The Innocence Files Review

The Innocence Files Review

Arts & Culture

The Innocence Files Review

US Flage behind barb wire fence

22nd July 2020

 

True crime documentaries are never particularly tasteful. Go on YouTube or Netflix or late-night television and you can enjoy an array of other people’s personal tragedies: documentaries that serve no purpose other than to indulge a desire for horror and tales of human suffering.

Netflix documentary series, The Innocence Files, is a whodunnit with a cause. Repetitive and over-indulgent, the series brings many interesting things to light – only to leave them hanging.

The producers of The Innocence Files must have seen an opportunity to increase the popularity of what might otherwise have been a serious documentary about the flaws in the US legal system, inherent racial bias and progress of DNA science, by putting an emphasis on ‘trashy’ mystery elements and gruesome details. It spends most of its time describing murders to the sound of eerie music, in the style of true crime documentaries found at the shameful end of a late-night YouTube spree.

The series of nine episodes follows eight cases of wrongful convictions. This is to say that it focuses on eight men who were put in prison for crimes they did not commit. Each episode establishes why these men were sentenced in the first place, how to get them out, and who actually committed the crimes. 

The documentary successfully humanises these eight prisoners by spending time with their relatives. A lawyer for The Innocence Project, a legal organisation specialising in getting innocent people out of prison, explains that “it’s only when you see the families and communities that you really understand the prisoner.” 

I think the series here is making the point that the police should have spent longer getting to know these families and communities before they incarcerated innocent men, but it fails to show in what way the families and communities of the real perpetrators were any different.

The series touches on the US’ problem of putting retribution before accuracy or rehabilitation and the way in which racial elements play into this problem. The Innocence Files draws a comparison between the overarchingly black population of prisons and a sort of modern-day slavery: in the second episode, the camera pans to a shocking landscape. Working the cotton fields of a Mississippi prison is a vast, imprisoned, black community, and the series suggests that a number of them are innocent. This is the same prison that, in the years after the abolition of the slave trade, continued to rent out its black inmates to work on plantations. 

 

“The series touches on the US’ problem of putting retribution before accuracy or rehabilitation and the way in which racial elements play into this problem.”

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The series has a number of villains but, unlike most crime dramas, the villains are not the murderers: they are the lawyers, the police and the justice system. The series’ first three episodes feature an evil dentist. Often being brought in on trials as an expert witness, and having made numerous mistakes resulting in the incarceration of innocent (black) people, he aligns criticism of his former methods with criticism of Confederate statues. 

The dentist argues that it is as anachronistic to criticise the statues (‘part of history’) as it is anachronistic to blame him for putting innocent people in jail. His argument is that, as DNA testing was not advanced when he gave his expertise, his use of flawed ‘bite mark evidence’ as certain proof of guilt was entirely justified. “I will not be erased” are his parting words to the camera.

The series is about the ways in which the justice system has failed innocent people. Bite mark evidence is its first target, witness identification its second, and corruption and misconduct within the justice system its third. It is clear after an episode that the first two constitute unreliable evidence – but this message is drummed in for over six hours. Admittedly, the series also depicts unsuccessful attempts at changing the laws – where people refuse to discredit evidence that is pretty much proven not to be accurate. But the viewer is on The Innocence Project’s side sooner than the series seems to anticipate.

The most interesting aspect of the series lies in its discussion of misconduct within the justice system. We watch police and DAs fight to keep innocent men in prison, more afraid to admit their mistakes than to do the right thing. The relationship between the police and the DAs described as symbiotic, ‘almost invit[ing] misconduct’. We watch detectives manipulate witness testimonies, hide and ignore evidence and even blackmail witnesses into giving false statements in order to support their unproven and often racially biased ideas. A memorable line is the comparison of witness testimonies being moulded into shape like sausages in a factory. This legal system, coupled with its racial bias, leaves minorities powerless and weak, with the idea that if a black or Hispanic person ‘didn’t do it this time, it’ll be them next time’.

