Doctor who treated Port Arthur victims defends new film

A Royal Hobart hospital doctor who dealt first-hand with the grim aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre – and played a pivotal role in Australia’s gun law reform – has said he has no problem with a controversial upcoming film that will delve into the psyche of the perpetrator.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Photograph: Robert Cianflone/AAP

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Robert Cianflone/AAP

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Port Arthur victims remembered at a 2016 service. Dr Bryan Walpole says life-saving changes to gun control laws are a direct legacy of the tragedy.

© Photograph: Robert Cianflone/AAP
Port Arthur victims remembered at a 2016 service. Dr Bryan Walpole says life-saving changes to gun control laws are a direct legacy of the tragedy.

Dr Bryan Walpole was the staff specialist at Royal Hobart’s accident and emergency unit when the helicopters began delivering the wounded on a Sunday afternoon in April 1996.

The day after the shootings he led the medical team examining the bodies of 35 victims, including Nanette Mikac and her daughters Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3.

Walpole told Guardian Australia that, as horrific as the events of 28 April 1996 were, it was time for Tasmanians – and the nation – to move on.

Related: ‘The community is pretty upset’: Port Arthur film widely condemned

He said he did not have a problem with film-makers tackling the sensitive subject, and that the film might have the potential to highlight the life-saving changes to gun control laws that were a direct legacy of the tragedy.

“It was 25 years ago, it’s passed into history,” he said. “What we need to remember is the enduring legacy that event had.

“There are two or three thousand people alive today thanks to the gun control laws that came into effect 12 days [after the tragedy]. The sacrifice [those victims of Port Arthur] made has been paid in spades.”

Video streaming service Stan and the Melbourne film festival have come under fire for commissioning and funding the film, which producers say will not depict the shootings. It is being directed by Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel and stars Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, with American actor Caleb Landry Jones playing the gunman.

Walpole said those who were concerned about being re-traumatised by the film, titled Nitram – the first name of the gunman, spelled backwards – should simply boycott it when it comes out.

“Not that I know if that would do much good,” he said.

“The fact is we’re grown up, the perpetrator is behind bars, his name is rarely mentioned, and today we have gun laws the envy of the world.”

Opponents of the film, including Port Arthur survivor and writer Justin Woolley, have condemned the project as insensitive to those still healing from the trauma of the shootings. Some are concerned it will glamorise or empathise with the perpetrator, whose name many still refuse to use.

Speaking to Nine media on Wednesday, the film’s producer Nick Batzias said the film-makers were “acutely aware of the sensitivities around the material”, especially in Tasmania. It’s for this reason, he said, the film was being shot in Victoria instead.

Batzias said Nitram had the potential to spread an important message.

“Any time there’s a mass shooting in America, someone mentions Port Arthur because what happened after is an exemplar of gun policy,” he said.

“To be clear, there is not one murder shown on screen in our film. We don’t need to show the victims or the murders to remind people of the need for sound gun control.”

Nitram writer Shaun Grant also defended the film: “I’m a big believer in the idea that evil repeats itself if we don’t shine a light on it and examine it.”

On Thursday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he felt “unnerved” when he found out film-makers were revisiting a day that “has scarred us as a nation deeply”.

“[But] people will make films,” he said. “We think that is a good thing … that is the society we live in.”

Morrison added he hoped film-goers would remember the Port Arthur victims and their families “and the torment they have endured for all these many years since” and, referring to the gun law reforms that resulted, the “wonderful work that has been done in this area … the incredible courage and strength of John Howard and Tim Fischer, who set this right”.

Walpole was also influential in that reform. As a former Australian Medical Association state president, Walpole had been lobbying for gun law reform for more than a decade before the Port Arthur massacre brought the victims into his hospital.

The doctor came to national attention a few days after the shootings when, at a memorial for the victims, a clearly distressed Walpole – representing hospital staff – was embraced by Howard on the steps of Hobart’s St David’s Cathedral.

“I had just seen Walter Mikac,” Walpole told the Guardian. “He was holding a rose each for Alannah and Madeline … it was just an awful moment.

“I realised that he out of anyone had probably lost the most.”

Three days after Port Arthur, Walpole and fellow gun control advocate Roland Browne were called into the Tasmanian premier’s office.

“Tony Rundle asked what he should do and I handed him the AMA-approved [gun reform] policy,” Walpole said.

“He took that to a premier’s meeting … it was passed on to [attorney general] Daryl Williams, and 12 days later we had the National Firearms Agreement and a buyback scheme.

“A vast amount of good has come out of that tragedy.”

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