DVDTalk Interview My Brother's Keeper - Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
by Phillip Duncan
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are two filmmakers that when working together, they have become known for their narrative documentary style. They first drew attention at Sundance in 1992 with "Brother's Keeper," which went on to win the Audience Award. Their later films together, "Paradise Lost" and "Revelations: Paradise Lost 2" earned them equal praise while thrusting them further into the spotlight. On the 10th Anniversary of their first collaboration together, Docurama has released a DVD of "Brother's Keeper" and DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan had a chance to ask them about the Ward Brothers, their feelings toward authority and upcoming film with Metallica.
How did you first hear about the Ward Brothers and their case?
Joe, why don’t you start.
Do you feel it’s difficult to pull performances out of unwilling participants, or is just the opposite true, and they sometimes want to perform too much?
It really depends on the person. What Joe and I do, and certainly did with the
Ward brothers, is spend a lot of time with before we take the cameras out. I
think Joe and I spent four or 5 weekends up there just doing chores with them,
hanging out, laying on the lawn, swatting flies most of the time and I think
Joe and realized there was a certain time they were ready to be filmed, because
they got used to us. There was a trust. We trusted them. They trusted us, and
these guys were innocents, not a question of innocence or guilt. They were innocents
that didn’t understand the predicament they were in and just went about
their daily life. So when we started filming I don’t think they ever performed.
I never felt there was a sense of performance from any of the Ward Brothers,
which was critical to us. Yeah, sometime there are people that want to perform.
I have to say to Joe, you remember there were six or seven people who were constantly
coming up to us wanting to be filmed for the film and those were the people,
the exact people, that we didn’t want to film because it was a fact that
we didn’t want to deal with them.
Do you find yourselves wanting to choose sides in projects such as this and “Paradise Lost?”
Bruce: That’s a good question, because it is difficult. For example, on “Paradise Lost” which we’ll just briefly mention that, there were six families, three whose children were killed and three whose children were accused. One day you would literally be at a barbecue for one of the accused young men and in the morning you would have found yourself in church with one of the other families. It became very difficult and it was probably a little hard for the families to see us talking cordially to both sides and I think Joe and did in calming the down and making them safe with us and that a trust was there is that we never shared information that they said to us about their child and vice-versa. We weren’t gossips and I think they really respected that. In “Brother’s Keeper,” personally Delbert probably did kill his brother, but not for the reasons that one might think. I think that if it was a mercy killing, it was a very valiant thing to do. I just wanted Delbert to go home. I just wanted him to be on his farm, hang out with his cows and his brothers and continue with his life. There was no likelihood that he was going to kill anybody else. So, I never thought of it as murder. I rooted for him to be innocent, of course.
It’s clear that they (law enforcement) took advantage of his situation and education, or lack thereof.
Bruce: One of the funniest things that wasn’t in the film, Harry Thurston, out John Wayne character in the film, he said to us one time when we were at a diner or something and talking “you know, if they had told Delbert to go into this bar everyday and stand there, for five years, he would have done it.” It wasn’t like he was a danger to anybody and that’s what we always couldn’t understand why Don Fario, the prosecutor, was so almost vicious at times about this poor guy. Hear the Response... (mp3-363K)
There seems to be a thread of distrust for the media and authority that runs through your work.
Bruce: Yeah, we don’t trust you at all.
Is that purposeful or is it something interests you and brings you into that subject?
Joe: Mistrust of the media, I wouldn’t say that. We like to critique the media and we are part of that critique ourselves. We’re always throwing up signposts to the viewer saying, hey, what you’re watching, what’s the truth, where are the biases, where are the perspectives. Hear the Response... (mp3-93K)
Right, not necessarily mistrust, but don’t believe everything you see.
