Director Joe Berlinger knows a thing or two about the power of true-crime storytelling. His award-winning 1992 debut, Brother's Keeper, about the alleged 1990 murder of William Ward in Munnsville, New York, challenged the way documentaries presented their subjects. He followed it with Paradise Lost, which led to the release of death-row inmate Damien Echols.
In subsequent films, Berlinger has taken on Whitey Bulger, an Ohio serial killer, and the Chevron Corporation. His work delivers him to Durham for this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where he curated the festival's first true-crime documentary program. The selections include three of his own films as well as the likes of In Cold Blood, Scenes of a Crime, The Thin Blue Line, and Frederick Wiseman's 1967 Titicut Follies, which has only recently been made available in the United States.
We stole a few moments from Berlinger's hectic schedule to discuss his selections, his influences, and the wide-open future of true-crime storytelling. We also talked about the difference between true-crime entertainment and public service: convictions made or overturned, conversations started, lives changed.
INDY: Is this your first time at Full Frame? Have you curated many film-festival programs before?
JOE BERLINGER: I'm a veteran. I've shown quite a few of my films there. I was thrilled when they asked me to do this. I'm a fan of Full Frame. I appreciate the fact that it's totally focused on documentaries. The screenings are always packed; there's always good conversation afterward. I can't think of many festivals where they ask guest filmmakers to curate a thematic program.
Your work has achieved canon status in the true-crime documentary arena. What was your gateway into this genre? Mine was the book Helter Skelter.
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood kind of opened my eyes. That book gave birth to the true-crime genre. It was influential in how I wanted to go about making my true-crime films because Capote was kind of inventing a new form of literature called the nonfiction novel. It was the first time that journalistic technique was blended with fictional narrative technique. He was merging the form of the novel with a nonfiction story. I consider what I do the filmic equivalent of what Truman Capote was doing with literature. Brother's Keeper was an early expression of that idea—not straightforward documentaries, which are like an illustrated lecture of some subject, but to infuse dramatic narrative qualities in them.
Your work often exposes how different interests attempt to shape narratives to fit their own purposes. How does that—and your overall view of crime and punishment—run throughout the selections that you've chosen for this program?
I tried to pick films that either had a deep influence on me or represent hallmarks in this genre. For example, Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line—this was the first time a filmmaker used stylized recreations to tell a nonfiction story. Today, stylized recreations are very common, but Errol was the first to kind of open or redefine the envelope of what a documentary could be. Titicut Follies, which looks at a hospital for the criminally insane, is a hallmark film in cinéma vérité. Brother's Keeper, my own film, is a landmark in this kind of nonfiction feature film which pushed the envelope with regard to style, with an evocative opening sequence that used an original score. Documentaries before then didn't use original music because people who made documentaries felt that you were manipulating how the audience should feel instead of being journalistic.
I included one scripted film which is not a documentary, In Cold Blood. It was shot in 1967, a time when location shooting was not as common. Richard Brooks went to the real town to shoot the feature film. They shot the killings at the same house where the Clutter family was murdered. Can you imagine the actors shooting these scenes in the very house where the murders took place a few years earlier? Seven of the twelve jurors in the film were jurors on the actual case. There was such a push for authenticity that I found the film to be very compelling and influential in my development as a filmmaker.
Recently, you've taken your own shot at the In Cold Blood story.
We did a series called Cold Blooded which looks at the underlying crime itself and focuses more on the victims. One of the prices we've paid with this explosion of true crime is that the focus is often the perpetrators of crime. You remember the perpetrators rather than the victims. So, my one criticism of In Cold Blood—both the book and the movie—is that it treats the Clutter family as a side note, and we as a society have kind of celebrated the perpetrators. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock became cultural icons even though they were murderers, and nobody really knew the Clutter family.
How did you choose which of your own works to include?
I felt uncomfortable choosing my own shows, so I gave that task to [Full Frame programming director] Sadie Tillery. Paradise Lost—rarely does a filmmaker have an opportunity to have a direct impact on a case. We made three films over twenty years, which led to the release of the West Memphis Three. And then Gone: The Women of Ohio, I think we pushed the envelope on what a TV investigation could be. This was a real-time serial-killer investigation because, while it was unfolding, nobody knew who the killer or killers were. The parents of the victims felt like because their daughters were drug-addicted prostitutes, nobody cared or was paying attention to the crime. The police weren't taking it seriously. I felt everybody deserves justice. I'm going to mount my own investigation and do it with cameras rolling. That's the most out on a limb I've ever gone covering a story.
Lately other platforms, especially podcasts, have become ubiquitous methods of true-crime storytelling. What excites you about the future of the genre?
Exactly what you said. I haven't announced it yet, so I can't give too many details, but I'm going to try my hand at a true-crime podcast in the fall. There's such a proliferation of ways of storytelling today. It's a great time to be a storyteller. People are hungry for content and there's all sorts of places to put your stuff. It makes me happy because I get lots of stories from people in prison who saw Paradise Lost or one of my TV series who are claiming wrongful conviction or some other abuse of the system, and you can't make a feature documentary about everybody you get a letter from. But with all the interest in true crime in digital form, in short form, in podcast form, there's all sorts of ways of telling stories these days.
What do you want people to take away from this program?
That good storytelling can be combined with a social justice aspect and have positive results. Titicut Follies had a major impact. Despite being banned for twenty-five years, it opened people's eyes to what goes on inside those institutions. The Thin Blue Line got somebody out of prison. Paradise Lost got somebody out of prison. Liz Gorbus and Jonathan Stack's The Farm opened people's eyes to what goes on in prisons. There's two kinds of true-crime filmmaking. There's certain shows that wallow in the misery of victims and have no social-justice component. It's just storytelling at the expense of the victim, and that's not the kind of filmmaking I want to do or admire. I admire those true-crime filmmakers who do something to expose an abuse, to reveal wrongful conviction or some other aspect of the criminal justice system that needs to be told.
Is there one you wish you could have included that didn't make the cut?
It was hard to limit it to eight films. I especially felt guilty that three of them were mine. There's a million other things: The Staircase, amazing. The Jinx, amazing. Making a Murderer. There's a lot of shining examples of the genre, both old and new, that I wish I could have included, but maybe they'll do a Part Two next year.