Storyteller for Justice: Joe Berlinger On Documenting 25 Years of True Crime

10/29/2017 11:14 am ET

True crime documentaries are having a moment—and award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger knows why.

Berlinger has been making movies for more than 25 years. His films “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996-2011) helped pioneer the style of documentary filmmaking that we see in Netflix’s recent true crime sensation, “Making a Murderer”—a combination of artful cinematography, a stirring musical soundtrack, and a dramatic narrative structure as compelling as any scripted film.

“People are fascinated with crime,” Berlinger points out.

But beyond telling a gripping story, he believes that true crime resonates because audiences find it gratifying to watch films that have a real impact in the form of justice being served. In addition to his own work, he cites “Making a Murderer” and Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” as examples.

“Part of me cringes at the label ‘true-crime filmmaker’ because it implies being a voyeur when people encounter tragedy, but my approach is to use it as a platform for social justice,” says Berlinger.

“I’m really interested in using storytelling to give people a chance when all hope has been lost. I believe everybody deserves justice.”

Back in 1993, when Berlinger and his team set out to begin filming what would become “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” their plan was to tell the harrowing true story of devil-worshipping teenagers who brutally murdered three small boys in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas.

The filmmakers spent months embedded in the community, interviewing people close to the case as it unfolded—including the accused murderers, now known as the West Memphis Three. In doing so, Berlinger and his team became convinced the teen suspects were innocent.

The filmmakers documented the trial and watched as all three defendants were, they believed, wrongfully convicted: Damien Echols was sentenced to death, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Determined to expose what he saw as a grave failure of the criminal justice system, Berlinger, along with his frequent filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky (Sinofsky died in 2015), went on to make two more “Paradise Lost” films about the West Memphis Three.

In addition to earning critical acclaim, the movies generated widespread awareness and spurred advocacy efforts on behalf of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin. In 2011, following the introduction of new forensic evidence in the case, all three were released from prison.

With 14 true crime films and TV series under his belt over the past quarter century (and three in the pipeline for 2018), Berlinger has played a formative role in the evolution of the genre. “There has been an explosion of interest in nonfiction in general over the last decade,” he observes, attributing this surge in popularity to the advent of digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, as well as to Hollywood’s ongoing shift away from independent feature films in favor of comic book blockbusters. “Documentary has stepped into the void as kind of the true indie feature.”

Fans of film and TV have come to recognize Berlinger’s stock-in-trade: a socially conscious approach to advocacy that is also cinematically groundbreaking. It’s won him dozens of awards and nominations, including a Best Documentary Academy Award nomination, multiple Emmy awards and nominations, prizes at the world’s top film festivals, and most recently, a 2017 International Documentary Association nomination for his latest feature documentary, “Intent to Destroy.”

The film embeds with the Christian Bale movie “The Promise” as a springboard to explore the violent history of the Armenian Genocide and legacy of Turkish suppression and denial over the past century.

Twenty years since the release of the first “Paradise Lost” film, Berlinger is as committed as ever to shining a light on injustice. He has made it his mission to “give a voice to voiceless people who are trapped in the system,” as evidenced by recent projects like “Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio,” a documentary miniseries examining the disappearances and deaths of eight Ohio women; and “Killing Richard Glossip,” about a man currently on death row in Oklahoma who Berlinger—and many others, including Sister Helen Prejean (author of “Dead Man Walking”)—believes has been wrongfully convicted.

“To me, the most fundamental value we hold dear as Americans is our personal liberty,” says Berlinger. “If I can use film and TV to hold prosecutors accountable for when the justice system goes awry, it makes me feel good about being known as a ‘true crime’ filmmaker.”

And thanks to the growing interest in true crime, the prolific filmmaker has never been busier. On November 10, “Intent to Destroy” will be released in theaters after a strong film festival run. “Cold Blooded: the Clutter Family Murders,” a four-hour documentary series produced and directed by Berlinger about the crime Truman Capote profiled in his groundbreaking 1966 book “In Cold Blood,” will air November 18 and 19 as a true crime special event on Sundance TV.

Berlinger is also moving into scripted films; he’s currently preparing to begin shooting “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” an independent drama starring Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy, and is also developing a scripted drama about Rachel Carson’s fight to publish the book “Silent Spring,” which helped expose the hazards of pesticides and launch the modern environmental movement in the early 1960s.

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