True Crime Docs: Truth or Advertising?

(This post is a direct response to the well-reasoned New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz.)

With regard to true crime documentaries like Serial, The Jinxand Making a Murderer, I would argue that releasing a documentary without a damning piece of evidence, a smoking gun that provides a critical Hail Mary turnabout in the film’s third act, is both self-serving and unethical. A documentary, especially one devoted to ferreting out the truth in violent, heartbreaking and convoluted criminal matters, should place the revelation of facts above the desire to craft a compellingly one-sided narrative. It is the documentarian’s obsession with self-promotion that results in emotionally exploitative documentaries that lose momentum at the exact moment they should be gaining it.

The Jinx is the obvious example of a true crime documentary that finds its smoking gun. (Spoiler for those uninformed: Robert Durst, the central figure of HBO’s The Jinx series, accidentally leaves his microphone running on a trip to the bathroom post-interview. While muttering to himself, he alludes to committing the crimes. The private confession will result in Durst facing murder charges in the coming year.) Here the unthinkable happens: the hero documentarian, in spite of his growing fondness for Durst, not to mention Durst’s reluctance to continue the interview series, trudges up the snowy mountain of truth and inadvertently discovers its apex, previously eclipsed by fog. Now the documentarian can receive the fruits and wines of his labor, proving once and for all that the man with the moving camera is more reputable than law enforcement could ever be.

If I were to wager a guess, I would say that The Jinx would have turned out the same way as its meandering and inconclusive true crime colleagues, Serial and Making a Murderer, had it not inadvertently stumbled upon its smoking gun. Prior to Durst’s confession, we see the filmmakers, now characters within their own documentary, struggling to schedule interview time with Durst, desperately vying to turn their own mountain of dross into entertainment gold. This suggests that the filmmakers themselves were struggling to find a bookend for their own research, once again proving that the enthusiasm of the armchair detective does not always equal skill or precision. Without Durst’s damning verbal misstep, The Jinx would be no different from Serial, in which the concluding monologue basically boils down to the documentarian admitting that she can’t be certain one way or another in spite of her personal involvement in the case. These ambiguous conclusions might sate the armchair philosophers, those accompanists to the armchair detectives who sermonize that nothing in life is ever so cut and dry, but not I.

In the cases of Serial Season 1 and Making a Murderer, there is a disappointing suggestion that the documentarian’s discussion of the crime was in itself fulfilling. Here the documentarian is a noble explorer, hacking through the jungle overgrowth with a machete, peering into the lives of the poor, uneducated natives who find themselves caught in a culture-clash they cannot possibly comprehend. I tried the best I could, says the documentarian, sipping piña coladas on the flight back home. If only some really smart person could have come along and provided the evidence I’d needed to make a better case. Understanding too well one’s personal limitations and the extent of human failings, the audience forgives the documentarian with a gentle round of applause and a considerate, “Thanks for sharing.”

But doesn’t the documentarian owe the subjects, the interviewees, the participants on either side of the legal debate some recompense for wasting their time? The audience can choose for itself what is worthy of watching, but those poor devils who signed onto the project with hopes of possible exoneration or conclusive damnation will be dragged through the muck and mire again upon the film’s release (assuming it garners any viewership, which these true crime stories tend to do in massive droves).

If the facts presented in the documentary are inconclusive, neither the viewer or the documentarian can logically draw a conclusion. One cannot take the absence of damning or exonerating evidence as a call to action to either free or cage the accused. Serial seems to understand this point, admitting that the lack of evidence in its investigation robs the documentary of a smoking gun. But in Making a Murderer, the sheer length of time spent investigating the subject, pouring through decades of legal material in an attempt to find another clever twist to the case of Steven Avery, a man once exonerated already, suggests that after some point the documentarians felt a personal mandate to prove Avery’s innocence, rather than the broader aim of revealing the truth.

