The confession of Robert Durst in the final episode of “The Jinx” will go down as one of the great moments in the annals of making documentaries.
Rarely does a documentarian on the hunt to solve a mystery find a smoking gun like the letter that ties Durst to the Susan Berman murder. And even more rarely – in fact, when has it happened? – does a documentarian elicit a confession from a subject under suspicion of multiple murders.
In this instance, director Andrew Jarecki was not even aware that he had the confession on tape until production assistants were loading stray audio two years after the fact. At the time of the interview in 2012, no one on Jarecki’s production team was listening to Durst’s audio after he had gotten up to go to the bathroom.
“It was the tail end of a piece of the interview,” Jarecki told the New York Times on Monday. “The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material… It was June 12, 2014.”
During the interview, Jarecki had carefully planned the moment when he confronted Durst with an envelope that Durst had addressed to Berman years before her murder. Its handwriting and a key misspelling identically matched one sent to police by Berman’s killer. That moment was all Jarecki’s doing.
But the confession might have remained lost, buried in the hundreds of hours of interviews that documentarians commonly do, if not for the lucky discovery of the assistants.
One of the most remarkable things about “The Jinx” is that Jarecki himself seems cognizant that he may have been a tool in Robert Durst’s plan: at some level the millionaire wanted to get caught. He wanted to confess –”I want this,” he says in the final confession sequence, while adding, “This is a disaster” – though now he will certainly hire the best lawyers money can buy to argue differently.
To start with, Durst sought out Jarecki (who had made “All Good Things,” a feature film based on the disappearance of Durst’s first wife Kathy) to tell his side of the story for the first time. He agreed to Jarecki’s terms, and moved forward against his lawyer’s advice.
As for the moment of the confession, as Jarecki explained to the Times, Durst was well aware that his microphone was on at all times. This was explained to him as part of the process, and they’d been shooting him continually with a live mike which had a light on to indicate it was hot. In addition, Durst signed a release expressly allowing Jarecki to use all that he recorded.
One can only think Durst wanted, finally, to let out what he had kept inside for so long.
Regardless of how it transpired, it is a monumental filmmaking moment.
Coming back from SXSW where I watched the Steve Jobs documentary by Alex Gibney, and talked to Chris Paine and Fredrik Gertten about “Bikes VS Cars,” I more convinced than ever of the unique ability of documentaries to drive change. As journalism, visual storytelling can trump the impact of telling the same truths in print.
Documentaries have the ability to do this in ways that no other sort of storytelling can. We have seen this in everything from the stunning Errol Morris film “Thin Blue Line” (which came within a hair of eliciting a confession from a killer and caused me to change my personal position on the death penalty); to the groundbreaking “Paradise Lost” trilogy about the West Memphis 3; to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” dramatizing the facts around climate change; to Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” about a pandemic of rape in the military.
Jarecki deserves credit for having the courage to see his project through, for approaching the subject with dispassionate scrutiny and for allowing the facts to guide him from being a skeptical observer to being a prosecutorial journalist determined to dig out the truth.
In this case, it produced a rare moment of clarity that all can see – and judge for themselves.