The Trials of Oscar Pistorius review: Sprinter and convicted murderer emerges as a complex and difficult figure in lengthy BBC documentary

This series looks the viewer in the eye and dares them to find it uninteresting

Ed Cumming
Sunday 08 November 2020 12:39 GMT
The Trials of Oscar Pistorius trailer

For anyone seeking light relief from the US election coverage, here’s an epic documentary about a murder. The trailer for The Trials of Oscar Pistorius (BBC iPlayer) was widely criticised when it appeared last week for not including the name of Pistorius’s victim, his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The documentary was accused of erasing Steenkamp, a paralegal and model, in favour of sensationalising her celebrity-athlete, white male killer. Dr Fern Riddell, a historian, tweeted that “In seven years [since the murder], with all that’s supposedly changed about editorial practice and how we talk about these stories, she’s just back to being the unnamed girlfriend.” Steenkamp’s mother, June, said she “shook with anger” when she heard about it.

The BBC quickly pulled the trailer and its mea culpa department issued one of its usual contrite notes. “We are aware of the upset [the trailer] has caused, which was never the intention,” it read. “We have removed the trail and it will be replaced by something more representative of the series, which examines in detail a number of complex issues connected to her murder.”

They aren’t joking about the detail. This four-part documentary, part of the Storyville strand and directed by the Bafta-winning Dan Gordon, runs to more than five and a half hours. This first episode alone, at 92 minutes, is longer than many feature films. Streaming bloat is completely out of hand, especially in documentaries. I blame the true-crime genre, whose sprawling narratives have become a model for all kinds of other non-fiction which could be told in a fraction of the time. 

The most egregious case was The Last Dance, the Netflix Michael Jordan hagiography that devoted as much time to a single basketball player as Kenneth Clark spent on western civilisation, but there are examples everywhere. As tragic as Steenkamp’s killing was, it was just one case. At this length, the documentary looks the viewer in the eye and dares them to find it uninteresting.  

The first episode opens in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, when reports came in of an incident at Pistorius’s home in Pretoria. The film is perfectly well put together, and effectively conjures the chaos and sense of unreality that surrounded those early hours, before going back over the Pistorius story. Using interviews with friends, family, teachers, fellow athletes and journalists, the documentary retells his life, from a childhood in apartheid, a double amputation at 11 months, the death of his mother Sheila in 2002, his breakthrough at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where he smashed the world record. He emerges as a complex and difficult figure, a driven, talented athlete determined not to let his disabilities define him, who could also seem aloof to the point of loneliness, and had a terrible temper. There was a “kind, sensitive” Oscar, says an old school friend, but also a “hard, cocky, potentially arrogant, almost an untouchable side”.  

Inevitably, The Trials of Oscar Pistorius aspires to more than just retelling an extraordinary tale. Gordon has said he finds the story “at once inspirational and harrowing,” and makes a valiant effort to use his subject as a lens on South African politics, disability, the media, male violence, elite sport and the corrosive effect of celebrity. The research is comprehensive, but at times it feels unfocused, and its hold on the viewer’s attention may depend on their existing interest in Pistorius. At the heart of things is a killing whose exact circumstances will never really be known, except by the jail-bound murderer and his poor victim. As Gerard Labuschagne, a forensic psychologist, says during this first episode, the case was never a whodunnit but a whydunnit. After hours of painstaking investigation, there is a lot of when, where, and how, but the why remains elusive.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in