We can forgive the Making a Murderer team one sin: unlike Serial and The Jinx, the documentarians did not include themselves as characters in the documentary. Yet their public insistence that they remained unbiased while presenting such an emotionally manipulative documentary sounds more like a ploy to make themselves sound noble than a claim supported by evidence. Even the Chief Content Officer at Netflix says that the documentarians were biased, but that is with the caveat that all documentaries are biased. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the makers of Making a Murderer, are therefore no more to blame than the Blackfish filmmakers for drumming up Sea World hatred, or the Waiting for Superman filmmakers for making viewers loathe the hoops that underprivileged families jump through in order to receive proper education. In a fair and balanced way, this rings true. Aren’t all humans biased by their feelings and experiences? Ricciardi and Demos are no more biased or villainous than the average joe. But without a smoking gun – evidence of Sea World abusing its whales, the tears in the eyes of those families screwed by school lotteries again – Making a Murderer fails to prove its point.

There is a distinction here, perhaps merely a psychological one, between accepting ones bias in attempting to prompt a specific outcome, and denying all bias for the sake of appearing altruistic. It is my opinion that Ricciardi and Demos are merely covering their tracks now that public outrage on both sides of the debate has reached a climax. It would only fuel their detractors to admit bias in Avery’s favor, that they were deliberately searching for exonerating evidence, a vast conspiracy against Avery, anything that might have given the man a second chance outside prison walls. The first few episodes of Making a Murderer paint a balanced picture of Avery, reminding us of his previous violent, perverse and deranged behavior, but only as a counterpoint to the fact that he was innocent of his first major conviction. Once proof of Avery’s innocence is harder to come by, Ricciardi and Demos paint a more pro-Avery picture. After all, the prosecution does such a good job of opposing the defense’s conspiratorial claims, why shouldn’t the documentarians stick up for poor Avery?

There are hints, clues, whispers that Avery is innocent, suggestions that evidence was tampered with, planted by the police perhaps to put Avery behind bars at any cost. The exonerating evidence never becomes clearer than that. It’s always veiled in shadows along with the truth. In an effort to spice things up in the final inconclusive episodes of Making a Murderer, the documentarians go out of their way to call out prosecutor Ken Kratz on his less than ethical dealings with another client. Relevant? No, but good television for those who’ve already found a hundred reasons to dislike the man prosecuting poor Stevey.

When a documentary subject fails to deliver a compelling narrative, what is the documentarian to do? If you asked me, I’d say chuck the whole documentary. Chalk it up as a loss, like so many failed television pilots and direct-to-video DVDs. (Then again, Netflix’s back catalogue is all failed sitcoms and direct-to-video schlock, so maybe it would have found its way to streaming audiences even without the Netflix seal of approval.) But no, there’s too much money and pride at stake in entertainment to do anything but release the malformed entity into the environment for public consumption. Maybe someone will enjoy it, the documentarian thinks. And then I’ll get hired to do another movie sometime soon. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So a claim of unbiased, fact-based reporting is a necessity in this modern job climate. How else could the filmmakers ensure that they aren’t blackballed by the entertainment community, as well as society at large? There is also the larger issue of whether or not Ricciardi and Demos omitted key evidence in order to make Avery’s case more compelling. That debate still rages on amongst investigators, armchair detectives, and even the members of the legal teams directly involved in the case. Armchair detective-work stops when actual casework is involved. “I’ll let the smart people handle it,” says the viewer, no doubt waiting for any glimmer of evidence that might confirm his pre-formed beliefs.

So then, is there any real distinction between the documentarian and the viewer? Both are armchair detectives attempting to use their best sleuthing (and lack of practical experience) to conjure up a solution to a mystifying crime scene. And when that solution doesn’t present itself, they conjure up the best emotional plea they can muster, relying on their audience’s feelings to provide the exoneration or damnation they require to sculpt a compelling narrative. If at first you don’t succeed, try really hard at convincing people that you actually did succeed. That way, they won’t know whom to believe.

Hubris is a defining facet for many, especially those who seek careers in entertainment. And since we, those viewers and listeners at home who compulsively binge on true crime programs, are using these documentaries to fantasize about how we would handle things, then can we really claim to be superior? There’s nothing particularly wrong with entertainment, nor its propensity to allow the viewer to escape his woes for a while. And when compared to the pandering fluff of most sitcoms, at least documentaries engage the viewer in critical thinking.

The line between entertainment and documentary blur when the public gets involved. And in the case of Making a Murderer, the public and its outrage have become directly involved. How can I claim the documentary failed when over one hundred thousand viewers are begging President Obama to free Avery? Forget the fact that Obama does not have that legal power, and that someone really should have thought that part through before gathering 130,000 signatures. If the documentary were truly unbiased, as its creators claim, how could it have done such a good job of misleading the masses into thinking that some factual argument for Avery’s innocence had been made, when clearly, the facts in his favor are either ambiguous or largely absent?

