“Documentary filmmakers are storytellers, they’re not stenographers,” one journalism professor tells TheWrap
The Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” hasn’t just sparked debate about the innocence or guilt of Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man and convicted killer that the series revolves around. It’s also incited discussion about its own veracity.
Ken Kratz, the prosecutor in the Avery case, told TheWrap in an email this week that the series left out crucial pieces of evidence. Robert Hermann, the sheriff in Manitowoc County, Wis., said that the filmmakers “cut the tape and manipulated things.”
Is a filmmaker obligated to tell a complete story in unadorned fashion? And does “Making a Murderer” count as journalism calling out injustice? Or is it a slanted hack job? TheWrap spoke to exports in the film-making and journalism fields about filmmakers’ responsibilities to both narrative, and balance.
Duy Linh Tu, associate professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School and the creative director of documentary and commercial production house Resolution Seven, told TheWrap that viewers would be mistaken to expect “the complete court record” from documentaries.
“It’s a documentary; documentary filmmakers are storytellers, they’re not stenographers,” Tu said. “The filmmakers spent a lot of time with Avery’s team and that side of the story, so they’re naturally going to have more access to that side. So if you want to call that skewed, absolutely. But if you’re saying skewed [as in] presenting an untruth, I’m not sure about that.”
He added: “I don’t think they’re leaving anything out maliciously or to manipulate the viewer, but things get left out. It’s impossible not to.”
One area where “Murderer” filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi didn’t go far enough to establish their objectivity, Tu said, was in not reaching out enough to Kratz, or at least making it clear that they had repeatedly reached out to the prosecutor.
“That’s just a basic fundamental fix that they could have had in there to put a lot of this to rest,” Tu said.
(It’s a matter of debate how many times Demos and Ricciardi reached out to Kratz. In an interview with TheWrap, the filmmakers said that they had contacted the prosecutor three times over nine years. Kratz has contended that he was only contacted once.)
Tu disagrees with the notion that journalism must give equal time to both sides to be fair.
“There are facts about this case, and a good journalist calls fouls like a referee in a game. You know, a referee doesn’t call five fouls on both teams; a referee calls fouls as they come,” Tu said.
Tu said that he wasn’t close enough to the filmmakers’ process to judge the film’s fairness. “But damn,” he said. “They can tell one hell of a story.”
Mitchell Block, an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and a filmmaker whose credits include “The Testimony” and “More Than Skin Deep,” was closer to the process behind “Making a Murderer.” He was initially a producer of the series and attached to it. Block viewed “huge amounts of material” involved in the project and, as part of the vetting process, screened the project and materials for a former Orange County, Calif., district attorney and another attorney.
Block said his legal experts gave “Making a Murderer” a thumbs-up.
“I just showed them early cuts of the movie and they reacted very positively, and they thought it was outrageous what happened,” Block said.
“What they’ve created is an ethical, clear, stunning portrait of this tremendous injustice,” he added.
As for the evidence that Kratz claims was left out of the series, Block offered, “It’s a movie; it’s not a 500,000-word New Yorker piece. I think the scope of the work is so broad and so rich that some things might have been left out, but whether they’re exculpatory is almost irrelevant. The work stands on its own.”
And if Kratz wants to give more of his side of the story, Block offered, “He should put together his own piece and put it up on YouTube or on Netflix.”
Block also suggested that the controversy surrounding the film isn’t so much about its accuracy as its impact.
“Any time a movie hits a nerve, you’re going to have people challenging it,” Block said, “As soon as you hit a nerve, as soon as you tell a story that questions our sensibilities, you want to create a kind of discourse, which I why I think so many filmmakers are attracted to the documentary form.”