Joe Berlinger on how social justice content can change lives
Twenty-five years after Brother’s Keeper, Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning Joe Berlinger tells Elbert Wyche why his work as an investigative documentarian continues to inspire him – be it in film or TV.
Berlinger made a name for himself in the crime genre with investigative film projects like The Paradise Lost Trilogy and Whitey: United States Of America V. James J Bulger. He was nominated for a best documentary feature Oscar for his 2012 film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, and has netted seven Emmys nods, winning two for Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.
He has kept the investigative tradition alive through TV projects like Killing Richard Glossip and the eight-part series Gone: The Forgotten Women Of Ohio (pictured), currently airing on Spike.
Why has the crime genre been so important to you?
The very first film was Brother’s Keeper and at that time I was interested in two things – giving a voice to people trapped in the criminal justice system and, from a pure cinematic standpoint, pushing the boundaries of what a documentary could be. I was very interested in pushing the documentary form by giving it all the great dramatic qualities of a scripted film. Not in the sense of being untruthful, of course, but the form of the narrative. Trials have this perfect dramatic structure – a beginning, middle, and end. And you have protagonists and antagonist, each side vying for the truth and it comes to a conclusion.
When did you realise your work was effecting real change?
I think the real turning point for me in using cinema as a tool for social justice, particularly in the crime space, was when we were filming Paradise Lost. When we were first making that film we thought we were making a film about three guilty teenagers, because the police and the media were all painting this as an open and shut case of three devil-worshipping teens and the evidence was overwhelming. I realised about midway through filming that we were sitting on footage that showed three innocent kids who were just convicted of murder; one on death row, and two sentenced to life without parole. That’s when I set out on a mission to use film to give people a voice that might be trapped in the system. I think in Paradise Lost it became clear to me that the crime genre, at least for me, is both an aesthetic choice and a tool for advocacy.
The Paradise Lost series shows you the impact a film can have. We did three films over two decades and kept focusing attention on this wrongful conviction case. The films eventually led to the release of the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three in August of 2011 after 18-and-a-half years of incarceration. We had started those films the day the guys were arrested and followed the story [for their entire time behind bars].
What does TV offer compared to film as a medium for exploring these issues?
There’s been such a renaissance in TV. I came into the documentary business at a time when documentaries were the exception rather than the rule in a theatrical setting. [When I started by career] I wanted to make documentaries for theatrical release. That was kind of a new idea when I started in the early 1990s with Brother’s Keeper. The 1990s witnessed an explosion of documentaries at the box office and again in the early 2000s. To me there’s nothing like sitting in a room and having that communal experience of watching something with a group of people, especially in a film where you want people to take action. The communal setting is the reason I got into filmmaking. Artistically, my heart is always there. Today, the pendulum has swung away from documentaries being popular at the box office and now television is really the way to get the message out there in a very big way. What TV offers on issues like this is the ability to reach as many people as possible.
What attracted you to your most recent project Gone: The Forgotten Women Of Ohio?
There’s no-one wrongfully convicted in the Spike series The Forgotten Women Of Ohio. Advocacy for the voiceless includes people who aren’t getting justice. What attracted me to this particular story was the fact that the families of the victims all believed that the police were ignoring these cases because of the lifestyle of these women: they were prostitutes and addicted to drugs. I was sitting on my porch in July of 2015 and I read a Huffington Post article about these women that vanished. It spoke to me as a father of daughters myself. I would want justice pursued if God forbid something were to happen to anyone I knew. Interestingly, this series is the most real-time [project] I’ve ever done. The show is already airing and we’re still filming it; as we speak there’s breaking news that we’re covering.
How did you fund this project?
At the time I had been speaking to Spike about doing a series, they were interested in [working together]. When I read the article I pitched it to them and they wanted to do it, so they funded it. This is a Spike series.
You have made it known that you think Richard Glossip, the subject of your recent TV series Killing Richard Glossip, is innocent. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to cover these types of stories?
I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. In Killing Richard Glossip, Glossip is in a pretty hopeless situation, all of his legal appeals have been exhausted, and clemency has been denied. Not only do people feel that he’s innocent, he also had this twisted journey through the criminal justice system where they nearly executed him three times, [but didn’t because of flaws in the system]. When I entered the story, he had a temporary reprieve from execution simply because the wrong drugs were utilised and they halted the execution. That’s a perfect opportunity for me to shine a light on this case and get the court of public opinion to make some noise about it, and I think we successfully did that. Whether the show actually stops the execution or makes the state reopen the case is anybody’s guess. When you enter these stories in such precarious moments, you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility because you want to be a fair and accurate journalist and fully tell the story. You sit there in the editing room with all these decisions that you know could literally have an impact on the human being’s life.
Why was the Investigation Discovery network the right home for Killing Richard Glossip?
I thought [Investigation Discovery] would be a good place to do the show because I had just done a previous show for them called Judgement Day, about the parole system, and we were talking about doing another series. We had to move very quickly because no one knew when the moratorium on the execution was going to be lifted. I pitched it to ID and they were excited about doing it. [Glossip’s] lawyers met with ID and myself in Silver Springs, Maryland, and agreed to give us the access that we needed to do the show. It was something that we had to do very quickly, so it wasn’t something that I took around to a lot of different networks.
Radical Media is the production company behind all of your projects. What is that relationship like?
I have a film development company called Third Eye Motion Picture Company, which has an overhead deal at Radical Media. For the last 16 years, Radical has been my home. My film and television development company is not a production company, so Radical handles all of my productions.