Our mistrust in the justice system may be to blame, and as Kathryn Schulz points out in her well-reasoned piece, Making a Murderer fails when it falls short of indicting the maddening aspects of the justice system because of its dependence on proving Avery’s innocence. The public outrage is not a result of people’s die-hard certainty that Avery is innocent, but rather that the justice system is flawed. The public wants Avery freed not because he is a saint, but because it would be penance for all those helpless convicted souls who rot away in jail cells for crimes they did not commit. And who can expect a criminal, surrounded by other criminals, to leave a life of confinement without learning to become a better criminal? Even God can’t save them all.

But speaking of God, that constant reminder of man’s failings, the big man upstairs who serves up reminders of hubris on a daily basis, what would prompt Ricciardi and Demos to stick to their guns, deliver bias, and then claim the opposite? How could they possibly spin themselves differently than they appear in the evidence provided? It’s almost like they had some practice. Perhaps working with Avery’s case all these years gave them some enlightenment. If we can’t save Avery, perhaps we can save ourselves using the legal mumbo-jumbo that resulted in his conviction. It probably wasn’t so cut-and-dry, but you have to wonder why it was so important for them to save face, or release the documentary at all, when there wasn’t much to go on beyond “gut feeling.” If they were so committed to obscuring damning evidence, they could have gone farther in finagling the details to make their documentary’s hero seem convincing.

But maybe true crime documentaries will always have plot-holes, gaping lapses in judgment, neatly filled with heresay and conjecture to angry up the blood. Perhaps The Jinx would have ended the same way if not for that Hail Mary confession. Like other true crime docs, The Jinx suffers from getting its documentarians involved in the narrative by the tail-end. They include themselves as a way of increasing their personal importance with regard to the findings, as well as to increase suspense. By using the documentarian as the viewer’s heroic avatar, they make us wonder, ‘What would I do in a similar situation? Would I have the strength to bear down and search for the truth in spite of the potential danger?’ It’s a way of deifying the documentarian as a brave explorer, rather than allowing them to fulfill their role as an educator. But as soon as the facts stop propelling the documentarian’s argument, their role as truth-finder falters. As they flail, they redefine themselves as the everyman, a hopeless schmo like us, one so tragically human that he couldn’t possibly solve the case without divine intervention. But in cases like Avery’s and many others, a documentarian’s absolution and desire for self-promotion do little to salvage the lives damaged or destroyed by the case, as well as the countless victims and bystanders left in its wake.

Interview: Field Producer Sarah Moshman

I worked with Sarah Moshman at my first internship in Los Angeles. A modern day Peggy Olsen, Moshman is an intensely fierce worker who often leaves little time for sleep, food, and other creature comforts the rest of us regularly enjoy. Amidst the onslaught of work she surmounts on a daily basis, Sarah produces quality product. I have constant admiration for her gung-ho attitude, ability to manage a rigorous (often nutso) schedule, and her conviction to complete her personal pet projects – you know, those little things we’ll all get around to doing sooner or later. Most recently, Sarah has worked as a Field Producer on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and as an Associate Producer on NBC’s Minute to Win It.

Your documentary Girl’s Rock! Chicago was recently featured on Chicago Public Television. What was that experience like?

When I set out to make “Girls Rock! Chicago” I was just doing it for myself. After working in reality television for a little while I missed what it feels like to have a project that you can take complete credit for. I found out about this spectacular rock camp for girls in Chicago that takes place for a week in the summer and I was truly inspired. It was one of those excited sleepless nights where you just know you are meant to do something. I funded the whole thing myself, rented equipment hired a sound girl, collaborated with my good friend Dana Cook and before I knew it we were there for the first day of camp ready to shoot. It felt great to complete this baby of mine, I’m not a great editor by any stretch of the imagination but I did all the editing and when it was done I was beyond proud of what came of this one idea. My Dad is the one who pushed me to submit it to air on PBS in Chicago, a one time employer of his. It was almost too easy– they watched it, loved it, and a couple months later it was on the air. I wasn’t able to be present for the broadcasts but seeing it in the TV Guide, and getting feedback from people watching it on TV was definitely an amazing feeling. I’ve had my name in the credits several times now for shows and such, but this was all mine. If you didn’t like the documentary there was no one else to blame but me, which is a scary and exciting feeling.

