Life’s grim mysteries: 5 compelling Australian true crime productions

Watch and ponder

The still-unresolved 1975 disappearance of journalist and activist Juanita Nielsen remains one of Australia’s best-known crime mysteries. Presumed to have been murdered after campaigning against property development in Sydney – rubbing up against some very powerful and dangerous people in the process – Nielsen has been the focus of several books and films, including a couple of movies made in the early 1980s: The Killing of Angel Street and Heatwave.

The selling point of ABC TV’s new two-part documentary Juanita: A Family Mystery (premiering September 7 on iview) is the involvement of two of her relatives, Keiran McGee and Pip Rey, who attempt to ascertain the truth all these years later. They believe the passing of time may work in their favour, hoping those who know something are finally ready to “unburden themselves and speak to us”. Not an easy task, and we won’t hold our breath for new revelations, but audiences will wish them well as they partake in what people in this genre do all the time: get out on the street, start poking around, ask a lot of questions and examine evidence.

In recent years the true crime genre has been massively successful, with blockbuster water-cooler titles such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial inspiring countless other films and TV series. In recent years the Australian film and TV industry has produced several pedigree productions. Here are five of the best.

The Tall Man (2011)

Where to stream: Docplay

Writer/director Tony Krawitz investigates a town, a murder, systemic injustice and Australia’s disgraceful history of Indigenous deaths in custody. In 2004, in the Aboriginal community of Palm Island, Queensland, Cameron Doomadgee was arrested after swearing at a police officer – and was dead 45 minutes later in the police station. The official explanation was that Doomadgee died from a hit on the head after a scuffle with the physically imposing officer Chris Hurley, though the autopsy report contradicted that, finding he died from broken ribs that ruptured his liver and spleen.

This case is not an isolated incident: at least 475 Aboriginal people have died in custody in Australia since 1991, including (as of July 14) at least nine this year. The Palm Island community were understandably outraged when they were given an entirely unsatisfactory explanation (it was simply an accident, police said), protesting in the streets and burning down the home of Hurley – who was quickly flown off the island.

There is a touch of both-siderism in Krawitz’s decision to interview people defending the police officer, though it ultimately leads to a more nuanced film. A police union representative at one point makes the galling claim that this case involves two minority groups, one of them being the police – a gross misinterpretation of the nature of police power and their roles as representatives of the state. There are many twists and turns in The Tall Man, which is ultimately about two different societies within Australia – white and Black. This has been the subject of other documentaries (such as Two Laws and Another Country) and many feature films and TV shows including Mystery Road, Spear, Toomelah and Samson and Delilah.

The Queen And Zak Grieve (2017)

Where to stream: Foxtel Now

Available only on Foxtel Now, which partly explains why this very compelling 2017 production (originally released as a short form series) has flown largely under the radar, The Queen and Zak Grieve was presented and written by British journalist Dan Box, a former crime reporter for The Australian. The central message is that the true criminal is the system itself.

A familiar message, perhaps, but rarely so demonstrably and obviously true as in this series. The case involves the titular Indigenous man who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder – committed in 2011 in the small town of Katherine in the Northern Territory – that the judge ruled he didn’t commit, declaring Grieve wasn’t even present at the crime scene.

So, what happened? It came down to mandatory sentencing laws, which, in the NT, do not allow judges to determine the sentences they hand out. So, long story short, while Grieve initially had some involvement in planning the murder, he backed out of it – but because of mandatory sentencing laws, was imprisoned for it regardless.

The Queen and Zak Grieve dives into mandatory sentencing laws and circumstances around the murder itself, which Box investigates through the expected means – travelling to Katherine, interviewing the locals and rummaging through boxes of evidence. The journalist, whose narration and pieces to camera anchor the show from a personable perspective, holds himself very well, conducting himself in that classic British style: respectful and politely determined.

