Full Frame 2011: "Scenes of a Crime" Challenges Our Ways of Seeing

by Christopher Campbell
April 16, 2011 7:54 AM
4 Comments
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Though I was unable to attend the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Festival this week as planned, partly due to my accreditation being through Cinematical/Moviefone, for which I no longer work, I was able to see this one selection from the program and so am reviewing it as a single piece of Full Frame coverage.

We've all seen enough cop shows and legal dramas to have in our head an idea of what police interrogations look like. But those fictions aren't anything like the reality presented in Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock's "Scenes of a Crime." The documentary involves a case of possible infanticide in which two detectives interview a man for ten hours regarding the death of his four-month-old son. Along with excerpts from the video footage of that lengthy examination, the film also presents parts of an interrogation training video and testimonials from the policemen about how they conducted the proceedings and lawyers and expert witnesses commenting on those proceedings. Did the men force a confession out of an innocent person? If so, does such injustice happen often? Those are the main questions the doc asks, and as with other works of its kind it will frustrate, infuriate and/or provoke a lot of discussion.

It takes a lot more than raising familiar doubts about police and judicial practices, however, to make a good documentary. Hadaegh and Babcock ("A Certain Kind of Death") also construct the story of their film's case similar to the best of them. While it doesn't have all the strengths of masterpieces like "The Thin Blue Line" or "The Staircase," mostly because the case itself isn't as deep, "Scenes of a Crime" guides us through a narrative in an engaging way, the sort of manner in which developments are revealed to us late in the film that make us, as they did the investigators, rethink what might have happened. I don't want to call a film like this "edge-of-your-seat entertainment," of course, but it does what any good court drama or doc does in that it keeps us enough in the dark that we can't wait to find out the outcome of the trial. Even if we have an expectation, probably one born out of cynicism, what the verdict will be.

For those doc fans interested in social justice, there's a lot here to meet your favor. And to that aspect, "Scenes of a Crime" is yet another film that contributes to my being difficult whenever I'm involved in a jury selection process (one day I would love to serve, actually, but I believe I'm always relieved due to my honesty about what "reasonable doubt" means to me). But that's not what I like about the film. I was more fascinated by the levels of testimonial displayed and what their reliability factors may be. Just about any legal doc can have a "Rashomon" type of mystery and complexity to it, but the unreliable witness and subjectivity angle is growing old. Hadaegh and Babcock add to it (courtesy of this case, which itself does) concepts of doubting what we see and what we might logically regard as acceptable truth finding.

One thing I wish, though, is that we could see the entirety of the ten-hour interrogation video, as the jury had. It's probable that what's omitted -- obviously for the sake of a suitable running time, and the fact that documentary films are traditionally more film than document -- is inconsequential to the points and questions at hand. And what is seen is already filled with some repetition and redundancy. Yet, and this is true of any legal doc, as well, it's hard to properly discuss let alone make up your mind on a court case and its verdict without knowing every last detail. Then again, that only hurts the social justice aspect of the film while it may enrich the intriguingly complicated parts of the storytelling.

Really the only faults with "Scenes of a Crime" can be the same as the faults of testimonial and visual evidence it addresses, making it almost as much about itself as it is the crime at hand. Whether or not Hadaegh and Babcock meant for their doc to be so reflexive, I don't know. I bet not. Given the issues of the film, I doubt they'd mind viewers coming with different ways of seeing, either. Whichever your interest and perspective, I recommend it.


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4 Comments

  • Christopher Campbell | April 18, 2011 9:14 AMReply

    By "particular narrative" I mean that the film is about Adrian's interrogation and confession and really has nothing to do with his wife. It's not a film about whether or not he did it or about his relationship with his wife or is family or anything else you might wish it touched more on. It's quite specific.

  • elliott fisher | April 18, 2011 7:00 AMReply

    What you mean by "particular narrative" is unclear to me. My concern is that whatever the the narrative is, it may be biased - that the film makers *may* have left facts out to strengthen the story that Adrian confessed to something he did not do. Journalist do this all the time - it's a very tempting, easy thing to do.

    Of note, the film makers did not include the following facts in the movie: the wife refused to be interviewed, she is now legally separated from Adrian, and she testified against him during the trial.

    A viewer who is told this may be affected emotionally, perhaps in a way that is similar to how a viewer might be affected in being told the doctor refused to be interviewed. I can't help wondering if the film makers saw these omissions as incentive to make their story more compelling - to take some of the ambiguity out and guide the viewer. Btw, that's a concern, not a claim; nevertheless, these things happen.

    Full disclosure, baby!

    A documentarian who leaves facts out of a story that *may* cause people to think about their movie in a different way is taking a chance that their viewers will trust their story less if the omitted facts are discovered by the viewer outside of the movie. I know this because it is what happened to me and several of the people with whom I saw this movie. We trust the story less! (You are welcome to a different view, but please don't deny us ours.) And that really irks me because the film makers did such a great job detailing how a confession can be coerced.

  • Christopher Campbell | April 18, 2011 3:33 AMReply

    I get what you're saying about the choice to acknowledge some declined interviews and not others. But the two acknowledged were for people whose testimonial are said to be important to the thesis of the film. Rather than having their opinions brought up and then wonder why they weren't allowed to respond themselves, the titles are put in. There's never really any place where the wife is needed in this particular narrative. The fact that audience members wish they could know her thoughts is the same reason most audiences don't understand documentary filmmaking in general. Why they want to know what has happened to the subjects after the credits go up.

    Anyway, I also see nothing at all wrong with the titles being a sort of criticism of those people who declined interviews. That's always been the point with filmmakers, and many times doc "villains" are only contacted slightly in the hopes that these people don't even decline, they just "couldn't be contacted." I can't say if Babcock and Hadaegh wanted or are glad about the refusals.

    With documentary, the choice to not speak still says a lot about your character. Ironic for legal docs, what you don't say can hurt you in the judgment of viewers.

  • elliott fisher | April 18, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    I saw this movie at Full Frame and agree that it's pretty eye-opening stuff. I've been exposed to enough evidence to know that coerced confessions happen, but it's never really made sense to me that someone would confess to a crime they did not do. After seeing this movie, it makes sense.

    Having said that, I feel a bit manipulated by the makers of the film. Their storytelling struck me as a bit emotional at times. There were several dramatic fade-to-black scenes with accompanied statements that some of the "bad" guys portrayed in the movie ". . . refused to be interviewed for this film". Both times (I think there were two of these), a groan of disapproval came from the audience - a reaction I think the film makers wanted. Refusing to be interviewed is not damning evidence, but it felt like they were using these refusals to take jabs at those who denied to be interviewed.

    But what really has me wondering about the fairness of the narrative is what was left out. During the Q&A, someone from the audience asked why the wife of the man who allegedly signed the false confession wasn't interviewed. The film makers responded that she refused to be interviewed. When asked why, the film makers replied cryptically by asking us to "use our imagination".

    Why was this refusal not noted in the film like the other refusals? And why would the film makers give us so little insight into why the wife refused to be interviewed? Could her refusal be because she thought her husband was guilty? After reading some of the news stories covering the trial, it seems to me that this is the case.

    I feel pretty strongly that the Adrian Thomas did not kill his son - that he signed off on killing his son under duress. But, some of the film makers' decisions seem to lack objectivity and makes me wonder about the truthfulness of their narrative.

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