Doc­u­men­taries make a dif­fer­ence

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

First Se­rial, then The Jinx, and now Mak­ing a Mur­derer: We of­fi­cially have a new genre on our hands, the long-form, deep-im­mer­sion, true-crime doc­u­men­tary that works it­self into the courts – per­haps lib­er­at­ing an in­no­cent from jail, or putting the guilty there at long last.

The am­bi­tion here is not to earn Em­mys, but to achieve jus­tice.

The de­ci­sion to over­turn Bren­dan Dassey’s 2007 con­vic­tion marks the third time in 18 months that a TV se­ries or a pod­cast has played a de­ci­sive role in a ma­jor mur­der case. Dassey was con­victed at age 17, on the ba­sis of a con­fes­sion brow­beaten out of him by cyn­i­cal de­tec­tives – a key scene in Laura Ric­cia­rdi and Moira Demos’s Mak­ing A Mur­derer – de­spite his learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties (IQ 70) and the un­par­don­able ab­sence of an adult ad­viser dur­ing ques­tion­ing. Af­ter the broad­cast of Sarah Koenig’s pod­cast Se­rial, Ad­nan Syed – serv­ing life for the 1999 mur­der of his 18-year-old ex-girl­friend Hae Min Lee – was granted a re­trial, fol­low­ing ques­tion­able cell­phone ev­i­dence in the ini­tial case, in June. With HBO’s The Jinx, the real es­tate heir Robert Durst, long held in sus­pi­cion af­ter the 1982 dis­ap­pear­ance of his wife and the 2000 mur­der of his friend Su­san Ber­man – and ac­quit­ted for the 2001 mur­der of a neigh­bour – was ar­rested on the eve of the doc­u­men­tary’s fi­nal episode, in which he was caught mut­ter­ing in the bath­room, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” The in­no­cent-man doc­u­men­tary has a vin­tage stretch­ing back at least as far as Errol Mor­ris’s 1988 doc­u­men­tary The Thin Blue Line, which se­cured the re­lease of its wrongly con­victed pro­tag­o­nist, Ran­dall Dale Adams, af­ter 12 years in a Texas jail. But this newer va­ri­ety par­takes of two other ma­jor in­flu­ences: The In­no­cence Project and In Cold Blood. The In­no­cence Project, orig­i­nally founded in 1992 af­ter a study found that 70 per­cent of wrong­ful con­vic­tions were based on faulty eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony, has greatly ex­panded with the ad­vent of so­phis­ti­cated DNA test­ing in the last 20 years.

It has freed 343 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 20 who served on death row, and done much to un­der­mine con­fi­dence in cer­tain ver­dicts.

Each of the three doc­u­men­taries re­lies on a deep sense of le­gal nu­ance and a knowl­edge of pro­ce­dural crime-solv­ing (and its short­com­ings). What they share with In Cold Blood is Tru­man Capote’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to bur­row deep into the com­mu­ni­ties and mind­sets of the ac­cused and the de­ceased, as well as the courts and the po­lice that chew them up. For Mak­ing a Mur­derer, the film­mak­ers spent al­most 10 years trav­el­ling back and forth to the tiny Wis­con­sin town where the story un­folded over three decades. In that time, we see le­gal re­ver­sals and de­feats, the wax­ing and wan­ing of rel­a­tives’ con­fi­dence in their loved ones, and a deep un­der­stand­ing of the ram­shackle, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, white­work­ing-class uni­verse of the ac­cused – “Dick­en­sian” is the word most crit­ics used.

The doc­u­men­tary is not just an au­topsy of a crim­i­nal case, but also a long so­journ in the Other Amer­ica, usu­ally in­vis­i­ble to film, tele­vi­sion and those on the coasts.

The shop­keep­ers have been work­ing their cor­ner for nearly two decades.

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