What is the nature of your work as an associate producer on a show like Dancing With the Stars or Minute to Win It? How does that differ from the work of a field producer?

Well my job as an associate producer on DWTS and MTWI are completely different even though they share the same title. On DWTS as an AP I worked as a story assistant half the time and a field producer half the time- it’s sort of a hybrid position. When I’m an assist I take field notes during dance rehearsals and then after our daily shoots I go back to the office and log the tapes we shot. Everyday a field producer and assist are sent into the field to shoot a couple as they rehearse for the next week’s show. As a field producer you are the one operating the camera, setting up the audio, conducting interviews and helping form the package for that week. So I went from an AP to a full time field producer on the show now, so all I do is shoot and interview the couples. Each week you are assigned a different couple to follow.

On MTWI as an Associate Producer my job is to help develop the stories for the potential contestants on our show. It’s a game show, but we aim to reveal a lot about our contestants in between the games they play, especially what they will use the money they win for. I brief the contestants on what to say when they are speaking to our host Guy Fieri, I help coordinate and produce surprise guests, phone calls, and video messages that take place during the show. And during shoot days I am backstage cheering my contestants on hoping they win big money! It is a very fun job, can be rewarding in a lot of ways and something I probably wouldn’t have sought out for myself but it sort of landed in my lap at the right time and has developed into a great opportunity.

What is your family like? Why do they inspire you?

I grew up with the nuclear family Mom, Dad, brother and me. My parents are still married after 30+ years and that’s inspirational on its own for me to get married only once and that relationships take hard work, it can’t always be a fairy tale. I hope to have a healthy and happy marriage like they do, and like my grandparents do as well. My brother Nathan who is a couple years older than me is an anomaly. He is incredibly smart in math and science, he is currently getting his PhD in astronautical engineering (I hope that’s right) whilst also working with and for NASA. On top of that he is a skater/snowboarder/California dude. He is the coolest “geek” you’ll ever meet. My Mom is the kindest, most encouraging woman I have ever known. She is always positive and warm, very rarely judgmental. I never felt like any dream was too big in my house which is a great way to approach your life. My Dad is my hero. Aside from the fact that he is 25+ time Emmy winning television producer- so there are some obvious shoes to fill- he is an endless pool of knowledge on ANY subject. Although our personalities can be very different there is so much I have to learn from him, more than any professor, or director, or book for that matter. I have the utmost respect for him and I hope one day to take a photo of him and his 25 Emmys surrounding him and me holding an Emmy of my own.

That's not Sarah's dad. That's Buzz Aldrin.

My Dad went to Northwestern as a drum major originally but then left the music school and studied radio/tv/film. He worked as an editor for a while but ended up as a television producer for a magazines series called “Wild Chicago” for 12 years, and then he worked for WGN and then CBS and now he is the EP of a business themed show called “First Business” on Channel 26 the U. In his free time he makes historical documentaries. His most recent one was about a submarine that left Wisconsin during World War II and disappeared off the coast of Thailand. It was found a few years ago with all 86 soldiers still on board.

You’ve worked with some incredible talent. Has anyone in particular made a strong impression on you?

Meeting Buzz Aldrin was definitely something that sticks out, he is a historical legend and I am honored to have worked with him! Working with Usher was great just because I am such a big fan of his and he is so talented. I liked working with comedian Niecy Nash because she was such a professional when it came to being on camera. Working with professional athletes (Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Rick Fox, Kurt Warner, Evan Lysacek, Shawn Johnson) is cool because they are so specialized that they are the best at what they do. Nicole Scherzinger is great, her voice is incredible and I don’t think it is showcased as well as it should be. Other singers I met like Brandy, Jewel, Mya and Toni Braxton were a thrill to meet because they are so talented and lovely.

Can you weigh in on the Bristol Palin controversy? How did it feel to have the highest rated show in the nation?

