Nov 9, 2016
A True Crime Film Festival in NYC—Sort Of
DOC NYC is the largest documentary film festival in the country and thus rather unwieldy, with a something-for-everyone approach to programming. The trick is figuring out which of those somethings within its week (November 10–17) of 110 features and almost as many shorts is for you. For example, the True Crime sidebar is essentially a mini-festival of six features, all making their NYC premieres, each captivating and distinct.
Each series in the first wave of New True Crime identified a justice-system wrong, drew attention to it and effected change. Serial got Adnan Syed a chance at a new trial; The Jinx got Robert Durst arrested; Making a Murderer got Brendan Dassey’s conviction overturned. The most familiar and satisfying doc in this festival lineup, then, should be The Promise (Nov. 13, 8:45pm, IFC Center) , which continues in that tradition, reexamining the 1985 murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom at their home in Central Virginia (called “Loose Chippings”). Their daughter and her then-boyfriend are presently in jail for it, but if enough people see this movie, the latter might not be for long.
Nathan Heller covered their story last year in the New Yorker, in an article that embraced an issue of epistemology common to New True Crime: lowbrow murder becomes highbrow when invested with the philosophical problem of our inability to know for sure what happened, even in the age of DNA. Heller is suspicious of the official story but also of the two people in jail for it—Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering—and insinuates they could both be guilty, though who knows of what. “None of these scenarios seem plausible,” he writes. “One seems to have occurred.”
The directors of The Promise, Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, are not so agnostic—they clearly believe he should be freed, and the movie is pro-Soering advocacy. (He wants to be sent to Germany, where his family is from and where there is much more sympathy for him than in Virginia; not coincidentally, it’s also where both the documentarians are from!) In a newly recorded prison interview, he comes off well (despite repeated and hilarious reaction shots of a bored guard and cameraman)—reasonable, intelligent and meek. It’s one thing to read his quotes in a magazine, another to hear him say them for yourself.
Also to his benefit, the filmmakers identify motives, alternative suspects and circumstantial evidence, amassing mountains of reasonable doubt for Soering and presenting it as such, even though at one point he’d confessed to the crime, in what he says now was a misguided attempt at gallantry. As one investigator puts it, 75 percent of people in jail are there because their mouths put them there.
It’s a compelling story, but that isn’t reason enough anymore to tell a True Crime story—at least not if you want respectable people to get interested. Mere murder is tawdry, the stuff of comic books and drugstore paperbacks; it’s considered in poor taste to tell a story of death that doesn’t tease out deeper themes, such as systematic injustice. You also find that in O.J.: Made in America, which intertwines the familiar footballer’s biography with a history of race relations in Los Angeles, so that it’s not just about the gory details of a celebrity’s crime but also about the cultural context he was able to exploit to get away with it. It’s a fascinating portrait of American society that happens to have a famous person at its center. (The almost eight-hour ESPN miniseries screens Nov. 14, at 10am at the IFC Center, as part of the festival’s Short List strand, which includes 15 Oscar frontrunners.)
There’s little that’s more highbrow than the milieu of Sour Grapes (Nov. 14, 8:45pm, Cinepolis Chelsea; Nov. 17, 12:30pm, IFC Center)—the huge-money world of fine wine in the aughts, when the auctions were bawdy and people might open $200,000 worth of bottles in a night. This doc is the only True Crimer in the festival that doesn’t focus on death—instead, it’s the story of Rudy Kurniawan, a personable, knowledgable and generous young wine dealer who was throwing around unprecedented amounts of money, simultaneously revolutionizing and manipulating the rarified market. One FBI agent describes him as a “Gen X Great Gatsby,” also buying up art and real estate.
He was also a con man, counterfeiting rare and extraordinary wines, though many friends still can’t believe it; he was likely funded by Indonesian bank-robbery money (seriously) and definitely by auction houses that made too much off him to stop. The extent of his swindle is unknown—was it just a fraction of his stock? Or much more? Part of the reason is that his careful imitation was an art, says novelist and wine douche Jay McInerney, and the movie might pair nicely with F for Fake in its exploration of forgery, from the symbiotic nature of the counterfeiter and his mark to whether many connoisseurs can even discern the details they purport to celebrate. If you think it tastes good, and you believe you’re enjoying the best, is there a problem?
Kurniawan, serving a ten-year sentence in federal prison, denied interview requests from the directors, Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell, but they have priceless found footage of him at various wine events, which editor James Scott cleverly inserts as though Kurniawan were commenting on the action. The tactic might strike you as cheap, but fuck it—combined with the vivid establishing shots of California cities and phantasmagoric ones of French wine country, Sour Grapes is an artful piece of schadenfreude, in which the uniquely obnoxious, wine-swirling rich are bamboozled, embarrassed and jailed.
Unseen inspires the opposite emotion. (Not even German has the word.) If The Promise exposes problems in Virginia’s justice system, Unseen (Nov. 11, 9:45pm, Cinepolis Chelsea) tears Cleveland’s apart. This devastating film concerns Anthony Sowell, who, released from jail, where he was serving a sentence for rape, moved to Imperial Avenue in Cleveland’s jobless, crack-ravaged Mount Pleasant neighborhood; two years later, in 2009, police found eleven bodies decomposing on different floors of his house or buried in his backyard—eleven women whose disappearances hadn’t even been investigated by police, six of whom had been killed even after a woman who escaped his house had spoken to police.
