movies

Is it ever okay to use real people and tragedies for entertainment?

In October last year, a New York Times Magazine feature called "Who Is The Bad Art Friend?" went viral. The piece tells the tale of Dawn Dorland, a writer who donated a kidney and posted about it extensively on Facebook, and fellow writer Sonya Larson, who subsequently penned a prize-winning short story involving a kidney donor. Larson failed to tell Dorland anything about her short story, even though she utilised aspects of Dorland's donor letter and social posts to create a character who had a "white saviour complex".

At nearly 10,000 words, "Who Is The Bad Art Friend" is practically a tome by magazine standards. It is a long and involving read, with arguably no clear hero or villain - both Dorland and Larson are simultaneously unlikable and yet begrudgingly relatable.

Like most viral pieces, the article holds a mirror up to society. The themes it encompasses are several and mostly universal - friendship, privilege, racism, bullying, and the perils of social media. Yet the biggest theme is about art imitating life, or, in this case, art "taking liberties" from life.

It's a conundrum as old as time: Who owns your story?

"What kind of question is that?" I hear you say. "I own my story, of course! It's mine!"

But is it?

Earlier this year, the streaming series Pam & Tommy was released. Starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan, the show delved into the lives of (then) married couple Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, and how they dealt with the fallout of their unauthorised sex tape being distributed illegally. The series, which was based on a 2014 Rolling Stone article, received critical praise and 10 Emmy Award nominations.

There's just one problem: Anderson did not approve of the project. By all accounts, she is completely against it. In fact, she is working with another streaming platform to tell "the real story".

That's the thing about "true" stories - precisely whose truth is it? 

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Novelist Michael Peterson has also expressed his dismay at his - and his children's - portrayal in drama series The Staircase. The show chronicles the events before and after the death of Peterson's wife, Kathleen, using details and storylines from a 2004 documentary, also called The Staircase. Interestingly, the creators of the documentary are not pleased with the drama series either, citing a "betrayal" by the production.

So, not only is the subject of the story not happy with the storytellers, but one set of storytellers is also not happy with another set of storytellers. 

If you believe Peterson is guilty, you likely don't give a toss how he feels about his portrayal. But, what if he is innocent? Can you imagine being innocent and having no control of your own narrative? Because the point remains that Peterson's story is no longer his. 

The same goes for writer and photographer Rachel DeLoache Williams. After an ill-fated trip to Morocco with fake German/Russian heiress Anna Delvey, who defrauded numerous people and institutions, DeLoache Williams fell into financial strife. She ended up footing the very expensive bill for the entire trip, even though Delvey had invited her and had assured her she would of course be paying. DeLoache Williams documented the strange encounter in a viral piece for Vanity Fair.

In her account, DeLoache Williams is the victim of fraud, with Delvey as the villain. In popular drama series Inventing Anna, which charts Delvey's life, the tables are turned. Suddenly DeLoache Williams is the villain - a simpering, vacuous, greedy socialite who gets exactly what she deserves. It's a decidedly aggressive portrayal of DeLoache Williams, but one that isn't surprising given the hero edit ultimately given to Delvey. 

The Independent wondered if it was DeLoache Williams' selling of her story to a rival streaming platform that led to her almost farcical characterisation. 

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Of course, things get infinitely more complicated when the person the story is about isn't around anymore. When this happens, story consent normally comes from next of kin.

Take the recently released biopic Elvis from director Baz Luhrmann. Despite numerous critics calling the biopic all style and no substance, Presley's ex-wife Priscilla has given the film a firm thumbs-up. Her endorsement lifts the movie from an artist's rendering to absolute truth.

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Conversely, even though late singer Amy Winehouse's family has given approval for her biopic to go ahead, there has been immense backlash from fans.

This is mostly due to the involvement of Winehouse's father, Mitch, who holds half of her estate. Most fans believe Mitch exploited his daughter to his own ends, and the critically acclaimed 2015 documentary Amy only propelled this belief further.

While not strictly a biopic, Quentin Tarantino's fictional revision of history in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood also copped backlash from fans - predominantly from the Asian community - following Tarantino's portrayal of martial arts icon Bruce Lee as arrogant. There was even a scene where Brad Pitt's character, stuntman Cliff, almost beats Lee in a fight, which, in my humble opinion, is preposterous.

"I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee," Lee's daughter Shannon told The Wrap. "But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive. He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air. And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others."