It is an honor to be a part of such a highly rated show. I’m not sure why people love it so much, but I will say when I wasn’t working on the last few weeks of this season I did race home to watch it like any other middle aged woman who loves it. There’s something about watching someone go on a journey doing something they have no knowledge about. As for Bristol I think it’s easy to agree that all the people who love Sarah would then vote for Bristol too. I don’t think there was any conspiracy of any kind. People were drawn to her like they were to Kelly Osbourne and Ty Murray who weren’t the best dancers but they had an authentic quality to them. I worked with Bristol and she is a normal girl just enjoying this opportunity given to her. She never took it too seriously and I commend her ability to shake off the haters since she is only 20 years old! And the people that complain about the voting system probably didn’t vote anyway, so how can you complain when you aren’t taking part in swaying it another way? I guess the more publicity the better when it comes to our show, after 11 seasons it’s good that it is maintaining momentum!

What was it like filming in Costa Rica for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here? What were the conditions like?

I spent 5 weeks in Costa Rica in the middle of NOWHERE near the jungle where the show was set up. I had to take a bus every morning 45 minutes to the location from our rinky-dink hotel and 45 minutes home, often stopping to make way for a herd of cows! We worked in 12 hour shifts so I started as 10am to 10pm and ended up with 1pm to 1am. When the bus would drop us off we had to walk over this super-rickety bridge to get to the camp where we worked. The food was decent at first and then incredibly bland, bugs everywhere, hottest weather I’ve ever experienced and I lived in Miami for 4 years! Just a very uncomfortable situation. Part of my job was to make runs into the jungle to drop things off or pick things up often times in pitch black darkness! The people I worked with were great, I knew some of them from “Dancing with the Stars,” but it was definitely a shock to the system. I only had 4 days off throughout the entire 5 weeks and I made a point to go exploring each time. I went zip lining, river rafting, I went on a chocolate tour to see how chocolate is made, I went horseback riding to a waterfall, those parts of the trip were awesome.

Girls Rock! Chicago is about girls overcoming stereotypes and becoming rock stars. What sort of challenges do you think female musicians face?

It seems like female musicians face the same challenges that women have faced in other industries– people not believing in them at first, not expecting much from them in terms of being a rock star. But in some ways that can be a good thing, if nothing is expected of you then people can be pleasantly surprised by the amount of talent you possess. The camp was really good at acknowledging those stereotypes and helping the girls bust through them.

What are you drawn to about documentary, and what are the limitations of the medium?

I’m drawn to the accessibility of documentary. I love the idea of finding an interesting event or person or issue and flushing it out to expose all the moving parts. I also like the fact that the cinematography is held at a seemingly lower standard when it comes to documentaries, not much is expected of them in that sense, so I try to make it a point to have a visually interesting as well. I love real subjects. I enjoy scripted shows and short films of course but there is something appealing about a real and true story unfolding before your eyes, and it’s your job as the filmmaker to shape it just the right way to keep the audience engaged.

As for limitations, as with any other medium there is so much saturation now it’s harder to stand out, but as whole I think people are way more accepting of documentaries as a form of entertainment, and people are paying to see them in theaters which is inspiring.

How do you like working in reality television?

I like it a lot more than I thought I would. Reality TV as a whole is garbage but there are some shows that really help people, or really take you on a journey, which is something special. In a way it feels like reality TV and documentaries go hand in hand. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunities I have had since I began. If it weren’t for reality TV there is no way I would be able to see my footage and my produced packages on a show that has an average audience of over 20 million people. I appreciate the way people are promoted and hard work is recognized in this section of the industry. I love being behind the camera and I’m very happy to have found a couple jobs that allow me to physically shoot which is something that would have taken me 3 times as long plus I would have had to join a union in the scripted world. It’s not where I intended to end up and it’s not where I will stay forever but I am very grateful for all the possibilities that available in reality TV.

You once told me you wanted to get into film eventually. What kind of movie would you like to be involved in?

I would love to get into film and scripted TV! Glee and The Office would be my dream shows to work on, and I would love to be involved in an independent film like Waitress or Little Miss Sunshine. Something with a smaller crew rather than a huge Hollywood budget, a more intimate process. The only films I would not like to be a part of are horror films! Otherwise I’m down!

What’s your beef with horror movies?

Well since I nearly passed out in 127 Hours I don’t think I could handle blood and horror. And horror movies stick with me and then I get scared to be alone at night. So… not for me.

Minute to Win It returns tomorrow at 8/7 Central on NBC with the start of its three-part Christmas special. Check it out.