This documentary is weak, but it advocates for change. In a system where we see defence lawyers turn to reporters to set people free, there needs to be a change. The laws need to change. Politics need to change. But most of all the problem is with a racial bias so profound that the series’ many villains simply can’t see their own mistakes.

 

 

Featured photo Barbara Rosner

 

 

‘Stop Filming Us’ – Questioning Neocolonialism through the Camera Lens

‘Stop Filming Us’ – Questioning Neocolonialism through the Camera Lens

ARTS + CULTURE

‘Stop Filming Us!’ – Neocolonialism through the Camera Lens

Isolde MacDonagh

3rd June 2020

 

Posing questions, not answering them – Joris Postema’s Stop Filming Us wants to show us the city of Goma you don’t see in UNICEF’s pity-inducing photos of miserable children. But can he portray the Congolese reality without becoming part of the problem?

 

For me, this question is answered early on. Postema, in this documentary, works closely with several African filmmakers and photographers to capture the ‘real’ Goma, a city in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In a meeting, he asks his Congolese co-workers about his Western team: “Did we do anything neo-colonial in the past few weeks?”. “Of course,” Ganza Buroko replies. He lists Postema’s mistakes. “Ah – so we start again,” says Postema. They laugh. “No, we continue.”

 

This film doesn’t try to be perfect. Postema is as much of a student as his viewer, and the documentary comes across as a work in progress. In Stop Filming Us, Postema follows the lives of three Congolese filmmakers and photographers. The first of these is Mugabo Baritegera, an artist and photographer who roams the streets looking to capture the Goma he himself experiences. Baritegera explains that when he looks at the sad Congolese faces in photos released by the media, he does not recognise himself. Happiness is a significant part, not only of the Congolese life but of the Congolese identity (already so attacked by colonialism). When Westerners portray Goma as an unhappy place, they continue to destroy the Congolese identity. “We don’t even know what we have forgotten”: this is a phrase that stands out, as Postema watches the Congolese discuss their history. Baritegera is filmed building a new art gallery, where he can display his work. When the gallery is completed, at the end of the film, we see for the first time the people of Goma taking photos of one another that are not loaded with political messages – they are simply enjoying themselves.

 

“When Westerners portray Goma as an unhappy place, they continue to destroy the Congolese identity”

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong feeling about photography in Goma, many seeing it as the exploitation of their faces for money. Ley Uwera, a photographer working for NGOs, takes the photos she is paid to take, knowing that they do not represent her country. We watch her photographing a refugee settlement, where she moves children aside, stages photos, and asks people to stand in awkward positions in order to capture exaggerated unhappiness. Her photos ignore the life and the happiness that is also present in the environments she photographs. 

 

Stop filming us” is a familiar cry in Postema’s 90-minute film, and every time we hear it, we are aware of Postema’s contradictory position. “Go Home”, Postema is told. But he does not. Instead, Postema films the filmmakers. He films those who have exploited the Congolese with their cameras. He films the prison-like appearances of the high-security gates to the countless NGO headquarters, in what are arguably the most powerful shots in the film. Postema’s documentary watches the people who are creating videos that shape the world’s understanding of Goma. There are two primary examples of this. Postema’s observation of Uwera’s work for the NGOs, but also an episode where Postema films Baritegera making a (beautiful) film showing the positive side of Goma but omitting a street fight and the arguments that happened during his shoot. Although this film was the aesthetic highlight of the documentary, it omitted perhaps what a Westerner would describe as the truth.

 

Photo by: Joris Postema, Stop Filming Us

 

But can a Westerner criticise the Congolese for not being truthful enough in their representations of their own cities? Westerners, naturally, have no right to define truth, but Postema’s documentary wants to understand why these more negative aspects of Baritegera’s film do not come into Baritegera’s depiction of the ‘real Goma’. Postema asks his Congolese film crew why Baritegera might have omitted what, for a Westerner, would be important details. They give varied answers – the violence is boring, normal, not something to talk about. 