Joe: Mistrust of authority for sure. We’ve seen the worst. Not every investigator is bad and not every prosecutor is out for his own record and a notch on his belt, clearly, but we’ve seen many of those. We’re very vigilant about stories about abuses in the criminal justice system. The media, first of all, since we don’t like to have narration in our films, structurally we like using media to help us tell the story. But we also like to demonstrate how black and white the media, by its very nature, has to be in presenting the story when in fact situations are much more gray in real life and they’re not always the way they’re presented. When you’re feeding that machine each night for the daily news or the evening’s broadcast, a journalist just by nature of the job they’re doing can’t go into the shades of gray. For example, Delbert was presented by the media as an innocent guy being railroaded. The truth was a lot deeper than that. He was an innocent. He was an innocent kind of person who lived a brutal, survivalistic lifestyle. It’s hard for us to judge him and should he have been brought into the court system? That’s the question of the film. He probably did kill his brother, but that’s not the story the media was selling and likewise in “Paradise Lost” it was much easier and more profitable to just treat Damien and the other two as satanic killers, because that was a sexier story. The truth was much more complex and deeper and those local journalists did not do their jobs. There are great journalists, so it’s not like a universal statement that the media sucks and prosecutors are bad, but it is something we’re always looking to critique. Hear the Response... (mp3-387K)
You mention being able to follow a story from beginning to end and that seems like a process that would make it more difficult to put together in the end. Specifically I’m referring to a scene in “The Wards Take Manhattan” where you have a bookcase of footage.
Bruce: The thing is, Joe and I love editing. We love being
in the editing room and we love hammering out our story. You know when we’re
film, when we’re out there on the road in Munnsville, shooting “Brother’s
Keeper” we talk about what we got that day. We’d go back to John
Peeple’s cabin where we stay and we’d say, “what did we get
today. What storyline did we get material for that continues that story? What’s
something they said that we might want to go back to it in a couple of day because
they address something or Harry talked about something and he wasn’t really
ready to talk about it then, when can we go get that. We get all this material.
We go back to the editing room and since we lived it, it’s almost like
we’re sponges and we squeeze all the water out of the sponge in the editing
room. We’re able to take that experience, because it’s our experience.
We don’t tell people that what we do is the absolute truth. It’s
what Joe and I saw, a reflection of what Joe and I saw for that year that we
were up in Munnsville. Then we get all the stuff and cut it. For something like
“The Ward Brothers Take Manhattan,” you know Rosco had invited us
to come back when the leaves were green and visit and they came and visited
us and we thought this might be a great ending for the film. In fact, we were
going to shoot them for two days, but after the first day we realized that the
end that we had already thought about, them on tractors, going back to their
home was far better. In some ways, people might say we were making fun of them,
which we certainly weren’t. We screened it once together and said that
one day when we do a longer version, in those days you weren’t thinking
about DVDs in 1990. As it turned out we always had it in our hip pocket.
You guys obviously work well together; do you jointly have anything coming up?
Joe: Well our big project for the past two and one-half years is a big film about Metallica.
That’s mentioned in the commentary on the “Brother’s Keeper” DVD.
Joe: It’s been two and one-half years in the making
and I can say that I think it’s going to be one of the greatest Rock N’
Roll films ever made. I know that sounds really egotistical, because it’s
not a concert film, it’s not a backstage, dime-a-dozen, let’s go
on tour with a rock group, it’s two and one-half years of really intimate
hanging out with the band through their near disintegration. They allowed us
to film their group therapy sessions. They hired a therapist to help the deal
with interpersonal issues and how to deal with being a rock star.
Did this relationship with them stem from using their music in your other films (Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost: revisited)?
It will also make a very large DVD.
Bruce: I certainly hope so. The very nice thing about it--we’re
going to have a theatrical release with it first, probably about next March—there
is a legion of Metallica fans who will come out and see this film and then we
believe honestly people who like good stories, because it’s about these
men and their lives, will go and see a film we made because they might have
been fans of “Paradise Lost” or “Brother’s Keeper”
or just fans who like good stories. So we think it will go beyond the casual
Metallica listener, which is essential, because we didn’t make this film
for metal-heads, we made it for anybody.
Any more DVD releases coming? Specifically speaking about “Paradise Lost.”
Joe: Well, we’re trying. I’ve been locked into a battle. Battle,
that’s not a fair word.
Joe:That’s what I’m trying to get them to do.