A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Mak­ing A Murderer.

Of the many depress­ing things about the dis­turb­ing Mak­ing A Mur­der­er, the most trou­bling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true man­aged to find Steven Avery and his nephew Bren­dan Dassey guilty.

As is the pro­ce­dure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plain­ly and repeat­ed­ly. They need­ed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all rea­son­able doubt.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than aver­age intel­li­gence were able to vio­lent­ly mur­der a woman in their own home, before chop­ping her up and burn­ing her in their back yard, with­out leav­ing a shred of evi­dence or a sin­gle drop of blood behind in the house as evi­dence, with­out hav­ing any doubt what­so­ev­er as to their guilt.

I’m ignor­ing obvi­ous­ly the ludi­crous­ly placed car key that mag­i­cal­ly turns up in the mid­dle of the floor in Steven’s bed­room, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peter­son, aston­ish­ing­ly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evi­dence in the Avery and Dassey tri­al, Mak­ing a Mur­der­er, in the Michael Peter­son case, The Stair­case, in the Adnan Syed case, Ser­i­al sea­son 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New York­er piece ‘Recog­ni­tion’, and not see in front of them a moun­tain of doubt form­ing before their very eyes is quite sim­ply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all nec­es­sar­i­ly inno­cent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That any­one could have heard any of those tri­als and not come away with at least a few, rea­son­able doubts almost defies belief.

The most char­i­ta­ble thing that can be said, and I’m clutch­ing at straws here, is that it is no longer rea­son­able to expect ordi­nary peo­ple to be able to ignore the media cir­cus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cas­es. And that the sort of unin­formed tabloid jour­nal­ism that that pro­duces is impos­si­ble for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twen­ty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose sto­ry is told in Serial.

Per­haps it is time to dis­pense with the jury sys­tem when it comes to mur­der tri­als. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross inep­ti­tude of the judi­cial sys­tem, and the blind prej­u­dices of some of its prac­ti­tion­ers deter­mined to prof­it by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watch­ing Mak­ing A Mur­der­er, The Stair­case, and lis­ten­ing to Ser­i­al, all of which are cap­ti­vat­ing if unre­lent­ing­ly depress­ing, the prospect of wit­ness­ing yet anoth­er inex­plic­a­ble mis­car­riage of jus­tice real­ly didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extra­or­di­nary sto­ry away, except to say that even­tu­al­ly, and mer­ci­ful­ly, it bucks the trend.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embar­rassed to con­fess that this is yet anoth­er Sto­ryville doc­u­men­tary that I’m rec­om­mend­ing (reviewed ear­li­er here). But then I remem­ber all those over-pro­duced, idea-free fran­chise films, the pedes­tri­an­ly pro­duced tele­vi­sion pro­grammes and all those need­less­ly pub­lished books that get foist­ed on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Sto­ryville need to be cel­e­brat­ed loud­ly from the tops of every and all avail­able rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incred­i­bly brave of film mak­er David Sington to make a film made up almost entire­ly of one man sit­ting in a chair and talk­ing to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was bare­ly able to read and write. And yet, through noth­ing than his his own force of will, he re-made him­self as a thought­ful, edu­cat­ed and qui­et­ly intel­li­gent man who would even­tu­al­ly trans­form him­self into a daz­zling­ly bril­liant sto­ry­teller. And what a tale.

You can see the trail­er for A Death Row Tale here, for Mak­ing a Mur­der­er here, and The Stair­case here.

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Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Mus­cle Shoals.

The BBC4 doc­u­men­tary strand Sto­ryville isn’t part of what is clear­ly a gold­en age of doc­u­men­tary film mak­ing, it’s the prin­ci­ple dri­ving force respon­si­ble for bring­ing this age into being.

Since kick­ing off in 2007-08, Sto­ryville has helped fund over one hun­dred doc­u­men­taries, each one even more impres­sive than the last.

