The tragedy of making real-life tragedy films

George Bell reflects on films based on real-life tragedies, are they accurate and sensitive to the victims?

George Bell
17th May 2020
Image credit: IMDB
We are no strangers to films based on real-life events and films based around certain people or events are frequent in the cinema due to their financial and critical success. People are clamouring for the latest retelling of significant events in history or simply an easy way to learn about it. And with us being apart of a big part of history at the moment, the coronavirus pandemic, it is only a matter of time before the wave of films documenting it hits us. And that brings up the age-old question: what should and shouldn’t be made into a film?

I personally believe that at some point in time an event could be made into a film but for educational purposes and respect so that we don’t forget what happened. But I do believe that a significant amount of time should pass beforehand, so no I don’t believe the current pandemic should be made into a film as it has literally just happened. Something that is so fresh in our mind doesn’t need to be covered again so soon as we know what happened so it wouldn’t be educational but rather just a tasteless cash grab.

A film that poorly represents an event can do irreparable damage to the truth.

Films that cover events that have already passed, like the Holocaust, I think must be covered for the importance of educating humanity about some of the darker times in our history. But it should be done in the most respectful way possible, relying on facts as much as possible. This is why films like The Pianist or Schindler’s List work so well as they showed true horrors of events like The Holocaust to make sure we remember what we as a species did to each other and to never do it again. TV shows have also been grateful at educating us about past mistakes with the likes of Chernobyl which told the story of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear plant in an interesting and grounded way.

So, in short, I think that films, and shows, that are made for education about events are a must when it comes to cinema. Films are meant for enjoyment but also learning and a massive influence on we look at our past. A film that poorly represents an event can do irreparable damage to the truth. But what happens when they lose the essence of the original event just to make a more enjoyable watch?

For me I think the 2012 drama The Impossible, falls victim to this as while it did show the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster while I watched it, I felt like I was watching a blockbuster disaster film rather than a real-life event. Maybe I just need to re-watch it but I just felt it did a massive discredit to the 227,898 lives lost by only focusing on one family’s ordeal. It is by no means a bad film but I do think it is more tailored to certain audiences to get more people to watch it.

This brings me to my next point - while films based on current events do have clear benefits and drawbacks, they always seem to make a lot of money. I think a portion of that money should go to those who suffered from the original event. A great example of this goes back to Schindler’s List where director Steven Spielberg made the moral decision to not profit from the film, stating it would be “blood money”. He instead gave the £100k from the proceeds of the film to the University of Sussex's new Centre for German-Jewish Studies. I think this was a brilliant move by the director and should be something all directors who cover such serious subject matter should do.

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AUTHOR: George Bell
One half film addict, one part computer nerd. All parts Croc lover

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