Between Fact & Fiction

Kim Nguyen with a picture of her son Van.
Kim Nguyen with a picture of her son Van.

I love a good Aussie drama – I’d happily watch one any day over a cheap import. However SBS’s recent offering  A Better Man left me with a bad taste in my mouth. As journalist Monica Attard asked, “Is Van’s legal fight, his extraordinary rehabilitation in prison where he found a deep level of spirituality touching all those who were fighting for him, and then his execution, rightly the fodder for a television drama?”

In this case, no I don’t think so.

A Better Man is the dramatisation of the story Van Nguyen and his final days spent on Singapore’s death row. Monica was close to Van’s mother during this time and again wrote about her plight. But this time it was to stop salt being poured on her wounds.

As I read Monica’s article I kept reflecting on the documentary Just Punishment. I was at the Australian International Documentary Conference the year it was launched and recall the filmmakers speaking about access and trust.

That was key to their documentary and on reflection I felt they held real integrity. It gave me a sense of relief that the family had placed their trust in filmmakers such as these. We need more of them I thought.

So it hit me with much saddness to read that Van’s mother Kim was really distraught by SBS and Khoa Do’s dramatisation. She wrote to the broadcaster and director asking them to respect their grief. Sadly, this was not respected.

It took me back to when Snowtown was commissioned and families of the victims asked that it not be made. I even recall residents of Snowtown asking the name of their town not be used in the title. Their requests fell on deaf ears so it was no surprise that none of them turned up at a special closed screening of the film hosted by the filmmakers.

What strikes me about both of these situations is that I have worked as a producer of both documentary and drama and there is a real dichotomy here. If I was to make a documentary about any person’s personal story, whether they be famous or not I must seek their permission. There must be meaningful consultation and full approval by them. All my funding is dependent on this.

Yet if I want dramatise your story, even fictionalise it I don’t need that. I can just go ahead and write the script, do some background research and make sure my development has been thorough. I can then raise my finance and go for it. Whether the subject, victim or their family agree or not. I can even fictionalise aspects of it for ‘dramatic effect’.

Reminds of the at old adage – never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.

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