Nanfu Wang’s HBO True Crime docuseries – The Hollywood Reporter
Documentary Filmmaking The process of being the subject of a documentary has long been likened to a form of performative therapy, with the camera acting as a kind of therapist/priest/judge hybrid.
An interesting twist on this theme in recent years has been the rise of performative therapy as a documentary. Robert Green (Procession, Bisbee ’17 and Kate plays Christine) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The act of killing and The gaze of silence) are among the leading figures in this subgenre, in which filmmakers sometimes observe or orchestrate artistic exercises to help people deal with psychological wounds and perhaps achieve catharsis, rather than simply making a film about the psychological wounds themselves.
thinking about murder
More interesting as a portrayal of the power of art than as a true-crime docuseries.
Pushing the form to the length of the docuseries is HBO thinking about murder by director Nanfu Wang (A nation of children). A feature-length documentary could absolutely be made exclusively about the six people convicted and later exonerated for the murder of a Nebraska widow in 1985. thinking about murder almost justifies its extended six-hour runtime with a parallel focus on a community theater production about the horrific situation, a play about bringing a city to accept a complicated and painful past. The first side of the documentary is sometimes repetitive and the second underserved, but thinking about murder remains provocative, defying any simple hero/villain/victim classification.
In 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was raped and murdered in Beatrice, Nebraska. Leads were followed, but for several years no arrests were made. A few years later, six people were arrested. There was no evidence linking them to the crime. There was barely any evidence linking them to each other. But five of them confessed and the sixth was convicted largely on the basis of those links. More than a decade later, DNA evidence pointed to a completely unrelated killer and led to the exoneration of what the media called the Beatrice Six, because the media are lazy and quick to confuse a injustice with another – the Central Park Five, of course – however different the situations.
What really happened to Helen Wilson? What happened in the police investigation of the crime? What do Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez have to do with anything and why, if they have nothing to do with crime, have- did they confess? These are questions that Wilson’s family — represented here by several of his grandchildren — and local law enforcement and the city as a whole have grappled with.
Enter the Community Players Theatre, director Cecilia Rubino and the play Gage County, NE, assembled from court and interrogation transcripts. The production of three nights of Gage County, NE will he offer healing or will he tear the fragile city apart?
The background documentary Wang is making about the general legal disaster is solid. With this group of Wilson’s grandchildren present, Wang keeps the real victim in the case in mind, and she never loses the awareness that no matter where wrongdoing has taken place here, there are members of the still grieving family whose tenuous closure has too often been an afterthought. .
At the same time, the “sad family members” cannot compete, when it comes to on-screen drama, with the accused conspirators. Wang has four of the six characters exonerated candidly on camera in what unfolds as a constant mystery, though “the story” will spoil the end of the story for anyone with Google. Wang hands out twists and resolutions to “Huh?!?” cliffhangers episode by episode. I’ll leave the most infuriating and unfathomable details to play out in the series. Suffice it to say, somewhat disappointingly, the worst perpetrators don’t appear on the show, and bigger points about systemic injustice – repressed memories, treating the mentally ill, etc. – are softened. But there are enough participating figures who still insist their police work was solid to draw the quietest blood.
There is a lot of contextualization and recontextualization of filmed or recorded confessions and interrogations that mean thinking about murder tells the same often graphic stories over and over again without always getting results. This is where I wish Wang had looked more aggressively at the structuring and development of the play, the casting and rehearsal process and, in particular, the positioning of the actors within the community that they are. about to destabilize.
It is there, for me, where thinking about murder is most fascinating – like when the actor playing detective-turned-florist Burt sits down with the man he plays and tries to enlist his help with manners and motivation. Burt is often the key figure in the documentary, or at least one of the people Wang tries to build a character arc through confrontations, like giving him a very meta solo showing of a rough cut of the documentary. There’s not enough of that, nor enough follow through on the specific connections the actors have within the community and therefore the tragedy they portray.
The idea that art can force the calculations that the constant progression of history and the constant recession of memory perhaps negate is so powerful that I wish the play wasn’t left at five or 10 minutes per episode for most of the series. When the staging finally happens and we witness some consequences, that’s when thinking about murder finally escapes his true, more rudimentary criminal traps. That’s when thinking about murderr finds a deeper and more complicated push than literal imprisonment and exoneration, which raises bigger issues of what it’s really like to recover from all the miserable things in this case and how much the idea recovery may be imperfect.
Of The thin blue line at The staircase at Serial at The Jinxwe have seen many examples of the role documentaries can play in achieving justice. thinking about murder arrives too late at the party for that and perhaps lingers too long trying to contribute to this discussion as well, while his examination of the role documentaries can play in finding solace is equally significant.