Distressing Images

LOGLINE: A content moderator for a social media site begins to suspect his young son is hiding violent tendencies when their family pet is mysteriously wounded.

Distressing Images blends the heightened world of extreme online content with a very banal parental fear: “what if there’s something wrong with my child?”

ED COLLIER works from home as a content moderator for a popular social-media site. He spends his days sifting through flagged content — candid camera fist-fights, grainy amateur porn, etc — while his wife ABI looks after their new baby Elsie and their six year-old, OSCAR.

The film opens with Ed stumbling upon a particularly disturbing snuff video depicting a man being burned alive. As he writes up his referral, he’s preoccupied and leaves his study unlocked. When he returns, he’s greeted by the sight of his infant son watching the gruesome execution.

Though Oscar doesn’t seem outwardly affected by the video, Ed is cautiously concerned for him nonetheless. Despite this, after some rueful consideration, he decides to keep the incident a secret from Abi.

Over the following days, Oscar’s apparent lack of emotional response to the video eats away at Ed. Is this normal? Surely he should be traumatized by something so violent and visceral?

This anxiety is drastically compounded when their family cat is found mysteriously wounded - apparently set alight - and Ed spies Oscar hiding guiltily nearby.

Abi suspects disturbed neighborhood kids and Ed can’t bring himself to confide his fears to her. Instead, an insidious paranoia takes hold of him and he can’t shake the conviction that Oscar is hiding violent tendencies.

He obsesses over his son’s internet habits, watches him constantly for signs of guilt and is gripped by fears of Oscar harming his infant sister if left unsupervised.

This comes to a head when Ed reacts violently to a minor bit of misbehavior from Oscar, culminating in a vicious row between Ed and Abi. His paranoia is driving a wedge between them.

It’s only when Ed glimpses Oscar in the throes of an awful nightmare that night that he starts to come around. He takes the boy’s distress as a delayed response to the video — proof that he’s “normal” after all. Their bond finally seems on the mend.

But just as the trust between them seems to be in recovery, Ed is once again hit by a wave of gnawing doubt — "but what if he did do it?" A conviction he can never prove but may never be able to shake.

  • Sam Dawe
    Hungry Joe, Sunday Worship, A Girl and Her Gun
  • Sam Dawe
  • Matthew Steggles
    The Covenant, The Great, Better Things,
  • Michael Socha
    Key Cast
    This Is England, Once Upon A Time, The Aliens
  • Chanel Cresswell
    Key Cast
    Vardy vs. Rooney: A Courtroom Drama, Pin Cushion, Des, Trollied
  • Project Type:
  • Runtime:
    15 minutes 17 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    March 18, 2023
  • Production Budget:
    20,000 GBP
  • Country of Origin:
    United Kingdom
  • Country of Filming:
    United Kingdom
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Sam Dawe

I’m a writer-director based in Bristol. I’ve made several award-winning short films and I’m currently developing a diverse slate of feature and TV scripts. My films have played at BFI London Film Festival, Aesthetica, Encounters, Palm Springs, Leeds and many more.

Along the way, I’ve picked up several awards including Best Short Film at the BAFTA-qualifying British Urban Film Festival and Manchester Film Festival. I’ve also won a Méliès D’argent award from the International Festivals Federation. 

My most recent short, Hungry Joe, was nominated for a London Critics’ Circle Award and competed for the Méliès D’or at 2021’s Sitges Film Festival. It was also selected to screen on the prestigious Short of the Week platform, where it was called “one of the great modern British horror shorts.” Since then it has gone on to receive over 1.8 million views on the horror channel Alter.

I’ve just finished writing and directing my most recent short, the BFI-funded psychological thriller called, Distressing Images — which is about to begin it’s festival run.  

As well as my short film work, I work in documentary TV as a producer, writer & editor of natural-history content for companies like Netflix, National Geographic and Discovery Network. I’ve also spent significant time in the field as a cameraman, field-director and drone pilot. 

My spec scripts have earned me a semi-finalist spot on BBC Writer's Room and a finalist listing on the Shore Short Film Fund. I’m currently listed on Shore’s Director’s Roster and I’m a returning member of the BFI X BAFTA crew program. The feature version of Hungry Joe was also selected for Early Development by the BFI.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

I wrote Distressing Images to explore two ideas that have always inspired me creatively. My worries around parenthood and my attraction to violent imagery.

I wanted to expand on my previous award-winning short film, Hungry Joe, where I tackled these issues indirectly by making a horror film (replete with gory imagery) centered around a parent. With Distressing Images, I wanted to deal with both ideas more directly, without the filter of horror iconography to hide behind.

Having a fascination for grisly horror films, brutal combat sports and true-crime documentaries might be fairly common, but I’ve always wondered what it means about myself. As I’ve grown up alongside the internet and the imagery’s gotten more gratuitous and “real” I’ve found myself both repelled and captivated by the ubiquity of extreme content available to me.

At the same time, As I’ve reached my thirties and the prospect of parenthood looms, I’ve become increasingly cynical and anxious about the idea of becoming a Dad. At such a tumultuous time, with the future looking more and more uncertain, I’ve struggled with the idea of bringing a child into the world and found myself thinking about society in more nihilistic terms.

But I’m aware I’m viewing humanity through a skewed lens. Because a huge amount of the population share this preoccupation with humanity’s more destructive behavior, every news-cycle is dominated by images of disaster and death. The internet has thrown this into clearer focus, as algorithms prioritize conflict and chaos over less dramatic reporting.

Distressing Images is about this cycle. It deals with the dangers of letting negative representations of the world seep into your life and relationships. I didn't want to make something that's specifically about the job of being a content moderator. Ed’s job is meant to be a stand-in for how people interact with media solely by "doom scrolling" through the worst parts of humanity online.

The most obvious reading of this story is the one I'm most keen to avoid – a diatribe against the internet itself or a moral panic about kids with Ipads.

My intention was to convey that Ed’s little boy may not have actually done anything wrong and his paranoia may be stemming from spending so much time wallowing in darker parts of human life. I wanted to maintain a sense of ambiguity to split the audience and echo Ed’s gnawing sense of doubt.