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Interview: Joe Berlinger Talks Career and Intent to Destroy

Berlinger discusses why audiences have responded so well to his latest documentary.

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Interview: Joe Berlinger Talks Career and Intent to Destroy
Photo: Radical Media

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.

Your film played an instrumental role in getting the West Memphis Three’s sentences overturned. Is part of you now always looking for another film that could have as profound an impact on people’s lives?

That was a career highlight. We walked the red carpet at the Oscars with the West Memphis Three, and though we didn’t win that night I went home really being proud and deeply moved that here I was walking the red carpet with guys who were on death row or life without parole only seven or eight months before. I have younger filmmakers come up to me and say “Paradise Lost made me want to be a filmmaker,” or that “Brother’s Keeper made me want to be a filmmaker.” That kind of impact on people is almost as fulfilling as changing the outcome of a situation.

I appreciate Intent to Destroy because its main focus isn’t the facts of the genocide. You establish those, for viewers who don’t know about it, but then you move on to your real subject, which is the campaign of denial that’s suppressed those facts over the decades. What made you choose that angle?

There are other films out there that have covered the genocide itself, but for me what’s most interesting is the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of denial—and American complicity in that denial. Everyone thinks that Hollywood is just this liberal environment where people can tell whatever story they want, but the fact is that as early as 1935 Irving Thalberg was being shut down [when he tried to make a film of the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh]. It’s basically taboo in Hollywood to tell this story, because whenever a project is mounted, the Turkish government complains to the state department and the state department twists the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project. To me, it’s mind-boggling that a foreign country that gets billions and billions of dollars in aid from us can intervene in our internal artistic output, let alone lobbying congress to not pass resolutions about the genocide and funding alternative-facts “studies.”

There are parallels to the times we’re living in today. For Turkey, to have mounted this century-long campaign of obfuscation to the point where, at one point, helping the Armenians was America’s greatest moment of generosity, the Near East Relief effort was the largest relief effort mounted up until that point, and there were 146 articles in the New York Times—it was a well-known story—yet today most Americans have no idea that the genocide happened. I think stories like that, that are swept under the rug, are a parable for much larger issues, particularly in these perilous times, where alternative facts and fake news are bandied about, where Trump just bombards you with an alternative version of reality, until people just get so tired they tune out or they accept the other version of reality.

The Turks were very effective at suppressing evidence of the genocide from the start, making it difficult for people to take pictures or to get film developed or shipped out of the country. There were a lot of newspaper stories published at the time, but there aren’t a lot of archival images, right? Did that make for challenges in making a documentary about the events?

There’s not a ton. It’s not like the Holocaust. But there’s enough. The museum in Yerevan has a lot of documentary material. We had to dig deep to get some footage and photographs. And then there’s that survivor testimony footage, some of which is in the film. Using The Promise as the glue, so it’s not just talking heads and archival footage, was very helpful to allow people to have a picture of what these things looked like, but in terms of finding material to support the truthfulness of the genocide, it’s not that hard to find.

I wasn’t thinking about needing to prove the truth of it, just about making a film that’s cinematic enough to be interesting and not just, as you say, talking heads and a little archival footage. I read that you didn’t want to make Intent to Destroy until you were granted access to the filming of The Promise. Is that because you though you needed those images to supplement the archival photos and film?

Most of my films are cinema vérité, where you film things in the present tense, so my comfort zone is following a story as it’s unfolding. And if you remove all the Promise footage and you just have talking heads intercut with archival footage, that’s not the type of filmmaker I am. I think that would be just a lot of information bludgeoned over people’s heads, so therefore it won’t be effective. Experiencing the making of the film and illustrating certain moments, I think, helped the film breathe and work on a couple different levels. But I also wasn’t interested in just telling a story of what happened in 1915, because that’s been done, and I’m not a historical filmmaker. The making of The Promise, for me, was the window into the other parts of the film that I think are more interesting than just the facts of the genocide, which is denial.

Have you experienced any kind of pressure while making Intent to Destroy?

I haven’t. I think the threats today are less physical. They’re more about trolling on the internet. For example, no one had seen The Promise when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, but the night before there were already 5,000 negative reviews on IMDb, and by the end of the week, when maybe 5,000 people had seen the film, there were 85,000 negative reviews. So the lobbying is more behind the scenes, more cyber.

What kind of interest have you found in this documentary, from film festivals and journalists and distributors, compared to your other documentaries?

To be honest with you, the festival and popular response has been very strong, but I think the distribution response has been disappointing. I don’t want to name names, but I’ve had a number of people that I’ve done business with in the past be concerned that, “Well, we’re a global company and we do business in Turkey.” Or “Are we going to get threats and intimidation if we air the show?” Stuff that just boggles my mind. The film will get out there. It’s being released by Abramorama and we have a television deal that we’re negotiating. But a number of people who I thought would be interested in the film haven’t embraced it. So one can draw their own conclusions as to why. I can’t say, but I find it interesting, because what’s a good documentary? One that takes you into a world that you don’t know, necessarily, anything about. This film does that. It’s an important, little-known story.

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