Visible Evidence 2021

Reenacting Justice: Strategies and Ethics in Crime Documentaries

Julia Sirmons
James Solomon
Chloë Boxer
Ian Punnett
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
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The increased popularity of crime documentaries—attributed to the so-called “true-crime Renaissance”—undersells how many of these works seriously examine the effects of crime as an individual and societal phenomenon. A particularly interesting sub-set of these are retrospective documentaries, which re-visit crimes from past decades. Retrospective documentaries often have a more explicitly democratic agenda than other crime documentaries. Their impetus is to place a known case in a new light, and expose the failures of democratic institutions, principally journalism and the criminal justice system. Often, these failures involve a particularly poor or unjust treatment of women, so often the victims of violent crime, who are often not taken seriously by law enforcement, and  blamed, sexualized or sensationalized by press coverage.

For the documentarian, telling the story of a crime that happened decades ago poses both logistical, artistic and ethical challenges. How do you represent things for which little to no archival footage may exist? How do you interact with subjects who have died, or who, because of past mistreatment by police or journalists, are not eager to revisit the past? The three filmmakers featured in this workshop have each taken radical and revelatory approaches to documenting and crimes from the past that involve female or child victims. In the workshop, they will describe their evolving understandings of the crimes and their larger resonances, and how this led them to unique choices regarding their relationship with their subjects and the use of reenactment.

This will facilitate a conversation between filmmakers and scholars about the effects of experimentations with documentary forms, and approaches to ethical filmmaking. How can we expand our understanding of the “crime documentary,” or even the “true crime” genre as a documentary mode, to better reckon with the past and respond to ongoing injustices in how we societally respond to crime?

The Witness features a reenactment of a famous but misunderstood crime. The reenactment was done at the request of the victim’s brother, who wanted answers. I’ll discuss how that part of the film developed from my ongoing relationship with Bill, and how it was shot and edited from his perspective.

James Solomon

James Solomon made the documentary The Witness. The Witness re-investigates the infamous Kitty Genovese murder; it was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. James received the Humanitas Prize for his screenplay The Conspirator. He was a lead writer and Executive Producer of the ESPN series The Bronx is Burning, based on events in 1977 New York City. A Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute, James has also written for several television series.

Women are the majority audience of true crime TV, a popular genre in which women are also almost always the victims of appalling violence. In my work I’m always responding to what’s useful about the genre and wondering about the ethical violences of the form.

Chloë Boxer

Chloë Boxer writes television and fiction. Her fiction appears in Joyland, DIAGRAM, and The Michigan Quarterly Review. She was co-producer of the Emmy-winning true crime series A Crime to Remember, which aired on the ID channel from 2013-2018. She holds an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University. She’s currently writing a serial killer novel.

“True crime” is often dismissed as an artistically and ethically baser genre than mainstream documentary. My interest in the narrative and stylistic norms of true crime leads me to suggest that the historical conventions of true crime narratives are reflected in these diverse films and actually heighten their commentaries on the justice system.

Ian Punnett

Ian Punnett received his Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University. He is the author of Toward A Theory of True Crime and A Black Night for the Bluegrass Belle. He is Professor of Practice at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University. Punnett co-edited Moving Sounds: A Cultural History of Car Radio, and contributed to Religion and Technology Series: How Religions are Embracing Virtual Media, Social Networks, and Mobile Devices. Punnett has co-produced for PBS’ Great Performances, and writes and performs for the 600-station syndicated Coast to Coast AM.

Performance studies scholars — from Richard Schechner through to Diana Taylor and Rebecca Schenider — view performance as a mode of revisiting history and processing trauma. Viewing both reenactment and interviews as documentary performances, I suggest these as jumping points for conversations about the directors’ films, processes and relationships with subjects.

Julia Sirmons

Julia Sirmons is a PhD candidate in Theater at Columbia University. Her research focuses on spectacles of emotion and violence in performance and media. Her dissertation explores the use of overblown theatrical aesthetics to represent political and social crises in post-War Europe. She received Columbia’s Teaching Scholars Fellowship to design and teach a course on the history of crime documentaries across media. She holds degrees in Media Studies from Columbia and the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Opera Quarterly, Framework, PAJ, and the feminist film journal Another Gaze.