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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

July 14, 1997: 

When Filmmakers Attack!

Judging by what's on TV every night, it should be a great time to be a documentary filmmaker. On the "serious" side, you have the endless and indistinguishable newsmagazine shows (Is it Dateline Live? Prime Turning Point? Who can tell? And are Sam Donaldson's eyebrows real?), which have given us groundbreaking stories like the one about fast-food workers who don't wash their hands.

Then there's the Fox brand of "reality TV," which is a lot sleazier but at least more honest about its voyeurism (there's no pretension to journalistic nobility in something like When Animals Attack! ).

But, with occasional exceptions, all this fascination with true-life drama has yet to translate into a mass audience for feature documentaries. That's too bad, especially because the past decade has seen a resurgence in the genre, with a new generation of filmmakers taking it in daring directions.

Among the best are Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose most recent film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996, NR), just came out on video. On assignment for HBO, the directors tracked the trials of three teenagers accused of brutally killing three small boys in West Memphis, Ark. What makes the movie more--much more--than just a 60 Minutes-style report is the intimate access the film crew gained to the families and lawyers of the victims and defendants, not to mention the accused teens themselves. In its exploration of crime and punishment, alienation and vengeance, Paradise Lost raises unsettling questions about the mores and motives that undergird our legal system and our entire society.

Sinofsky and Berlinger's previous film, Brother's Keeper (1992, NR), is just as good, providing an in-depth and poignant look at a rural New York town and a clan of backwoods brothers who live there. When one of the hermit-like brothers is accused of killing another, the townsfolk have to decide how to react.

One of the first of the recent wave of documentaries to make a splash was Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988, NR). Morris bends all sorts of rules in his tale of a Texas man falsely convicted of killing a police officer, using re-enactments and a moody score by Philip Glass to heighten the drama. The film is persuasive--the man has since been freed--but a little slow. Still, it's more intelligent and probing than anything you'll find on your prime-time schedule. And you don't have to look at those eyebrows.

-Jesse Fox Mayshark




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