Nov 8, 2012

Blogathon: Brother's Keeper

During November I'll be watching films that have been assigned to me by four of my fellow critic friends; Marcey Papandrea and Bede Jermyn of, AJ Hakari of Cineslice and Mike Ewins of E Film Blog (and my co-host on The Picture Show).  Each of us has assigned films to each of the others, and as well as reviewing their choices for me I'll link to their reviews of the films I've assigned to them.

I'm tackling the films in an entirely random order, and first up is Bede's pick.  He sent me a little paragraph, detailing why he chose this film for me.

"Even though Sam and myself may have our disagreements when it comes to certain films, but if there is one series of films that we do have common love for and that's the PARADISE LOST documentary series by directors Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky. So I knew for certain that he would be interested in checking out BROTHER'S KEEPER, which was Berlinger & Sinofsky's debut doco. Interestingly enough this documentary does share some similarities with the PARADISE LOST series as it also an unbaised look at a crime in a very small country town in US, but what makes this one different are the facinating family of brothers that are our film's focus: The Ward brothers. It's a exceptional documentary that I'm pretty sure that Sam will love". 
Brother's Keeper
Dir: Joe Berlinger / Bruce Sinofsky

Bede's correct (not words you'll hear me use together all that often), I love the Paradise Lost series, and I've been wanting to see Brother's Keeper for ages, but since it never seems to have a had a UK release tat hasn't exactly been a simple thing to do.

Shot in 1990 and 1991, the film follows three brothers.  The Ward boys, Delbert, Lyman and Roscoe are all farmers living in rural New York state, each with a lack of formal education and only a very basic ability to read or even, really, to interact with the modern world.  As we meet them a fourth brother, William, has died in suspicious circumstances.  Delbert is accused of the murder, and signed a confession at the police station, but he's now denying the murder and the town, which previously saw the Ward brothers as outcasts, has rallied round Delbert, raising funds for his bail and defense.

As with the first of the Paradise Lost films, there are many theories under discussion about the crime that is central to Brother's Keeper; did Delbert and Lyman plan to kill William because he was sick and in pain?  Did Delbert kill William after an incestuous encounter went bad?  Did William simply, after an extended illness and at a frail looking 64, simply die in his sleep.  Berlinger and Sinofsky conspicuously refuse to have the film take a position, perhaps more so than with even the first PL film, because looking at it from a distance, this case is much less clear cut.

Without lecturing us, Brother's Keeper throws up - as a lot of films about American justice seem to - uncomfortable questions about interrogations and confessions.  Should Delbert have ever been allowed to waive his rights?  One of the Policemen interviewed says Delbert (whose IQ is at one point quoted as being 63, and who seems, if anything, he most alert of the living Ward Boys) understood his rights, and was able to quote them from TV shows, but the Delbert we see both in and out of court is clearly slow and vulnerable, and doesn't ever seem to grasp the gravity of his murder trial (he sees fundraisers for his defense fund as parties, and seems unaware of the larger purpose).

Delbert may necessarily be the focus - the axis around which the film spins - but the strength of this film, one that Berlinger and Sinofsky would carry forward into their subsequent projects, is the sense of the world that surrounds these events, not on a large scale, but at a local level.  There is a fascinating picture built up of a community that seems almost to have arrested its development at some time in the late 40's (the Ward boys still have no electricity or running water, and live in a filthy shack, sharing beds).  Delbert's brothers, Lyman and Roscoe seem even slower than he is, and 66 year old Lyman, who looks about fifteen years older than he is, seems very much affected by what his brother is going through.  Whatever the reality of what happened to William, watching Lyman so frail, struggling first to hear and then to understand proceedings as he's put on the stand during Delbert's trial, is heartbreaking.  We also get a sense of the characters that surround the brothers; family, friends and neighbours, and of the way the community looks out for its own (one elderly couple say they hardly know the Ward boys, and would avoid sitting near them because of the smell, but they still gave $1000 for Delbert's bail).

Brother's Keeper is a much gentler film than Paradise Lost, it doesn't have the outrage that powered that film, but that's because this case doesn't really need outrage; it's a tangled web, characterised by confusion and uncertainty, and Berlinger and Sinofsky, while they show us that picture compellingly for 105 minutes, don't attempt to sift through that uncertainty.  Ultimately that's the right choice, because any attempt to try to discover what really happened would only obfuscate what is most effective as a character study of the way a community unites behind one person.  It's a fine debut from two filmmakers who would go on to do greater things.

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