Most of the victims were not only black women but also drug users and sex workers. The local bodega owner, Assad Tayeh, who knows everyone and their business, says the community needed more Sowells—“he clean up the garbage.” It’s an attitude the police apparently shared, but director Laura Paglin interviews locals, relatives and victims who got away, many of them former sex workers and recovering addicts, to remind us of the victims’ humanity, denied not only by the killer but also by the culture and its institutions. One now-grown man describes his mother, one of Sowell’s victims, as “a beautiful person who was sick,” and Paglin makes that case for every one of them.
She also explores the ruined community, the toll drugs take on addicts, their friends, families and neighbors, and makes it painfully plain that Mount Pleasant’s problem wasn’t a single murderer but the conditions that allowed him for years to get away with it. Everyone’s indicted. One woman who escaped Sowell’s home describes the moments immediately after, as people on the street laughed at her. “No one helped,” she says, weeping. Do any of us, ever?
More lurid but less satisfying is the HBO film Beware the Slenderman (Nov. 12, 6:45pm, SVA Theatre), whose title refers to an urban legend, a new brand of boogeyman, popular with the kids. Its case—two 12-year-old girls who stabbed their friend—is perplexing and morbidly fascinating, as well as broadly similar to the British case of “Mark” and “John,” first reported in 2005 in Vanity Fair and later adapted into feature films and even an opera.
At root, it’s about the internet, which means it’s Relevant: the girls claimed they stabbed her to win the favor of Slenderman, who would then invite them to live in his secret mansion, and the documentary is smartest when it explores the Slenderman phenomenon: how myth-building can now be crowdsourced, how memes can go wrong. It’s timeless yet specific: Slenderman is an odd manifestation of an ancient archetype, at least as old as the Grimms’ Pied Piper.
The movie is at its most absorbing at its most sensational, when it follows its wild Slenderman story to its most far-out reaches. But the ultimate responsibility for the crime is located somewhere less outrageous than its details—in the middle of a perfect storm of social isolation and mental illness. There’s no failure of the justice system or the parents or the school or even the internet, really. It’s just that, well, schizophrenia can make you do crazy things. Let’s all promise to keep an eye out for the warning signs.
Santoalla (Nov. 16, 3pm, IFC Center; Nov. 17, 7:30pm, Cinepolis Chelsea) is also archetypal, depicting an old antagonism, played out everywhere from remote and ruinous Spain to bustling and built-up Brooklyn. But its story is less prurient than poignant—a death story but more so a love story, played out against a family feud. Directors Daniel Mehrer and Andrew Becker create a compelling portrait of a changing community but focus on how larger cultural trends play out at the individual level. By telling a story about two crazy kids who got a little too crazy in the wrong corner of the world, it also, like Unseen, makes you sadly aware of the real value of a single life. (Too often True Crime doesn’t do this: Hae Min Lee, Kathleen Durst and Teresa Halbach have not emerged as powerful personalities in the stories of their deaths.)
Santoalla is set in its title village, also called Santa Eulalia, in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain, a rural area, gradually abandoned over the past few decades until just two families remained, inhabiting neighboring homes: one, a married couple of transplants, Martin and Margo, looking to rebuild the village; the others, natives, the Rodríguez family, who demanded everything stay the same. There are stubborn men on both sides, and their conflict intensifies with a legal dispute over valuable rights to common land. Two weeks after it’s settled, favorably, for the newcomers, Martin disappears.
Did he have an accident? Did he run away? Or was he murdered by the Rodríguezes? The directors focus less on the less-than-mysterious mystery, vague as its details are (until an epilogue), than on the people it affected and the place where they lived; they handsomely shoot the collapsed homes in the emptied village with a thematically appropriate emphasis on light and shadow and mist.
The Man Who Saw Too Much (Nov. 12, 9:45pm, Cinepolis Chelsea) also vividly captures a Spanish-speaking place—Mexico City—and conveys much meaning through imagery. It’s surely the most genre-relevant doc in the sidebar, as it focuses on crime-scene photographer Enrique Metinides, who has for decades been snapping stunning, graphic shots of accidents and crime for the newspaper La Prensa. This is meta true crime, not about the criminals but the documentarians. Director Trisha Ziff provocatively links journalism and death at the start; the movie opens with intercut footage of different factories: one publishes the tabloid, with its lurid front-page photos; the other makes caskets, which presumably hold the subjects of those photos, or at least people like them.
The boyish Metinides is like a south-of-the-border Weegee with Gay Talese style; he started out as a camera-toting child hunting down car crashes who soon graduated to more violent subjects: his first truly jaw-dropping shot, in a career that would be full of them (he estimates he’s taken approximately 1.7 million photos), is of a morgue warden holding up, by the hair, the head of a murdered man decapitated by a train. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is appreciating Metinides’s artistry, of which Ziff includes copious examples.
Another is when Ziff revisits the scenes of Metinides’s most awesome photographs, filming and sometimes interviewing participants in those tragedies many years later, where they happened. Like the opening sequence, like the photographs themselves, like the true crime genre, these are stirring reminders of the real violence that threatens all of us, of the fact that every dead person on the front page of a newspaper was a victim of the same unexpected surprise that awaits us all. “Our journey through life and the universe,” one author tells Ziff, “is circumstantial, fleeting and short.” DOC NYC has many movies to remind you of that.
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