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Director Defends Controversial Film About Murdered Toddler, Won’t Pull It From the Oscars

The director of Oscar-nominated short film “Detainment,” about the notorious murder of a British toddler, has defended his film and said he will not withdraw it from the Oscars race, despite the demands of the boy’s family and tens of thousands of petitioners.

Instead of unalloyed elation over the Academy’s recognition of his film, Irish director Vincent Lambe has found himself at the center of a media firestorm in the U.K. The family of the murdered 2-year-old, James Bulger, has expressed its anguish over “Detainment,” and a petition demanding that it be pulled from Oscar contention has now been signed by 130,000 people.

“I understand the film at the moment is causing upset to the family and that’s probably the hardest thing for me to deal with now because I have so much sympathy for [them],” Lambe told Variety in an interview. “But I think it’s an important film, and if we were to withdraw it from the Oscars, it would defeat the whole purpose of making the film in the first place.

“I do think there was an honest purpose behind the film. I think it’s a very important film for people to see. It’s entirely factual. It’s not meant as a piece of entertainment, but if it goes even a small step to [effect] social change, I think it will have been worth making.”

The 1993 murder of James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, who tortured the toddler before killing him, remains one of the most notorious crimes in modern British history. James’ mother, Denise Fergus, told Britain’s ITV on Thursday that “Detainment” had made her relive the nightmare of losing her son and that she couldn’t understand why Lambe had made the film.

“I think it shouldn’t get the Oscar,” Fergus said, adding: “And if he feels that strongly about hurting the family, then I think he should pull it himself.”

The film has been well-received critically and garnered several awards. It uses transcripts from police interviews with the killers and other records to re-enact James’ abduction from a Liverpool shopping mall and the interrogation of the two boys who lured him to his death. Lambe acknowledged that he expected “a certain amount of public backlash” to his film, but said he was “unprepared for people to start saying things about the film that are just untrue.”

“That’s the hardest thing to counteract now, because most people that are hearing these things just haven’t seen the film and are understandably outraged,” he said. “It’s important for people to understand there are no graphic details in the film. There’s no reconstruction of the murder whatsoever.”

Whether many people, at least in the British Isles, will have the chance to see the film and draw an informed conclusion remains to be seen. The producers expect it to be broadcast on Irish pubcaster RTE, but RTE said that that has not been confirmed. In the U.K., Curzon regularly screens the Oscar-nominated shorts in compilation but said it had not made a decision on whether “Detainment” will be shown.

Much of the public outrage centers on two elements: that the film allegedly humanizes the perpetrators of such a horrific crime and that Lambe did not tell James’ family he was making the film. The woman who launched the petition demanding that the Oscar nomination be rescinded called Lambe’s project “heartless.”

“I wanted to meet with them personally [afterwards] to explain why we made the film and why we didn’t get in touch sooner,” Lambe told Variety. “It’s because there’s more than one perspective on the case, and we wanted to make a film that was entirely factual. We didn’t want to be putting an opinion on it. For that reason, we decided not to meet with any of the families involved and rely solely on interview transcripts and factual material.”

But he does have some regrets. “I do regret not consulting the family and just letting them know that the film was going to be released,” Lambe said. “Suddenly, it made the Oscars shortlist and became big news.”

He makes no apology for humanizing the boys. “It shows them as they were as two 10-year-old boys and human beings, and if people can’t accept the fact they were human beings, they’ll never begin to understand what could have led these 10-year-old boys to commit such a crime,” he said.

Both killers were released from juvenile detention in 2001 upon turning 18. One has since been re-arrested on suspicion of owning child pornography, among other offenses.

Lambe said that he “wouldn’t change anything that’s in the film, as I had years and years to think about it and how to make it.”

He also insisted that he would not be benefiting economically from “Detainment.” Shot over six days, the film was self-financed and cost about £40,000 ($52,000). “I haven’t made a penny on this film, and I don’t think anybody on the film intends to profit from it,” Lambe said.

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