In the 2013–14 sea­son there was The Gate­keep­ers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret ser­vice, the Shin Bet, reviewed ear­li­er here. Plus the myth­ic Mus­cle Shoals: The Great­est Record­ing stu­dio in the World, reviewed ear­li­er here, and the fas­ci­nat­ing Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to dig­i­tize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolute­ly riv­et­ing The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal sys­tem has become lit­tle more than an elab­o­rate excuse for insti­tu­tion­alised racism, reviewed ear­li­er here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remark­able Rodriguez.

Then in 2014–15 there was Mugabe and the Democ­rats, the sur­pris­ing­ly mov­ing Par­ti­cle Fever: The Hunt for the Hig­gs Boson, and the majes­tic Search­ing For Sug­ar Man about the gen­uine­ly extra­or­di­nary singer Rodriguez, reviewed ear­li­er here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the cur­rent 2015–16 season:

Cartel Land.

Car­tel Land.

Car­tel Land brings vivid­ly to life quite how unimag­in­able life in Mex­i­co has become. When his three neigh­bours are behead­ed by one of the local drug car­tels, the local doc­tor Jose Mire­les decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his sim­i­lar­ly des­per­ate neigh­bours take up arms and set up the autode­fen­sas.

And with­in a few weeks, he and his civic mind­ed vig­i­lantes are mov­ing through the state, con­vinc­ing cit­i­zens from vil­lage to vil­lage to join them, take up arms, and defend them­selves against the maraud­ing cartels.

With­out wish­ing in any way to spoil the sto­ry, what hap­pens next is all too pre­dictable. It is stag­ger­ing to wit­ness quite how cor­rupt Mex­i­co has become, at every con­ceiv­able lev­el, from top to bot­tom. And quite how impos­si­ble it seems to be to free your­self from it. And although on the sur­face this isn’t a depress­ing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispir­it­ing a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz lis­tens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Cen­sored Voic­es is very much a com­pan­ion piece to The Gate­keep­ers above. When the cel­e­brat­ed nov­el­ist Amos Oz came back to the Kib­butz where he lived for so much of his life after fight­ing in the 6 day war, he and his fel­low sol­diers were so con­flict­ed by what they had just been a part of, that they each record­ed a series of inter­views with one anoth­er so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic ques­tion they asked them­selves was, how can what was sup­posed to have been a defen­sive war result in the mass depor­ta­tion of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple from their land?

Near­ly half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, we watch as the elder­ly men lis­ten to what their thoughts had been bare­ly ten days after what many peo­ple at the time were cel­e­brat­ing as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remark­able Bren­da Myers-Powell.

FBI Under­cov­er seems like an innocu­ous enough tale. We fol­low one of the many very ordi­nary, and com­plete­ly unqual­i­fied peo­ple recruit­ed by the FBI after Sep­tem­ber 11th to root out ter­ror­ism. And then we fol­low the Mus­lim man he has been sent to trap. And sud­den­ly, with­out any­thing actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing, a young man’s life has been com­plete­ly ruined.

If you’ve ever won­dered how Daesh man­ages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explain­ing it.

And final­ly, Dream­catch­er: Sur­viv­ing Chicago’s Streets fol­lows a reformed pros­ti­tute as she walks the streets of Chica­go bring­ing life-sav­ing suc­cour to her for­mer col­leagues. Which sounds hope­less­ly earnest and hor­ri­bly dull, but is in fact incred­i­bly mov­ing. Bren­da Myers-Pow­ell is quite sim­ply a liv­ing saint.

So often doc­u­men­taries feel like some­thing you ought to watch rather than some­thing you’d like to watch. In real­i­ty, all of the above are unmiss­able. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlay­er, get your­self a VPN.

It will take about 10 min­utes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use Sat­urn­VPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Net­flix for the intel­lec­tu­al­ly curi­ous. It’s the best invest­ment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trail­er for The Six-day War:Censored Voic­es here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on all the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!