Netflix’s Making a Murderer premiered last month, December 18, and has since generated heated debates and been making daily headlines. This 10-episode documentary series, by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, chronicles the exoneration and subsequent murder conviction of Steven Avery in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery is a junkyard car dealer with an IQ of 70 who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before he was exonerated due to DNA evidence in 2003. Two years later, in the midst of a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc county, he was arrested for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. His sixteen-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also convicted for the same murder. In 2007, after separate trials, both were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. This “fly-on-the-wall” documentary series examines those convictions and offers a narrative that includes potentially planted evidence, suspected police and prosecutorial misconduct, an apparently coerced confession and a defence lawyer who abandoned his teenage client. Subsequently, this narrative has led viewers to respond with near-universal outrage about Avery’s and Dassey’s verdicts. Since its release, it has become one of Netflix’s most watched programmes and has even been considered by Forbes Magazine “Netflix’s Most Significant Show Ever”. The series have generated daily online discussions about whether Avery and Dassey were skilfully framed by a morally corrupt county police or whether they are evil monsters guilty of killing an innocent young woman. In addition, as we write this, more than four hundred thousand people have signed a petition to President Obama demanding that “Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon” (as Avery was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones, the President does not have the power to pardon him). As interesting as the ‘guilty or innocent’ debate is the debate about ‘Documentary Truth’. In many online forums, news reports – and their comments section – and social media there have been heated discussions about the documentarians’ bias towards Avery’s and Dassey’s innocence and the filmmakers’ lack of ‘objectivity’ and commitment to investigate the ‘truth’ about what happened to Teresa Halbach. Documentary ‘Truth’ Writing in the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz recalls an interview she did with Penny Beerntsen, the victim of Avery’s wrongful conviction of rape, in 2007. In this interview Beerntsen explains that she declined participating in Making a Murderer chiefly because she felt that the filmmakers struck her as having already made up their minds: “It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent…I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.” This is exactly the problem of the commonly-held view of what documentaries, and journalism, are about or should be about: seeking the truth. This is way of thinking about these two forms of storytelling has been criticised in many academic studies from various university journalism and documentary departments across the world. Any serious work … Read More
Our Reading for Change Book Club recently featured in the blog of the Hannah Arendt Center, at Bard College, New York. Click on the image below to read the full post.
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