“No One Saw a Thing” director Avi Belkin believes that the murder of the local bully in a small Missouri town — a murder that remains unsolved — is an “allegory about the origin of violence of America.”
Sundance describes “No One Saw a Thing” as a TV documentary examining an unsolved and mysterious death in the American heartland and the corrosive effects of vigilantism in small-town America. The case garnered international attention in the early 1980s after a resident, nicknamed the “town bully,” was shot dead in front of almost 60 townspeople. These witnesses deny having seen anything, to this very day.
Ken McElroy was convicted of shooting and injuring a grocer in Skidmore, a town in Missouri, in 1981, but successfully appealed the conviction. He then resumed his harassment of the grocer, until he was shot dead the following day, in front of at least two dozen people. To this day, no one has been charged.
“The violence in America is domestic — there is no one threatening America,” the Israeli filmmaker told TheWrap. “A lot of the violence is inside in the country and uncalled for. There is a question about why America is so violent, and I do think America is more violent than other countries for sure — the violence in other countries is based on poverty, economics, or something else but here, the violence is arbitrary, almost. It’s fascinating as a storyteller why you need all that violence, especially in that small town. It’s beautiful there. You shouldn’t have those gruesome acts of violence.”
The documentarian interviews the townspeople who witnessed the murder, as well as the people who grew up hearing about it. Belkin also believes this particular case represents the desire for vigilantism in America, especially when law enforcement fails.
“Vigilante culture is very acceptable in America, sometimes even glorified,” he explained. “People don’t see anything wrong with taking justice into their own hands if they feel like they need to. And for me, maybe that’s one of the reasons why there is so much violence in America, because violence is glorified, and violence is a solution to the problem, and these stories have been handed down from generation to generation. That part of America, Missouri, is ground zero for vigilantes.”
And while many townspeople believed the murder of McElroy was going to end the tyranny in the town, the violence actually continued and many more people died tragically.
“This is a very microcosm [sic] story of America,” Belvin said. “At the end of the day, small towns are the DNA of America. I think there’s something strong about conformity in a community, and about being in a situation where in the town, everyone decided that this was going to be their approach and everyone conformed into it. There is something very strong in the price about secrets. That’s what’s so beautiful about this story: It starts like a weird killing but then turns into an allegory about the origin of violence of America.”
See below for a Q&A with Belkin touching on a number of topics including the article that inspired him to direct the documentary, his first impressions of the town of Skidmore and prominence of vigilante culture in America. The series will premiere on Thursday at 11/10c on Sundance TV.
TheWrap: How did you come across the story?
Belkin: I was still in Tel Aviv three years ago when I came across a little article in a newspaper that there is a small town in Missouri and they had a bully in town and one day, the people just decided they can get rid of him, so they decided to kill him. One day, 60 people gathered around him in a circle like a Wild West situation and killed him and dumped his body in the middle of the street and walked away. And that piqued my interest. But what really got me going was when I found out that there were a lot more crazy, brutal, violent crimes that followed and I decided I had to meet these people and flew to America.
What do you think happened? How can so many people get away with just staying silent about a murder?
That’s the crux of the story and the biggest element of the story that makes it so special. How can you keep a bond of silence between so many people for so many years? In all those years, no one has ever talked — it’s amazing. One of the most interesting questions is, how do you enforce that silence? There isn’t a clear answer for that — some of them are still hidden — but I feel like there are still a lot of powerful people in that community that enforce the silence and people think they did the right thing. Vigilante culture is very acceptable in America, sometimes even glorified. People don’t see anything wrong with taking justice into their own hands if they feel like they need to. And for me, maybe that’s one of the reasons why there is so much violence in America, because violence is glorified, and violence is a solution to the problem, and these stories have been handed down from generation to generation. That part of America, Missouri, is ground zero for vigilantes. This is a small community, all they do is talk among themselves, there’s no way they don’t know who did the killing. The law enforcement knows, but the question is why nothing was done? When I first got to America, I asked people if they would’ve done it, and they said, ‘yeah, I would’ve killed him probably as well.’ The moral question is… what would you do in a situation like that? Where you are living in the town and where you have someone disrupting life? Is it worth killing him? And the bigger question is, what is the price?
There’s something very American about the vigilante phenomenon and America was founded on renegades and people took the law into their own hands… And today, superheroes are almost always vigilantes who are very integrated in the culture, and I think there’s something about American culture specifically that celebrates individualism but also solving your problems through violence.
What does the series say about the role of media in these kind of cases?
The media put a spotlight on this forgotten place. No one knew what Skidmore, Missouri was. Then you have this killing, and then you have crews from “60 Minutes,” Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, and others start to talk about it, and this town is suddenly in the spotlight under the worst circumstance. Then, when the other violence happened, the media then continued to come. The media played a role of perpetuating the stigma on the town and keeping that case alive, and it kept the townspeople constantly on edge and wary of people coming to talk to them and creating this paranoid feeling they continued to have, and media celebrates violence. It’s this double movement — on the one hand, they were seeing violence all over the place and on the other hand, they are being hunted for what they considered is a moment of payback. A lot of people who shot him and witnessed the killing didn’t expect this to be so big. They never thought the media was going to come, putting Skidmore on the map and examining the case for decades.
I think because there’s never been closure, [the interest in the case] will never die. It’s like an open wound that you never let heal. The series doesn’t say who the killer is and I personally don’t care about the name of the killer — for me, the whole town did it. The name is out there, the FBI has it in their files. I saw them. But no one wants to convict him and this was an agreement of everyone in the town. Del Clement is the name that people agree on — that he was one of the shooters. He is dead today, and he was never brought to justice.
Do you think murder is ever justified? What if the law fails?
For me, that’s a moral question that everyone has to ask themselves. For me, murder is never justified, and the series shows that if even if you think it’s justified, it will come back to haunt you. There is no escape from murder — It poisons the values our society is built on. There is some unspoken bond between vigilantes and law enforcement in America where they almost never got convicted…. I think it’s connected to superheroes, I just think many people to this day, even if you look at all the other violence that happened afterwards, still don’t feel it was the wrong thing to do. It will be interesting to see how audiences will react.
How do you explain the constant violence in Skidmore?
For me, one of the most interesting moments is the moment right after the killing. They go back to their homes, they have kids, they have a wife, but from that point onwards, they lie about what happened and they send a message that if you have a problem, you can take care of it through violence, and that’s the way it perpetuates itself. That’s the cycle of violence — the subconscious message is that violence is okay.
What was your first impression of Skidmore when you went to visit?
It was weird. I can’t even understand it — it was an eerie town. There was something eerie about the atmosphere. There weren’t a lot of people on the street and people were watching from their windows. The first time I drove in, it felt like people were watching us so we started talking to people, and it took a few days for people to open up. It was an attraction that people from Israel were in town and that’s where our in was: that we were outsiders.