Friday, January 1, 2016

Art from Adversity: Netflix’s Making a Murderer

Steven Avery is the primary subject of Netflix's new documentary series, Making a Murderer.

I didn’t know what I was in for when I decided to watch Netflix’s new documentary miniseries, Making a Murderer. Friends all over social media were praising the series, but I’d never heard of Steven Avery or his 1985 conviction for a violent sexual assault that he didn’t commit. Ultimately, my ignorance was to my advantage; not knowing what was coming for Avery and his family intensified my feelings of shock, frustration, and outrage as the story showcased by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos played out in ten hour-long episodes.

Without spoiling too much for the viewer (you should also feel shocked and outraged by Making a Murderer), the documentary tells the incredible story of Avery’s release from prison after serving eighteen years for a crime he didn’t commit, only to land at the centre of a highly publicized murder investigation. Evidence initially seems to point to Avery’s involvement in the murder of 25-year-old acquaintance, Teresa Halbach, but the ensuing trial is full of mistakes, prejudice, and shady dealings. Making a Murderer takes a bold stance and poses the question: did the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department convict an innocent man as a matter of convenience?

At the heart of the series is Avery himself, who is likeable despite the horrific accusations being thrown at him. He is a flawed man (prior convictions include burglary and animal cruelty for a drunken mishap where he regrettably burned a cat), not terribly bright maybe, but seemingly nonviolent and steadfastly claiming his own innocence. Avery holds to this claim unwaveringly, even at great personal expense: Wisconsin reduces prison time for felons who confess to their crimes. On the contrary, Avery (and, by extension, Making a Murderer) suggests he’s been framed by the same police department that left him rotting in a prison cell by mistake from 1985 to 2003.

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos compile a remarkable ten years’ worth of interviews, interrogations, media clips, and courtroom footage to weave a story that’s astounding in the way only real-life drama can be, but also compelling and well-paced. While the story unfolds more or less chronologically, Ricciardi and Demos aren’t afraid to jump back in time once in a while to introduce new evidence as it becomes relevant; in a complicated case like Avery’s (and a documentary with a 10-hour running time) this feature saves the audience from having to remember seemingly trivial details, instead introducing various sidebars at the right time to bolster the documentary’s argument. Impressively, the series articulates a pretty one-sided belief in Avery’s innocence without any overarching narrative telling the audience how to think or react. Neither of the filmmakers appear on camera but Ricciardi’s former career as a lawyer is obvious in the way the pair chose footage and edited it with clips of the extended Avery family, effectively humanizing what could have been a wash of legal jargon and dry court proceedings.

Directors Laura Ricciardi (center) and Moira Demos (right) during the filming of Making A Murderer. (Photo: Netflix)

Avery’s lawyers Dean Strang and Jerry Buting are both clever, critical, and well-spoken. In the seeming anarchy of Manitowoc County, they appear as the lone rational figures in a sea of incompetence and negligence. Buting and Strang are what anchor the series and give it a cohesive train of thought. Although they never explicitly break client confidentiality for the camera, they genuinely seem to believe in Avery’s innocence so much so that they decide to mount an incredibly risky defense that stops just short of outright stating Avery’s been framed by the police. More important than the specific dealings of this case, Buting and Strang highlight the broader implication that Making a Murderer wants to leave us with: that the justice system is broken, rigged to work against those without money or the right kind of education. Nowhere is this argument more vividly illustrated than in the secondary story of Avery’s learning-disabled nephew, Brendan Dassey, who also finds himself in a related high stakes trial of his own.

The series makes one major misstep and that is relegating the very real and very genuinely murdered Teresa Halbach to little more than a plot device. Someone did a horrible thing to her and Making a Murderer has no answers for that. While this oversight certainly strikes as insensitive, I can concede that memorializing Teresa and finding her killer is not what the series is about. Making a Murderer is a story of judicial failings that offers the idea of Avery as a secondary victim to a terrible crime. That said, there is also a creeping uncertainty about what the documentary posits: while Demos and Ricciardi make a very convincing argument, there is always the possibility that Avery is guilty. Whatever the case, Making a Murderer succeeds in the major goal of generating some necessary discussions about justice, class structure, and police accountability. Who is watching the watchdog, exactly?

Making a Murderer is a well-executed crime drama that hits our society at a critical moment as we are inundated with stories of injustice and police misconduct. Whether you followed the trial as it happened in 2006 and are interested in an alternative view or you’ve never heard of Steven Avery at all, I can guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the coming months. Last I heard, Internet vigilante group, Anonymous,  has decided to take up his case.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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