Behind the scenes on Darklands
This week’s episode of Beyond the Darklands has a special meaning for the Waiheke resident who directed it.
Freelance television director Ingrid Leary says the story is compelling because, unlike other episodes in the series, it’s not a clear-cut case of murder.
Beyond the Darklands features forensic psychologist Nigel Latta who unravels the psychological journeys of the country’s most notorious killers. Often, they have been abused as children, and go on to commit very clearly-intended killings.
However, in this week’s episode, sex worker Cyndi Fairburn drives 13 km at high speed from Ingelwood to New Plymouth with her sometimes-abusive ex-partner Nardy Maxwell on the bonnet of her car. Maxwell is killed when the car crosses the centre line and slams head on into a four-wheel drive.
Was it murder or manslaughter?
“Fairburn was diagnosed as having characteristics of borderline personality which means her range of choices in a high-stress situation was not the same as normal people,” says Leary.
“The case defies many of the media stereotypes because it’s a case where a Pakeha woman kills a Maori man. Would a jury have viewed the case differently if Fairburn had been a Maori male?”
Leary says Nardy Maxwell’s death was just another blow for a whanau who had already suffered terrible loss through other killings and suicides.
“The women in the family were incredibly generous in sharing their story, and they are such compelling storytellers who make the whole episode come alive,” says Leary.
She spoke to Cyndi Fairburn several times, urging her to tell her side of the story.
Unlike other killers who remain behind bars and therefore unavailable for interview, Fairburn was released from prison earlier this year and lives in New Plymouth.
“I finally got to meet her, after staking out the house where she was paroled. She was polite and fairly restrained in her response, considering it was her first day out of prison and she had a journalist on her doorstep. But she was adamant that she would not be part of the documentary and she said she would make sure none of her friends would speak to us, but she also seemed to respect the Maxwell family’s right to tell their side of the story.”
Eventually Leary was able to find a fellow sex worker who had known Cyndi in the years leading up to the killing, and a school friend in whom Cyndi had confided as a child. Off-camera meetings and conversations with other childhood friends and one of Cyndi’s aunts helped build the picture of a terrible childhood full of sexual and psychological abuse.
Leary says the Fairburn case is a stark contrast to another episode she directed, on notorious paedophile Peter Holdem who abducted and murdered seven-year-old Louisa Damodran in Christchurch 25 years ago and remains behind bars. That episode screens on 1 October.
“Holdem was adopted as a baby into a respectable Culverden family. Teachers and classmates remembered him as being a deviant child, despite coming from what seemed like a very ordinary, likeable family,” says Leary.
“That episode raises the whole nature vs nurture debate because there just seems to be no rhyme or reason why Holdem should turn out to be such a bad apple when he had such a normal family and childhood environment.”
She says the tragedy in this case is that Holdem killed Louisa for the sole purpose of covering his tracks.
“He had already told police when he last offended that next time, his victim would not live to testify against him. He was a serial offender whose whole psyche was about preying on small children. Nigel Latta is adamant that as long as he is alive he is a threat to children, and he must never be released from prison.”
Leary says it was a privilege to be asked by Auckland production company Screentime to work on the final series of Darklands, along with other award-winning journalists Cameron Bennett, Amanda Millar and John Campbell’s wife, editor Emma Patterson.
The series is used by the New Zealand police as part of its training material, and is done with the full consent of all the victims.
“People have said they’re such grim stories that they can be hard enough to watch, let alone make. But these are real stories about real people which must be told. By following the psychological journeys of the killers, we can learn more about triggers and signals which will hopefully help us as a society make better interventions and save lives,” she says.
Beyond the Darklands screens on Mondays on TV One at 8.30 pm. •