I am fully aware that I am probably going to cop a lot of hate for this one, but opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one, some of them stink, you don’t have to find them attractive and this is just mine.
One of the most polarising criminal cases in modern history is that of the murder of James Bulger by two ten year old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and with the former of the two being jailed again recently, after being found with child pornography on his computer, and two recent documentaries looking back at the case.
Although a brutal and shocking crime, child murderers are not a new occurrence – from Mary Bell to the recent case of fifteen year old Kim Edwards who along with her young boyfriend, violently stabbed her mother and thirteen year old sister to death. The difference between these cases and the Bulger case is how the tabloid manipulated the public reaction which in turn, influenced the trial, making it impossible for justice to be done.
The Bulger murder happened in Liverpool – now that might not seem like it means something, but the Hillsborough disaster had happened in 1989, and due to vile lies published in The Sun newspaper saying that local people had pickpocketed the dead, no one in this part of the UK has bought the red top rag since (although I’m not entirely sure why anyone would have wanted to in the first place), and most places refuse to even stock the printed toilet paper. What has this got to do with the murder, you ask? Well, no one went harder at printing details of the case than The Sun, making sure that everyone knew what these children looked like, salaciously dragging out every detail of the case under the guise of wanting justice, when really it was a poorly veiled attempt at trying to get the people of Liverpool back on side and buying their papers again. After the sentencing, they even went so far as to print cut out coupons, for people to send to then Secretary for Justice Michael Howard to demand he intervene. Laughable, considering that this newspaper hacked a murdered girls mobile phone and deleted voicemails on it, that both impeded the investigation, and gave her family false hope that she was still alive.
What does a tabloid newspaper have to do with trial two confessed murderers? Why should I care? Well firstly, we must remember that albeit murderers, these were still children; in fact, had the murder been committed a few months earlier, they would not have been tried as adults. Now, I don’t know about you, but there certainly was not much difference between my nine year old self’s maturity in comparison to my ten year old self. You aren’t considered old enough to consent to sex until sixteen, but you can go can join the army and wield weapons? I feel like our country is skewed when it comes to how the law views age, in a lot of ways – you can legally consent to have sex at sixteen but are not considered mature enough to vote. You can be tried for a murder at ten, but can not serve on a jury until you are eighteen because you aren’t considered sophisticated enough to make enlightened choices until then. Huh, when you put it in those terms, it doesn’t seem like the law is playing fair at all, does it?
Now these kids, murdered James Bulger, no question. The problem that I have with the whole situation is that they could never have had a fair trial. Everyone in the UK knew the name of these boys, their faces, their family background, and the details of the crime thanks to the tabloid press. Their pictures under headlines such as ‘’Monsters!’’ mean that any jury called to be part of this trial would be tainted, and have already formed strong opinions about the case, therefore meaning that the basic human right of fair trial had been made impossible. The public outcry against the boys, made worse by the tabloid press constantly stirring them up, made it hard to ensure the boys’ safety without giving them new identities at eighteen. The public and press demanding these children be named and shown while not comprehending the fact that because their identities are everywhere, putting them in a general prison population straight out of youth detention just was not feasible. They would have had a price on their heads from day one, and people are just missing the point that the boys had served out the sentence they were given, and that is all the law can do. Prisons and juvenile detention centres are first and foremost about rehabilitation, and with one of these it has worked and the other one it hasn’t, and therefore proving that one of the now men, is reformed and making a life for himself as a productive member of society – proving that the system works.
The mob mentality when it comes to Venables and Thompson is quite frightening in its ferocity decades on, with the bloodthirsty cries of ‘’hang them’’, and the fact that people who are usually reasonable and level headed are sharing alleged photographs of the men, trying to out their new identities illegally and calling for people to attack them. You don’t know that these are actually the Bulger killers, they could just be some poor sod being shared around because someone they know has an axe to grind, or worse, thought it was funny.
When these men were children themselves, they had crowds of adults calling for them to be strung up or beaten to death – the irony of people calling for the murder of children for being child murderers completely lost on them.
A similar case happened in a small town in Norway in 1994 when five year old Silje Redergard was beaten to death by two six year old boys, just nineteen months after the Bulger case. The difference in how the children were treated is stark. The age of criminal responsibility in Norway is fifteen, and instead of releasing the identities of the children to the press to be tabloid fodder, the boys were moved to another infant school a couple of weeks later and teachers, police and child protective services worked with them to make sure that they were fully able to cope with the consequences of their actions. Even Silje’s mother says that she has forgiven them, and though it is a dark shadow in the history of Norway, because of the way authorities dealt with the situation, the have been able to move on from the terrible events of that day.
Playground is a Polish film that is based on the James Bulger murder, in fact the actual murder scenes are so close to what actually happened that day, from the CCTV scenes of the child being led away from the shopping centre, to the child being placed on the rail tracks, is a truly uncomfortable watch.
The film concerns Szymek and Czarek two boys who, on the last day of school make a decision that will change their lives forever, and ends that of a small child. One cares for his disabled father, and the other his infant brother, both under the intense pressure of the expectations placed upon them, and opportunity and boredom create the most perfect and terrible storm.
Let me tell you this, I have watched hundreds, maybe even thousands of violent films over the years, but this was by far, the most uncomfortable and disturbing film I have watched thus far.
It is a bleak and incredibly intimate portrait of a murder with a finale that will probably haunt me for a long time.
You do not see the violence up close, if at all, and I think in a way it is worse, because as we all know the imagination is far more scary than anything we can see on screen. There is no explanation, no consequences, and you are left with nothing other than the poingnace of a young life lost in a senseless act. Playground is a well made film, with a realism that grabs you and holds you by the throat and knocks you on your arse with a aggression and is hard to create, and hard to get over watching as a viewer.
It is a good film that I wouldn’t recommend to those who are easily upset or offended, but I can’t deny Bartosz M. Kowalski has a talent as a director and will go far. That being said, I won’t be watching Playground again because it is an experience I don’t want to repeat due to the content. The acting is excellent and you believe these characters are completely real, which is is incredible for such young talent, adding to the uncomfortable intensity of watching.
This film portrays the distance and disconnect that happens between family members, particularly between parents and children, and the ripple effect that can spread into the wider community.
If you think you have the stomach for it, this is an excellent example of arthouse cinema, but be warned, the content truly is not for the faint hearted.
|As a disclaimer I would like to make it clear that I am not in anyway advocating for murderers or making light of what Venables and Thompson did to James Bulger, but I am an advocate for the right to fair trial, and how society must be aware of the manipulation of certain media organisations who are only interested in their own agenda.