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Documentary Quickshots #4

Amanda Knox (2016; Directed by Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn)

A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. The titular young American woman became a notorious figure in the media due to her apparent involvement in the brutal 2007 murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher in the house they rented while both were studying in the Italian city of Perugia. Wildly spun as a nutty, ice-veined nymphomaniac manipulator who led her naive Italian boyfriend of a few days as well as a crime-prone stranger in a sexualized group killing, Knox endured four trials in the Italian court system before finally being exonerated of having any role in Kercher’s death.

The documentary about her travails finds that Knox and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were the targets of a breathless media whirlwind, increasingly pressured and harried police investigators who resorted to coercive interrogation tactics to pin the high-profile murder on them, and a prosecutor with delusions of detective genius grandeur and an almost absurd imagination for elaborate criminal fantasies. These forces interweave and feed into each other, with scoop-obsessed media outlets amplifying and reinforcing the fabulisms of incautious and over-certain investigators, whose questionable conclusions were then strengthened by public dissemination.

In a development seemingly out of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, the attractive blond Knox became suspicious to police and to self-styled Italian Sherlock Holmes prosecutor Giuliano Mignini for supposedly strange behaviour in the wake of her roommate’s death. None of this behaviour suggested in any way that she had anything to do with the murder, but rather that she coped with it in a manner that contrasted with the conventional platitudes of grief that are supposed to govern reactions to such shocking tragedies. Knox self-describes as a bit of a goofball and is accused by Mignini of having a rebellious attitude towards authority, as if that itself was a crime (when authority is as capricious and irresponsible with its power as Mignini is shown to be, rebellion seems the only reasonable option). Standards of behaviour doomed Knox as much as any specific evidence ever did.

Media involvement cannot be wholly ignored, either, and the documentary focuses on English reporter Nick Pisa in particular. An unctuous representative of the particularly dirty-fingered London gutter press, Pisa grinningly defends the frantic spreading of any and every rumour and statement about the case by himself and his media compatriots, citing the pressure of scoring the scoop, the public’s insatiable appetite for scandalous detail, and the difficulty of verifying that anything he reports is actually true before reporting it. The press irreparably coloured the wider perception of the case with their tabloid tales of “Foxy Knoxy” and her sex-crazed antics, and carry a sizable measure of responsibility for the legal railroading of innocent people in this instance.

The real responsibility, though, lies with Italian police and their faux-cuddly boss, the prosecutor Mignini. Amanda Knox proves that, for all of the prominence that the malfeasance of American police has achieved in recent years, questionable police and prosecutorial practices are hardly the sole purview of, say, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Coercive interrogations of the separated lovers Knox and Sollecito accomplished dubious admissions of guilt from both, later recanted in a manner that Mignini found dissatisfying. Disgustingly, the police insinuated to the jailed Knox that she might have HIV, apparently in order to obtain a list of her past lovers and slut-shame her in the media to strengthen their case against her. Evidence collection placed both of them in the murder victim’s room via DNA profiles (it also placed the aforementioned stranger, Rudy Guede, there more definitively, and he was separately convicted of the murder which it seems clear that he committed alone). But later independent inquiries into the Perugia police’s evidence collection at the crime scene found their methods to be shambolic and chaotic, making contamination not only possible but likely and tainting the only solid physical evidence tying Knox and Sollecito to the murder. These errors would be key to the eventual exoneration of the pair by Italy’s highest appeals courts.

More egregious than any of these official mistakes were the elaborate and unrealistic theories formulated by Mignini, supported above all by a guiding tendency towards confirmation bias of even the most extreme construction of events. Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions (in addition to the Knox case, Mignini also targetted some respected local Masonic lodge members for an incredible Satanic conspiracy and killing spree). If Mignini was really the rabid and knowledgeable fan of detective fiction that he claimed to be, he might have heeded Arthur Conan Doyle’s warning that even the most brilliant of detectives could be led astray by the workings of his own mind (it would be more than too much to ask that he had read Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”, an even more forceful intellectual warning about such tendencies). The unsettling story told in Amanda Knox gives a startling example of what we might be willing to believe about other people, the broken transmitters of information and authority that enshrine those beliefs, and the costs and consequences of such belief.

The Witness (2015; Directed by James D. Solomon)

A more focused and personalized documentation of the power of public perception when conclusions are jumped to, The Witness examines one of the most notorious and sociologically resonant crime stories in American history to show that it was not what it once seemed.

