LONDON — This year’s Oscar nominations have generated little controversy, with one exception: “Detainment,” named in the best live-action short category, an accolade that has offended many in Britain.
On Wednesday, The Daily Mirror called the film’s nomination an “Oscars insult.” “‘Hang your head in shame, Hollywood … this is off limits,’” read a headline in the tabloid newspaper.
An online petition calling for “Detainment” to be removed from the nominations, had attracted over 150,000 signatures on Friday. Opinion pieces and radio programs have debated the film extensively.
The 30-minute movie caused such a stir because it is about one of Britain’s most notorious — and troubling — crimes.
In 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were convicted of murdering James Bulger. The killers were just 10 years old at the time; James was only 2. The images of Venables and Thompson leading James from a mall while his mother was distracted — captured on security cameras and widely shown on TV news at the time — are seared in many people’s memory here.
The pair walked James several miles before torturing and murdering him with, among other things, bricks and a metal bar, the police investigation and the boys’ testimonies revealed. They left his body on a railway line.
When they were released from prison in 2001, Venables and Thompson were granted lifelong anonymity. Still, the decades-old case keeps being revisited: Venables, now 36, was jailed in 2010 for possession of child pornography, and was charged with the same offense last year, prompting the case to be revisited. There have also been attempts, both legal and amateur, to reveal the pair’s new identities. A court order that applies worldwide prevents anyone publishing images that claim to identify them.
The Bulger killing has already been the subject of a play, which also caused complaints in Britain’s tabloids, as well as numerous books. But none have caused such an outcry as “Detainment,” which has been accused of humanizing or being sympathetic to the killers, even though only its trailer and a few short clips can be seen online.
The film, based on police interview transcripts, shows Venables and Thompson leading James from the mall but it does not recreate the murder: Instead it focuses on their interrogation. Both deny any involvement at first, then blame each other.
“Detainment” has won awards, including a special jury prize at Cannes, but it started to attract criticism in Britain after it was nominated for an Oscar. This month, Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother, called for the film to be pulled from the Oscars and complained that the family was not consulted about it.
“It’s one thing making a film like this without contacting or getting permission from James family, but another to have a child re-enact the final hours of Jame’s life before he was brutally murdered and making myself and my family have to relive this all over again,” Fergus said in a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday.
Albert Kirby, the detective who led the investigation into the killing, told the BBC that the events shown in the film were accurate, but still called for its withdrawal from consideration. “It’s causing so much unnecessary upset,” he said.
The 38-year-old Irish director Vincent Lambe said in a telephone interview that, in 2012, he started researching the murder, which also dominated the news in Dublin during his childhood. “I wanted to try and understand what could have led two 10-year-old boys to have done this,” he said. There has never been a proper debate about why the killing happened, despite its prominence, he added.
He considered contacting the families involved, he said, but decided it could harm the film. “We wanted to make a film that was factual and impartial,” he said. “I think if we did contact them they’d be pressure to tell it the way they wanted it to be told.”
“We never meant any disrespect,” he added.
“I hope people can see it with an open mind,” he said, “but that might not be possible now.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organizes the Oscars, did not respond to a request for comment.
Carter Pilcher, the president of ShortsTV, which distributes the nominated short films to theaters, is a voting member of the academy. In a telephone interview, he said that he did not expect the film to be dropped. “The academy can’t be in the place of deciding which stories can be told,” he said.
There have been similar protests in the shorts category before, Pilcher added. Last year, with the #MeToo movement at its height, pressure mounted to remove Kobe Bryant’s short film “Dear Basketball” from the running, because he had been accused of rape in 2003. Bryant won best animated short.
Pilcher added he had sympathy for the Bulger family, but felt “Detainment” was deserving of its nomination.
“I think it’s a very well-made film,” he said. “It certainly puts these question in front of you,” he added. “If you’re 10, how can you do something like this?”