Active Ingredients: Inherently dramatic subject; Good photography
Side Effects: One-sided; Tedious review of evidence
Legal or crime documentaries, it seems, have a bit of leg up over films with more innocuous subject matter. A tense courtroom battle or a true crime narrative comes with vast stores of built-in drama, but, then again, just like fiction films, high-minded socially-conscious docs can become weighed down by the stifling seriousness of their subjects. It’s a fine line to walk. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, for example, walks it gracefully, bringing specific and effective human stories into its gripping crime saga. Scenes of a Crime, however, isn’t able to supplement the facts of its admittedly-dramatic story with more subtly effective, personal material. Taking up the cause of false confessions, the film is a crusade against rough police tactics and miscarriages of justice first and a story about one man’s nightmare false imprisonment second. Despite my problems with the film artistically and morally, it’s not surprising that it took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s DOC NYC festival; with subject matter this heavy, who would deny being affected?
The film is a one-sided rabble-rouser. In 2008, Adrian Thomas was interrogated by the police for over 10 hours while his infant son lay dying in a nearby hospital. After hours in the small room, continually affirming his innocence of any mistreatment of the child, Adrian was beaten down and exhausted and confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Using liberal amounts of the interrogation videotape, directors Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh review the evidence of Thomas’ case to prove his innocence and cast shame on the police and legal staff who put Thomas away. Without a doubt, the nature of Thomas’ case, the issue of false imprisonment and the implication of such violent child abuse, is extremely emotional. I can’t deny the drama of the situation, but I can accuse Babcock and Hadaegh of ignoring Thomas as a character and showing insufficient interest in the nuances of his tragedy in favor of highlighting the political cause he came to represent. While I have no doubt their intentions are pure, I question their decision to use this man as an anonymous, passive example, somebody whom an unjust system “happens to.” Like any good documentary, Scenes of a Crime showcases true human drama, but it comes across in spite of the film’s directors, not because of them. Rather than award a documentary for its subject matter, however inherently dramatic, we should prize films that, through artful construction, aesthetic style and, above all, an unerring eye, rend recognizable human emotion out of life’s most banal occurrences.