 

Stop Filming Us is a discussion. Postema’s opinion is visible in the editing and what he has chosen to film, but he includes different perspectives wherever he can. This makes for the film’s strange structure: it is a film that ends several times. Twice Postema shows his latest version of Stop Filming Us to the Congolese and asks them what they think of it, and twice the ensuing discussion is included in the film. This, of course, symbolises that this discussion has in no way ended with this film. We think again of Buroko’s words, at the beginning of the documentary: “we continue”.

 

There are questions that remain by the end of this film. Should Postema have just gone home? Should the NGOs, arrogant and unwanted, go home? Or do Westerners have a responsibility to fix what they broke? A scene of Baritegera chanting “if you watch, you are complicit” targets the film’s audience: we, also, are part of this discussion. But to what extent?

 

 

Featured photo by Joris Postema

 

 

Tarantino review: violence and violence against women

Tarantino review: violence and violence against women

Spoilers ahead!

In Tarantino’s new film, ageing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) avenge the Manson family’s murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) through a fictional retelling of the story.

 

I was dragged off to the cinema last week to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH). I wasn’t too excited because I’ve never been much of a Tarantino fan: I find his plots too basic and his violence too extreme. His films usually make me feel as though I’ve stopped to enjoy someone else’s car crash or gone to the modern version of a public execution. 

I found OUaTiHa bit more sophisticated than Tarantino’s usual gore-fests: his views on murder and gender politics were original. Recently the world – myself included – has been obsessing over serial killers and famous murders (eg. Netflix and Hollywood’s new documentaries about Ted Bundy and Madeleine McCann).

The problem is that mentally ill and violent people are being made glamorous. The stories are horrible but engrossing, and many murderers such as Manson and Bundy have attracted fan clubs – people drawn in by their notoriety and by the mystery that surrounds them. 

Tarantino does not romanticise his violence in the same way. He strips it of its mystery and shows it as it is: colourful, brutal and animal – almost healthy. There is no glorification of any murderer – neither Cliff Booth nor the Manson family are shown as admirable characters. 

Both Booth and the Manson family are sinister: scenes with Booth and his monster-like dog hint at his sordid past. There’s a rumour that he murdered his wife, and it’s believable. The Manson family is brilliantly sketched – Tarantino focusses particularly on their movements, giving them the terrifying physicality of a brainwashed but sexually intriguing army.

Tarantino has never been a sensitive director, but for me, this film was about himself. The title pays homage to his love of Westerns, but also describes the film as a love letter to the industry. There was a warmth to it: this is a director who has had a long and successful career, who has worked with actors dealing with the highs and lows of fame.

The film does what La La Land didn’t: it captures humanity in Hollywood. It’s also very much about its director’s trademark violence. He plays with his audience. The film covers short periods of time with a huge attention to detail and, unusually for Tarantino, follows a linear storyline. Except for the last 10 minutes, the film contains only hints of imminent violence. 

The film almost ends without bloodshed. Knowledge of the Charles Manson story adds to the suspense: we already know where and when the violence will be. There will be no surprises, it will be a simple and satisfying climax. But when the violence arrives, announced by Rick Dalton’s TV – “Here comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for!” – Tarantino takes back control. 

Instead of being true to historical events, Tarantino twists the story so that the murderers become the murdered. Every viewer in the cinema exacts revenge on an infamous group of killers, and enjoys it. The punchy music and the gags make watching two men murder three teenagers a hugely enjoyable experience.

Criticism of the film has honed in on Tarantino’s violence against women. It’s set in 1969, and an eloquent 10 year old gives a comical rant about feminism to a hungover Rick Dalton, who looks lost. She is later thrown on the floor at his suggestion. Booth heroically rejects the advances of a teenage member of the Manson family, because she is too young. Sharon Tate is given very few lines, which has surprised many of Robbie’s fans. Later on, two female Manson family members are viciously murdered by two men.

