Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DOC NYC Spotlight: A Murder in the Park

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its fifth year in New York City from November 13th-20th.

A Murder in the Park
Directed by Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber
Screening November 17 at 9:30pm

Documentaries have two primary tasks: to highlight an interesting subject and to present it in a worthwhile way. Some nonfiction films are strong because of their content, the stories that they tell, and the causes for which they advocate. Others succeed in making facts and events that wouldn’t otherwise be extraordinary undeniably appealing and watchable because of how they frame their subject matter. “A Murder in the Park” is a documentary that does its topic justice and which chooses a furiously interesting and important focus: a struggle to prove a man’s innocence that resulted in a far more complicated and unbelievable outcome.

“A Murder in the Park” begins with a deceptively triumphant introduction, one that makes its subsequent revelations all the more profound. Less than forty-eight hours from execution for a double murder in 1982, Anthony Porter was freed thanks to the investigative efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class. It’s a remarkable tale in itself, but then comes the big bombshell: Porter actually committed the crime. The film’s assertion, supported by a number of law enforcement officials involved with the original case, is that Northwestern professor David Protess charged his students with proving Porter’s innocence as a way of combating the death penalty in Illinois rather than actually renaming the crime objectively.

What ensues is a complex look at how easily the justice system can be manipulated due to the loopholes and obstacles that exist in convictions, trials, and use of the media. This film takes the staunch position that Protess actually orchestrated events to find an innocent man, Alstory Simon, who could be convinced to take the fall for Porter’s crimes without realizing the full weight of what he was doing, which would put him in prison for fifteen years. It’s astonishing to see how Protess’ main cause - The Innocence Project – serves an altogether difference purpose with no regard for collateral damage.

It’s hard to remember a documentary that wasn’t about politics or some sort of grand social or international change that was as engaging and memorable as this film. It treats its subject matter with the utmost seriousness, with all its witnesses incredulous at the notion of this having actually happened. It’s a thorough and extremely effective analysis, one that exposes something that needs all the publicity it can get. This is both an instance of great journalism and a very sound documentary.


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