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Brother's Keeper (1992) is part rural gothic tale and part murder mystery. The documentary concerns the Ward boys, Roscoe, Lyman, Bill, and Delbert, who run a dairy farm in the small town of Munnsville in upstate New York. Everyone in the town calls them "boys" even though they are all in their sixties. It is a term with a double meaning- yes, they are all bachelor brothers still maintaining the farm they all grew up on, but they are also considered simpletons, scruffy-faced, unbathed, uncommunicative recluses living in squalor in a home with no central heating, no toilet, and one bedroom with two dilapidated beds.
The Ward Boys isolated existence was fractured one morning when brother Bill died. At first, no one gave it much thought, they were elderly after all and Bill was often seen limping or injured in some way from doing work around the farm. But, then the medical examiner found what he determined to be evidence of murder. The Ward Boys were rounded up and interrogated with Delbert signing an alleged confession to smothering his brother.
Death by natural causes? Or was it a mercy killing of an ailing brother, performed in a backwoods manner of snuffing the life out of a suffering animal? Was it a murder of jealousy? An act of passion? Is the entire thing a set-up to grab the Wards ninety-nine acres of land? All of these questions are raised. What matters is, the people of Munnsville, although filled with doubts and theories about what happened, rally behind the Wards, believing that it was not an act of malice and no justice will be served in dragging the sheltered, simple men through the court system. As it is said in the film, they may have been outcasts, but they were Munnsville's outcasts. And so the Ward Boys go from being men the townspeople wouldn't want to sit next to in a cafe due to their stench, to the subject of fund-raisers and dances, minor celebrities with friends they never knew they had.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (also responsible for another of the greatest documentaries ever made Paradise Lost and its companion Paradise Lost 2: Revelations) do not just present a tale of Deliverance meets Agatha Christie but get to know the town and especially the Wards themselves. The hearing deficient Roscoe is a smiling, welcoming soul. Lyman is a shy, nervous sort, scurrying into the barn at one point, wedging himself through the broken door like a crab under a rock when he doesn't want to answer anymore questions. The accused, Delbert is like his brothers, soft spoken, puzzled by the events, but seems more the leader. Not that there is any leading to be done. These are men living menially, but happily, locked in the same routine day after day, for fifty plus years, knowing of no other life.
Then, their lives are being followed by a three man documentary crew. Connie Chung is interviewing them. And, they are in the midst of a murder trial. As the film interviews the townspeople, the prosecutors, shows the brothers increasing exposure to public life, and the trial grows nearer, you quickly get a sense of why they became embraced by their neighbors. Whatever the reasons behind Bill's death, these are not dangerous, amoral men. They are certainly not only uneducated in the judicial system (as one neighbor comments, when Delbert was asked if he wanted to "wave his rights" he probably thought they meant something about waving to someone) but in social ways, making them malleable targets for the criminal investigators. As the film sets into the trail, it veers from the funny- the patronizingly toned grandstanding medical examiner, to the heart breaking- delicate Lyman shaking and wheezing with so much nervousness that he has to be taken away from the witness stand.
Until I listened to the commentary on this DVD, I never knew that Brothers Keeper got a lot of backlash from the documentary community. As a matter of fact, aside form the video box blurbs, I haven't read a single review line about the film. It was surprising to learn that the filmmakers got a lot of criticism from the pure documentary community for embracing their subjects and using cinematic tricks. The cinematic tricks, like scoring the film and adding sound fx and using editing tricks, is an old criticism, one that Errol Morris has spent a career proving as an archaic way of thinking about the documentary format.
As far as getting close to their subjects, befriending them, yes, there is something to be said for docs to have some distance and a non-judgmental, "just the facts" view. But, Brothers Keeper, despite the intimacy and friendship between Sinofsky, Berlinger, and the Wards, is still fair. The Wards are embraceable, kind men and the filmmakers show you that through the neighbors and townsfolk and through their own involvement of being the some of the few people to be allowed into the Ward home. Part of the Ward's story is how this trial and controversy opened them up to the outside world and the filmmakers were part of that; therefore that facilitated their becoming more than just observers. Also, their affection for the Wards in no way effects how they portray the facts of what may or may not have happened involving Bill's death. They still manage to dredge several theories and leave viewers ambiguous as to what happened. After all, only the Ward boys really know.
The DVD: Docudrama
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. Shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. The transfer here is about as good as it can be considering the rough nature of the material. Naturally, it shows a greater detail of color and sharpness than the vhs, but there is still only so far you can push 16mm film. So, it is a bit grainy and rough, but all things considered this is a fine image transfer and there probably isn't a great deal of room for improvement.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Once again, the audio here is serviceable, typical doc audio. Mostly it was all captured well and comes through with clarity. Due to the boys accents, some subtitling (or the option for it) may have been beneficial for some viewers. The traditional country/bluegrass violin and guitar strummings of the score by Jay and Molly Unger add a perfect backdrop to the film.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Filmmaker Bios--- Photo Gallery--- Original Theatrical Trailer--- Six Deleted Scenes. They range from the minor to the moving to the informative, and all feature the option of directors commentary. --- "The Wards Take Manhattan" (11:39). This footage of the Wards visiting Berlinger and Sinofsky in New York was originally conceived as the closing of the film but then was abandoned. Here it has been reassembled as a short. Pretty basic and nostalgia driven footage of the Wards in NY landmarks like Times Square, the Twin Towers, in Central Park, and riding the Staten Island ferry.--- Commentary by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Excellent commentary with anecdotes a-plenty and no lulls whatsoever. Eschewing the mistake many commentators make, they wisely deviate from screen specific comments and talk about various aspects of making the film while still pointing out remembrances of certain scenes. Some great stuff, including the tv movie offers the Wards declined (Andy Griffith as Delbert Ward!), their technique, criticisms, troubleshooting, and for the first time reveal their opinions on Delbert's innocence or guilt.--- About Docudrama text info, catalog, and trailers for some Docudrama films.
Conclusion: One of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen, and I've seen it at least eight times prior to reviewing the DVD. The Docudrama presentation is a fine one, not only offering a very good transfer of the film, but some great extras as well, making this a must-purchase for any serious documentary fan. I wouldn't be surprised if this one finds its way onto my top ten list at the end of the year.