If looked at from a certain perspective, these facts add up to an uncomfortable portrayal of women. But I don’t think this is what the film was trying to say. Robbie’s character is powerful: it represents a new generation of hollywood and the gentle thrills of burgeoning fame. The 10 year old may have been inserted as a joke, but her character helps a gloomy Rick believe in himself: her speech has an impact. Booth’s rejection of the girl who almost forces herself on him simply confirms that more men should ask how old girls are before they sleep with them.

The murder of the two women at the end of the film seems almost “an eye for an eye”: in real life, these girls stabbed an entire household to death. And Cliff Booth is no hero – Tarantino does not justify his actions, he simply shows a version of humanity that is in us all. An animal desire for violence. 

 

 

Photo by SONY Pictures Entertainment

 

 

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Review: Madonna’s God Control video

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With a thought-provoking and graphic video for her new song God Control, pop star Madonna set herself on a mission to raise awareness about gun control, but found criticism on the way.

The video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, is over ten minutes long and follows a writer, Madame X (aka Madonna), writing a story about a mass shooting in a nightclub. 

Its most powerful element is its juxtaposition of sounds. Before Madonna’s song kicks in, the video fluctuates between the clicks of a typewriter, the faint thudding of a nightclub, eerie anticipatory silences and loud, startling gunshots.  At first it reminded me of a subpar version of Alan Clarke’s Elephant, another film about the mindless violence of shooting people: both shock their audience with the simple sounds of murder.

At the end of the video, the viewer is told to “wake up”, and the words “Gun Control Now” appear in white and red across the screen. This seems a little patronising, particularly as a large number of Americans are greatly active in the battle against the gun problem in the States. 

And, indeed, the video has also been criticised by those who believe that Madonna has been taking advantage of what has been a very real situation to many (particularly those at Pulse nightclub in 2016) in order to gain views. Her response is predictable: she wants to make America a safer place for everyone, and is using her influence as a celebrity in order to do so.

It’s true that the video toes the line between tasteful protest and narcissism. Over the course of the ten minutes, the camera flicks back again and again to Madonna sitting at a typewriter, writing the words that many have been uttering for years, as though she is the first to ever have thought of them. Her dancing scenes in the nightclub where the shooting takes place seems particularly distasteful.

The idea that people will take more action if they see Madonna being shot in a nightclub in a fictional music video than their response to the frequent and non-fictional mass murders of children in the States makes us see the title in a potentially ironic light – God, here, seems to be how Madonna perceives herself. Does it take the imagined death of a pop star instead of the real death of children for people to take action against guns?

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Music sans frontières

Music sans frontières

People should not be imprisoned by borders. That was cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s message when he played a Bach suite at the divide between the United States of America and Mexico, in April this year.

This particular border has attracted much attention over the last few years, with President Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall, preventing illegal immigrants from entering the US. It has become more than just a stretch of land, and is now a political symbol for immigration and the rise of nationalism.

Casually dressed in a light blue shirt with a white baseball cap, Yo-Yo Ma, a Chinese-American musician born in Paris, spoke under the shadow of the bridge that links Mexico and the US:

“A country is not a hotel. It cannot be full,” he suggested, in a speech that fell a bit flat compared to his cello playing. The artist described himself as having lived his life at the borders “Between cultures…disciplines…musics…generations”.  He argued that “In culture, we build bridges, not walls”, before playing the suite, an aural antithesis to the area’s constant political uproar.

Music, as opposed to the building of walls, brings people together – it is a universal language. Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said had a similar idea in 1999, when they created an orchestra that united Israeli and Arab musicians, in a joint effort to promote a better future.

And music has been successful: Ma’s music has allowed him to travel the world and communicate with and about different cultures and people. He needed no words at this border that has had far too many words thrown at it. Those who listened to his playing were united, and were able, for that short time, to see beyond the many economic and political reasons as to why borders are so contentious.

 

 

 

 

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Image courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma via Twitter