A mystery in the family
A sister vanishes, a brother seeks truth in 'Burden of Proof'
What could be worse when your 15-year-old sister disappears than never knowing what happened and who was responsible?
That was the impetus behind Stephen Pandos to make “Burden of Proof,” HBO’s four-part documentary that streams Tuesday on MAX.
It was February 1987 when Stephen’s only sibling Jennifer disappeared in the middle of the night. His parents waited two days before notifying the police, who were stymied. The case remained inert for over 20 years until Stephen became obsessed with this mystery.
“It started for me in 2009, seven years before the filming started, when the police suggested that my parents were responsible for my sister’s disappearance,” Pandos, 55, said last week in a phone interview. “Because I don’t have any other siblings, at that point I felt justice for my sister became my responsibility. For me, doing nothing” was not an option.
His parents had divorced. Stephen was convinced his father, a Vietnam vet with PTSD given to explosive rages, had killed Jennifer and his mother helped cover it up.
“Initially,” he said, “my idea was to tell a story about the complications and nuances of trauma. Specifically about my mother, believing that she knew what happened but had compartmentalized it and put it away in a place where she couldn’t or didn’t want to access it.”
In 2015 Cynthia Hill, an award-winning documentarian, came aboard. “I had recently made a film, ‘Private Violence,’ about domestic violence. Stephen knew about that film. I think he thought that I would understand what his family had gone through in the relationship between his mother and father,” she said.
“It was going to be a film about this lingering trauma that the family had experienced, thinking the parents could be responsible for Jennifer’s disappearance.”
As the police re-opened and reactivated the case, “Burden” expanded from a feature length film to a series. “Our intentions were to tell a story about Jennifer,” Hill said. “To understand her and what happens to her.”
She uses re-enactments to tell what becomes a complicated story with surprising twists and suspects.
“As I got in deeper the story,” Hill said, “is about memory — and memory being unreliable. It’s also about how we create scenarios that are in our head that may or may not be factual. Or what truly happened.
“That’s what I wanted to explore with the reenactments, this notion of different realities. The ‘What could have happened?’ or ‘What people think happened.’
“That required a kind of filmmaking I’d not done. That was important for this story.”
“Burden of Proof” streams Tuesday on MAX