Telling The Truth On Film


This week the final chapter of Better Man, the controversial drama series about Van Nguyen, airs on SBS television. The dramatisation follows the true story of the 24-year old Australian drug trafficker who was executed in Singapore in 2005.

Van was only 22 when he was arrested in transit at Singapore’s Changi airport with heroin strapped to his body and in his hand luggage. We began making Just Punishment, a documentary on Van’s case, shortly before he was condemned under Singapore’s harsh mandatory sentencing laws. We had the chilling experience of being in the courtroom the day Van Nguyen was sentenced to “be hung by the neck until dead”. What followed was a two-year legal and diplomatic appeals process to try and save him. In the end it was unsuccessful. I wrote about this with co-producer Kim Beamish in New Matilda at the time.

The documentary was three years in the making and we spent much time with Van's family and friends throughout. On learning of the Better Man release we decided to launch Just Punishment the documentary online, as an opportunity for audiences to revisit the actual story and contribute to the ongoing debate about the death penalty.

Better Man has been the subject of impassioned discussion across the last week after several high profile speakers spoke out against the drama series. Lex Lasry, who led Van’s defense team and is now a Supreme Court judge, has questioned the authenticity of the dramatisation and urged viewers to “return to the public record” for a true account of events.

MP Anna Burke has spoken out on behalf of Kim Nguyen, Van’s mother, who deeply objects to her family’s story being under the media spotlight again and many have boycotted the series in response. It’s the first drama for SBS in three years and with money on the table and brand reputation centred on “compelling, inspiring and thought provoking content”, the team behind Better Man have their own agendas at stake. All this has made me reflect on the process of documentary filmmaking and the tricky ethical territory one explores when doing this kind of work.

Despite Kim Nguyen’s protests Better Man premiered last week and we launched Just Punishment online. Early in the week I went to see Kim Nguyen to show her our newly launched website. Though I had spoken to her over the last couple of months to try and explain our plan for the documentary, it had been years since I'd seen Kim. To be honest I was not looking forward to the visit. I was still uncertain as to how she would respond to the website and having herself and her other son Khoa, so publicly visible again. 

We had decided to proceed with the online launch regardless of Kim’s endorsement. The renewed interest in Van’s story seemed a great opportunity to extend the social justice message that underpins the doco. I think Van's quite remarkable story did make people stop and think about their opinion on capital punishment and in some instances change their views. Van himself, in his final weeks wanted somehow, some good, to come from his unfortunate circumstances. In 2006 the vehicles for online distribution did not exist like they do today and it seemed a great opportunity to share the film with a new audience and interest groups.

This agenda echoes SBS’s PR response to Better Man. And it does nothing to lessen Kim’s distress at seeing her family in the spotlight again. What is the difference then between Better Man and Just Punishment revisited? This question was at the front of my mind when I drove to visit her. 

Despite my reservations it was a great visit and we had much to catch up on. We had not seen each other for years but through the making of the documentary we had shared an intense period of our lives and I realised that it is in this relationship that the difference lies. Kim had chosen to give us her story and we had tried our best to represent her family with honesty and respect, and through that process Just Punishment was made. It took a long time and it wasn't easy but I believe the film remains important and relevant as a result. I am relieved to know that Kim supports the online launch of the documentary and encourages the public to revisit the story via our doco.

This is in no way a comment on Better Man, documentary and drama are different beasts. I watched part one and will be tuning in again on Thursday night. What I do hope is that the media interest in the tension around the drama does not overshadow the social justice message at the core of Van's remarkable journey.

Watch Just Punishment here:

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.