By Martha Hughes
I’ve always been a sucker for a good documentary; in the pre-Netflix days, YouTube was my personal haven for the weird and wonderful, from true crime to real lives. However, the past year has seen a massive increase in demand for such content, resulting in an increased output of documentaries covering crimes and tragedies from abductions to murders. Personally, I am a fan of such content because I have a terrible longing to see justice. When a documentary concludes with justice for the loved ones, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief that at least there has been some sort of fair resolution. However, thinking back to the many documentaries that I’ve binged in my time, I wonder how many of these films and shows have negatively impacted the families and friends of those involved with the tragedies we see on a screen.
The latest documentary covering the horrific murder of James Bulger is an example of where we’ve gone wrong, in both the film and TV industry, but also as a demanding audience. James’s mother actively objected to the creation and distribution of the documentary which focused predominantly on her son’s killers. When the show went on to be nominated for an Oscar, this is where things definitely seem to have gone a step too far, a sentiment shared by hundreds of thousands of others across the country according to a change.org campaign.
I believe there really is a wrong way, and a right way, to pitch, produce and market a documentary covering extremely sensitive topics such as murder and abduction. When the makers of such documentaries reach out to those affected by the specific crime or incident they are covering, this is a solid first step. However, not only does initial permission need to be obtained, but I feel those affected should have a say in the making and release of the film (as long as they are comfortable with this). By consulting loved ones throughout the process, this could avoid potential issues further along the line. It is also just a considerate sign of respect to those affected. When film makers fail to make these attempts, or when making the attempts are met with indignant pleas to not go ahead with creating the film, this is when we need to take a step back. Is it worth causing further emotional damage to those whose lives have already been ravaged by the tragedy in hand, simply for an hour’s entertainment on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Probably not.
‘Abducted in Plain Sight’ is an example of a documentary, with (probably) good intentions, especially towards those affected seeing as they allowed them to tell their story much in their own words. However, even this documentary has resulted in some less than savoury responses from audiences; many have taken to social media to mock certain members of the family, belittling them for their past actions which they have so bravely chosen to speak out about. Were the film-makers’ intentions really that good, or did they anticipate that the documentary would receive such a reaction, making it a popular talking point at the expense of participants?
In a Netflix-society, hungry for continuous, brand new, on-demand content, it certainly looks like this trend, unfortunately, shows little sign of stopping. All we can probably do is wait for the next trend to take its place.