Conviction: The Jill Meagher Story (2017)

Where to stream: Docplay

If a production were greenlit today about the 2012 rape and murder of journalist Jill Meagher, and the subsequent homicide investigation, you’d expect a fully-fledged series rather than the one hour format of this ABC-produced doco narrated by veteran crime reporter John Silvester. There’s certainly enough material to justify a much longer running time, though a pithier format has its advantages, particularly in terms of narrative efficiency. With no time to dawdle the show must cram in key topics and turning points, keeping things moving lickety-split without under-valuing the significance of particular events.

“Jill went out for drinks with friends on a Friday night – but she would never make it home,” says Silvester in his introductory narration. Meagher was initially considered a missing person, but the police quickly realised they were dealing with a potential murder – leading to interesting insights into how homicide investigations progress and various logistical and ethical issues considered on the fly. One, for instance, is the potential consequences of releasing CCTV footage. Doing so, as we learn, can help lead police to find the victim or – if they are still alive – provide a catalyst for the kidnapper to kill them.

Unsubtly dramatic recreations – think a hand reaching for a spade in long grass by the side of a road late at night – err on the edge of sensationalism, but the show’s subsequent attention to detail and level-headed approach reflect a work of credibility. Police interrogation techniques become a key focus in Conviction, which explores for instance the tactics deployed against interviewees, from making casual introductory conversation to drilling them about hard evidence. These kinds of insights likely wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of the police themselves.

Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire (2021)

Where to stream: ABC iview

The excellent investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna co-created the Exposed franchise with Jaya Balendra in 2018. The series’ first installment – which you can stream on Netflix – explores the case of Keli Lane, a teacher convicted of the 1996 murder of her own baby. It’s competently made but doesn’t hold a candle to their nerve-shredding follow-up: a three-part mini series examining the sort of story often pegged as “stranger than fiction”, in acknowledgement of events so peculiar (and in this instance so horrible) they beggar belief.

The event in question occurred at Sydney’s Luna Park in 1979 when a fire destroyed the ghost train ride, resulting in the deaths of six boys and an adult man. What followed was, in the words of the police prosecutor at the 1979 coronial inquest, a “monumental cover-up” by the cops, who deliberately “perverted the course of justice”. A core question comes down to motivations. Why would the police, instead of getting to the bottom of this tragedy, obscure the truth and stick to the story that the fire was an accident despite evidence pointing to the contrary?

Meldrum-Hanna and co tease out this question, building to a revelatory finale I won’t disclose here. The first episode pores over, in excruciating detail, the events of that horrible evening, cutting between nightmarish dramatic recreations and interviews with survivors. It’s an electrifying extended sequence, so intensely well-made the words “spine-tingling” barely begin to cut it.

Casting JonBenét (2017)

Where to stream: Netflix

Australian director Kitty Green’s extraordinary film is a genuine original – spectacularly breaking, in all sorts of ways, the true crime genre’s deeply entrenched codes and conventions. It explores an American story – the 1996 murder of the titular six-year-old child – but was co-developed and co-produced by Screen Australia, making it a USA/Australia co-production. Casting JonBenét deservedly won the 2017 AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, though that accolade falls short of reflecting its quality: this is, for my money, one of the best documentaries of the last 10 years from anywhere in the world.

And yet the very term ‘documentary’ feels limited, given the film’s strange dance between fact and fiction, truth and speculation. The director contemplates this (still unsolved) case in roundabout ways, filming auditions with actors from JonBenét’s home city Boulder, Colorado for a movie that never really eventuated. Or, to put it another way, for a movie (this movie) composed mostly of their audition tapes.

Green uses the murder to springboard discussion about the manner with which people share and arrange details of a tragedy, and how the truth can get sucked into a miasma of distortion and speculation. The overarching mood is that of a bad dream, a kind of meta-ish nightmare – at times recalling Charlie Kaufman’s amazingly self-conscious drama Synecdoche New York. Like ‘documentary’, even the words ‘true crime’ don’t fit exactly right. The film is about a murder that actually happened – and a helluva lot more.

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