The brutal 1964 murder of bar manager Kitty Genovese in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of the New York City borough of Queens shocked the nation at the time and for half a century afterwards not only because a young woman was viciously stabbed and left to bleed out in the street. As reported by the venerable New York Times at the time, Genovese cried out loudly and repeatedly for help and was heard by up to 38 witnesses in the apartment building in which she lived, adjacent to the sidewalk upon which she was fatally attacked. Per the Times article, no one came to her aid or even so much as called the police, allowing the murderer to return and finish her off. Kitty Genovese became a byword for the apathy of America’s largest city and for the alienated condition of urban life in general. Her killing and the reported unconcern of her neighbours, their unwillingness to get involved (the vaunted “bystander effect”), was the subject of many books, was studied and lectured upon by sociologists, has been referenced as “Genovese syndrome” in works of literature and entertainment including Perry Mason, Law & Order, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and was an important impetus for the development of the 911 emergency reporting system in the United States.

The Witness might not constitute the comprehensive probing of the underlying facts and implications of the formidable Kitty Genovese myth that it demands, but it’s a robust examination that cuts through assumptions and conventional knowledge of the situation to find a sort of truth at the soul of it. The wedge that pries open this long-closed interpretive box is Kitty’s beloved younger brother Bill Genovese. Still a child when his sister was murdered, Bill tells us through the film how he coped differently with the notorious case than the rest of his family did. While they buried their grief with Kitty, Bill was driven by resentment at the legendary apathy of Kitty’s neighbours to buck what he saw as his generation’s abdication of national duty: he enlisted in the US Army and fight in the Vietnam War, where he lost both of his legs in an enemy ambush. On the cusp of his elder years, Bill’s obsessive emotions around both the loss of his sister and the heavy personal sacrifice it led him to drive him to understand as much as he can about that fateful night in 1964.

At a remove of 50 years, many of the answers that Bill seeks are lost in the passage of time. Many of the purported witnesses (only five testified at the trial of her convicted murderer, Winston Moseley) are dead themselves, though he pores through trial transcripts, police reports, and newspaper articles to reconstruct their accounts. What he finds is a more complex event than the somewhat erroneously reported one from the Times, where an image of three-dozen lit-up windows gazed down with fearful unconcern on the bloodied body of a slain woman.

Some witnesses report only hearing a scream, others claim to have seen her on the street but then saw her leave the scene under her own power (a widely unreported fact of the crime was that Moseley’s return attack occured around the corner, out of sight of the apartment windows). Still others claim to have called the police only to be told that multiple calls had already been received; the station logs record only a single call about it that night, from the elevator operator in the lobby well after the initial attack, but other studies have found that initial calls were received but the police were reluctant to intervene in what they thought to be a domestic dispute, a reluctance that may have been passed along to the witnesses to deflect blame from the NYPD. One key surviving witness, a good friend of Kitty’s, claims to have rushed down to be with Kitty on the blood-soaked stairwell foyer where she breathed her last.

Bill Genovese finds that the principle figures in the murder also had unglimpsed nuances. Kitty herself was a quick wit, greatly appreciated by the bar patrons whom she served and occasionally cut off from alcohol. She was also a semi-closeted lesbian in a relationship with another woman. Moseley, meanwhile, may or may not have been criminally active prior to killing Kitty Genovese, and spent the majority of the remainder of his life in prison for the murder and subsequent crimes upon brief release, periodically fabricating accounts of the killing and showing what was judged to be insufficient remorse for what he did when he came up for parole (he died this year in prison at 81 years of age). But he had a wife and family prior to the crime, and one of his sons, now a reverend, has a tense and unpredictable interview with Bill that convolutes his feelings about the man who killed his sister rather than offers them any measure of closure (Moseley himself refused to speak with Bill).

At some certain point in the many-years-long investigative odyssey that takes up The Witness, Bill Genovese acknowledges that his mission has become less about finding the “truth” or any measure of peace and closure than the act of searching itself functioning as a form of therapy, to scour his own mind and heart of whatever anxieties and pain linger there from the loss of his sister. This certainly seems to be the only explanation for his climactic project, which involves hiring an actress to re-enact Kitty’s blood-curdling nocturnal screams and desperate final moments outside the building where it happens 50 years earlier. Even if Bill’s personal investment in the murder sometimes proscribes the breadth of his examination and dispelling of its dominant myths, his proximity to its victim allows him to evade the conventional interpretations of the event, or at least to work to push beyond them. Like Amanda Knox, The Witness is an effective caution against the power of assumptions and encourages observers of events to doubt initial narrative around them and dig for deeper truths, difficult as both that digging and the truths themselves may be.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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