This coming weekend, the University of Maryland School of Law is hosting a conference on law and film called "The Impact of Film on Law, Lawyers and the Legal System." This is the second such conference I will have been to in under a year (the other one was at Fordham Law School), evidence in my eye of the mainstreaming of interdisciplinary legal studies generally and of law and humanities studies specifically.
At this conference, I will be speaking about filmed confessions, but my current interest is the intersection of law and documentary filmmaking generally. I just finished watching "Death on the Staircase" by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (also the director of Murder on a Sunday Morning). "Death on the Staircase" is about the 2003 trial of Michael Peterson, a Durham, NC resident accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001 (whom he found at the bottom of the staircase of their house dead from an apparent fall).
de Lestrade followed the investigation through the trial verdict (over a year and half), editing the footage to eight hours of film. There was a stunning moment in the film when, during the investigation and criminal defense preparation, it is discovered that eighteen years ago Peterson's next-door neighbor was found dead under similar circumstances as his wife Kathleen (at the bottom of the stairs in her house, dead from an apparent fall). Upon learning this fact, the defense attorney, who previously had not once in three hours of the finished film addressed the camera, turns to the camera, white faced, and says “Well, now you’ve got yourself a much better film.”
I am trying to process why I was so moved by this "breaking of the fourth wall," especially when documentary plays on its fictional boundaries so regularly. Perhaps I am moved because it feels like such an authentic moment in an otherwise slick film. The defense attorney has been to this point so deftly ignoring the camera that the audience, too, forgets about the presence and effect of the camera. And yet, when the attorney is shaken by this news because of how it hurts his client, his first response is to turn to the camera and comment on the effect of this fact on the film. This suggests he had not ever forgotten about the camera or the making of the film, only that he had convinced us (his audience) that he had. The moment that to me feels most authentic in the documentary (most unaffected by the camera) is in fact the moment that reveals nothing is authentic in the documentary.