After a five-year apprenticeship as a producer for the pioneering documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Joe Berlinger launched his directorial career with Brother’s Keeper. Made in tandem with another Maysles employee, Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary did something near-revolutionary for the time: It used fiction-film techniques to tell the true story of two isolated rural brothers, one of whom was being tried for the other’s death. In the 25 years since that influential debut, Berlinger has continued to make waves with films like the Paradise Lost trilogy, which covered the trials of three young men in West Memphis, Arkansas accused of the ritual killings of three boys and uncovered evidence that led to their release from prison.
I recently spoke to Berlinger at his Radical Media production company in downtown Manhattan about Intent to Destroy, a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Turkish government’s century-long campaign to deny that it happened. Self-assured and voluble, Berlinger talked about the new wave of documentary filmmakers that he has been part of, what Turkey’s denial of the genocide has in common with President Donald Trump’s “alternative facts,” and why audiences have responded much better to Intent to Destroy than distributors have.
You’re part of a kind of movement of documentary filmmakers who’ve made documentaries more popular than they used to be by making them more like fiction films. Do you feel that you paved the way for that?
I do. There was a school of documentarians, I think in the late ’80s, early ’90s, who were really trying to push the envelope in terms of what a documentary means, each of us in our own kind of way. Errol Morris was using artful, tasteful recreations. When The Thin Blue Line came out in 1988, a lot of documentarians said, “You can’t do recreations!” Michael Moore—
He used that very personal first-person approach.
Right, with Roger & Me, people were like, “You can’t put yourself on camera!” And I think what Bruce Sinofsky and I did, with Brother’s Keeper, even though we were on the one hand doing classic-’60s cinema vérité, capturing reality as it was unfolding, we pushed the envelope a little bit in the sense of trying to give documentary all the good qualities of narrative film—without, obviously, being untruthful. Of course, you don’t want to make things up.
The classic cinema vérité filmmakers, who we revered, people like the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Robert Drew, believed there was no such thing as a director. They thought they were capturing an objective reality. And Bruce and I felt differently, even though we learned the most important thing you learn from the Maysles brothers, which is the belief you can jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress on the other side to catch you—faith in present-tense filming of a story and not knowing where it’s going to go. Where I think we differed is that I do believe all films have a director, that all films are subjective. A film is a thousand subjective decisions. So if a documentary is as subjective as a feature film, then why can’t you use all the good qualities of narrative filmmaking to make your film cinematically satisfying?
Brother’s Keeper had this amazing musical score, which back then was actually criticized. We had a very cinematic title sequence, which back then was kind of unheard of. We had this beautiful cinematic style to the shooting. And, most importantly, we chose a subject which had natural dramatic structure. A murder trial is the classic definition of drama. You have a beginning, middle, and end. You have an antagonist and a protagonist, each vying for the truth. There’s conflict and a resolution, and the murder trial was chosen very intentionally because we were trying to imbue dramatic structure and narrative filmmaking technique into a documentary. We even eschewed the word “documentary.” When we brought Brother’s Keeper out into the world, we were very careful to say “No, it’s not a documentary. It’s a nonfiction feature film.” In many ways—I know this sounds really highfalutin, but you asked the question—kind of invoking Truman Capote.
In Cold Blood?
Yes, In Cold Blood, the nonfiction novel where he was synthesizing nonfiction technique with novelistic technique. We felt, with Brother’s Keeper, that we were doing the filmic equivalent. We weren’t the only ones who did this—we didn’t invent it—but it was a well-known example of that school of filmmaking. So I feel like, yes, I was part of a school, and I think there was a lot of fertile activity. Jennie Livingston, with Paris Is Burning, I think her contribution—and Brother’s Keeper did this too—was putting people on the screen who you don’t normally see: “What? You’re gonna put these drag queens on screen?”
The other thing that Brother’s Keeper did that’s also our contribution to pushing the definition of what a documentary could be was to embrace and celebrate ambiguity. The film isn’t about some topic that we’re educating you about; it’s a portrait of this trial and this community. Nothing made us happier than when people would debate whether Delbert Ward was guilty or not. To me, that’s a cool way to make a film: Treat the audience like a jury and let them make up their own mind. And that’s the thing the film was most criticized about, in its day, by the documentarians of that era.
“So what’s your conclusion?”
Exactly. “What’s this film about?” It’s about life, the human condition.
Since you rejected that voice-of-God point of view and incorporated narrative film techniques in your films, what is it now that makes you want to do documentaries rather than fiction films? What differentiates the two?
First of all, with Brother’s Keeper, the social activist gene in me hadn’t been awakened. Brother’s Keeper was purely a cinematic exercise. I loved film and wanted to make one, to create a kind of film that had the best qualities of narrative technique grafted onto a cinema-vérité documentary. That was purely an aesthetic goal, and we carried that same aesthetic goal into Paradise Lost, which started off, ironically, not—even though we wound up doing three films over two decades about trying to bring relief to these guys—
You thought they were guilty when you started.
Right. We started off thinking they were guilty, because of all the press out of Arkansas, and the police. Nobody was saying these kids might be even remotely innocent. We went down there thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers, and once again it was purely an aesthetic decision: Let’s create this ambiguous portrait of why kids kill. Halfway into the film, before the trial started, we realized they might be innocent, and then we became convinced of their innocence, and as they’re being chained up and led away, to death row for Damien Echols and life without parole for Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. at the end of the film, that moment in real life, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We were just emotionally devastated that we sat through five weeks of, really, a modern-day witch hunt, and these kids who we felt were innocent were being sent to their deaths. That’s when the social-activist gene, or whatever, awakened in me, and that’s when I realized that documentary can be used to help change things.