly cared for, they can become dangerous.”
In an interview with Awards Circuit, Lambe elaborated on his point that the type of family we grow up in deeply affects the type of people we become, explaining that Thompson “came from a terribly dysfunctional family” rife with domestic abuse, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide attempts. He added that Venables “was weak but desperate to impress his tough friend.” Thompson’s father had left his family, and Venables’ parents were divorced, the Post reported.
William Golding, the author of the 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” — perhaps the best-known literary example of children’s propensity for violence and evil — offered a similar opinion on the Bulger case in an essay called “Why Boys Become Vicious.”
Golding argued that we are born with both good and evil in us, but that “we can be twisted and distorted beyond recognition by the guidance — or lack of it — that we absorb directly from our families.”
“If there is no one around to guide children, then they go wrong,” Golding wrote. “The people who guide children are their fathers and mothers. Children need both and in the later part of this century they often have neither. … If parents are absent … then children will plumb the depths of their nature.”
The public condemnation of Venables and Thompson often resulted in fingers being pointed at their neglectful mothers, while their fathers were somehow “absolved” of having any role in how the children were raised, Guardian reporter Audrey Gillan pointed out in a 2000 opinion piece.
She also pointed out that not all children who come from troubled homes or whose parents are divorced are murderers.
“Can such guilt be so neatly apportioned? There are many families where the parents are struggling to cope, where the children have behavioural problems. Parents are invariably ordinary people with problems of their own. They should instill values and principles in a child but they cannot be there all the time — as Denise Bulger (now Fergus) learned at a terrible cost,” Gillan wrote.
The link between “parental failings” and “juvenile homicide” is not so “straightforwardly simple” as it might appear, she concluded.8 comments on this story
James Bulger’s murder irrevocably affected his family, a Guardian profile of Fergus revealed 25 years after the killing. Fergus fought for longer prison sentences for Venables and Thompson and opposed the court’s decision to give them new identities so they could attempt to resume normal lives and avoid retaliation, according to the Guardian. She has also written a book about James, “I Let Him Go,” and established the James Bulger Memorial Trust.
Venables and Thompson were released from prison in 2001, but Venables was arrested again in 2010 and 2017 for possession of child pornography, the Independent reported.
It is unclear whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will remove “Detainment” from its Oscars shortlist. According to the Post, the academy could not be reached for comment.