Outside of biopics, true crime drama - not to be confused with documentaries - is one of the most controversial retellings on our screens. When news of a film based on the Port Arthur massacre started making headlines last year, there was understandable trepidation. A number of the families of the 35 people who died that terrible day in 1996 were not in favour of the movie.

Watch: Nitram's trailer. Story continues below.


Video via Madman Entertainment.
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The resulting product, Nitram, ended up being a nuanced, emotionally sensitive story about the perpetrator, with neither sympathy nor sensationalism. It did not focus on the actual massacre itself. Some say it was even educational - a warning of sorts of the signs to look out for in a potential psychopathic killer.

Yet, whose story is it? Is it the murderer's? And if so, why should he have his story told? Should he not just be forgotten?

And even though the victims don't appear in the film, isn't this their story too? They may be missing in every frame, but in every frame, they are there.

These same questions come to the fore when looking at The Stranger, a fictionalised account of the undercover operation that tracked down the murderer of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, who went missing in 2003 from a bus stop in Queensland. Starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris, the film has been shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May and it will be some months before Australian audiences get to see it.

Like Nitram, The Stranger does not linger on the victim - it revolves around the perpetrator. In this case, it also focuses on the authorities hunting down the killer. But again, it begs the question, whose story is it?

Whatever the answer may be, the Morcombe family has been fiercely vocal in their unhappiness of the film.

The team behind The Stranger declined to comment at this time - they would rather Australian audiences watch the movie first. When I reached out to Screen Australia and Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) for commentary about the depiction of real people and events on screen, both agencies declined to comment. It's an admittedly tricky question for an industry where true stories are often successful.

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"I have seen many people who have been the subject of books or TV shows and not only are they unhappy, they are often re-traumatised," clinical psychologist and Help! I Have a Teenager podcaster Jo Lamble says.

"Some of these depictions have devastating consequences. They have no control, no say on how they or their loved ones may be depicted. They then have a sense of others being voyeurs to their trauma – like intense rubberneckers at a car accident.

"I strongly believe the actual person, or their family, own the story and unless they give permission and have some say in what is shown or published, I believe it can be very damaging."

Time is likely to be a factor in the creation of film and television built around actual events and people. With 1997's Oscar-winning Titanic, there was nary a squeak from anyone regarding the use of a very real tragedy - the sinking of the ship Titanic in 1912, where more than 1,500 people died - to construct a fictional romance.

The movie also featured real people, including the doomed captain Edward Smith and one of the richest men of that time John Jacob Astor IV and his wife Madeleine (who survived). 

Captain Edward Smith played by Bernard Hill. Image: 20th Century Fox.

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John Jacob Astor IV and wife Madeleine played by Eric Braeden and Charlotte Chatton, respectively. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Films like Pearl Harbour and Saving Private Ryan also used real events to create stories, and escaped mostly unscathed by criticism for its use of actual tragedies. It would appear that time is the ultimate leveller, a consent indicator of sorts.

In this modern world, the question of stories and ownership is as applicable as ever. With our cameras on our smartphones, we have all become amateur filmmakers. We're all storytellers. And we're all actors on a stage - whether we want to be or not.

The recent shark attack in Sydney, in which Simon Nellist died, was filmed by an onlooker and was shared widely. Nellist's life became a footnote in his brutal death, played out for the masses. He didn't have a say in how his story got told.

By the same token, neither did a woman in Melbourne named Maree. All she wanted was to sit and enjoy her coffee, but in the space of a few seconds, she became part of TikTok's "kindness" movement. She was handed a bunch of flowers by a young man - whose friend was recording the act - and the video ended up going viral.

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As Maree pointed out later in a ABC Radio interview, she felt dehumanised. "He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn't, and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it," she said.

"It's the patronising assumption that women, especially older women, will be thrilled by some random stranger giving them flowers."

Again, Maree's story has been folded into a narrative not of her own making.

"I think, sadly, none of us own our own stories in the end," Mamamia's Pop Culture Editor, Keryn Donnelly, says.

"We're drawn to certain stories because they fascinate us and they help us make sense of the world. That's why celebrity gossip and true crime are so popular. We need to bear witness to the worst things people are capable of in order to understand our own place in the world. And pretty much every work of fiction is based on at least a kernel of truth.

"People will always tell stories too, but I think we have an obligation not to sensationalise and to remember the real people behind the stories, who are often forgotten."

The saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps that is why we will always want to tell the stories of real people and real events. As Keryn says, these stories help us make sense of the world.

But if the story comes at the expense of human suffering, does that make it right?

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