Cinéma vérité: True Crime antidotes
Dear Zachary & Into the Abyss & the ripples of tragedy.
While I was doing my habitual true crime temperature check, a comment on a Reddit post stuck out. This was a community for general true crime discussion, and the complaint was that this was “not true crime.”
The offending post linked to a Daily Mail article reporting on a maternal murder/suicide, noting that they sought the surviving husband for comment on the very day.
The commenter and those who agreed didn’t mean this wasn’t a crime, despite what some of the commenters suggested, saying this was murder apologia.
But the refusal to engage with the objectionable content itself needed to be noted, a line drawn in the sand. As an act of community policing, this is an inadvertent admission that True Crime, whether a pastime or purpose, is for consumption, and some things can’t be stomached.
The theory that true crime fandom is about “shocking yourself into yourself” is spot-on, and goes a long way in verbalizing the appeal of seeking out morbid topics. Like a sanctioned micro-dose of self-harm that allows for those flushes of excitement with a good cause.
We’ve had to desensitize ourselves, but some things still sting: animal cruelty, and crimes involving children, especially infanticide, are predictably top of the list.
These crimes and atrocities require extra caveats and warnings when brought into the fold, and they are less likely to hit fandom gold and less likely to come to the attention of development executives and podcast researchers.
Even if it comes in a documentary format, there are stories that repel fandom and profiteering based on their very form. I’ve been pondering this since my last true crime essay, and I believe I’ve identified two documentaries that serve as antidotes to the true crime trend, painful antibodies against the gloss of commodity.
Kurt Kuenne’s 2008 documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a film dedicated to Kuenne’s longtime friend and murder victim, Andrew Bagby.
This is a documentary where people will talk about “going in blind” or not, mentioning “spoilers” about “the twist” because it’s one of those stories that will pierce through the protective buffer between viewer and storyteller if you’re not prepared.
The Shocking Twist is that thanks to Canada’s lax bail laws, Bagby’s accused murderer lived in freedom until she killed herself and Zachary, removing any possibility of a resolution.
Some of the criticism leveled on Reddit was that it was transparently manipulative, it was vindictive. The accusation of manipulation only makes sense in thinking of what happened in narrative turns: being lulled into complacency before more all too real tragedy struck. This was supposed to be a document for a future adult Zachary, and ended up being part of a mission to implement bail reform in Canada—the country that failed them—and that was the end of it.
Once Zachary’s bill was passed in 2010 and a memorial bursary fund in Andrew and Zachary’s names was instituted, the journey was over. The case hasn’t entered the media circuit, with no cutesy podcast episodes covering it, and no Hulu, Netflix, or Paramount limited series has delved into it.
To tell it the way it happened to me, the way it happened to Andrew's hundreds of friends, his family and, most of all, to show the experience his parents went through during this travesty-laden miscarriage of justice. Murders are not news items. They are not statistics. They are gut wrenching experiences that rip apart the fabric of lives and destroy reasons for living, creating a ripple effect that damages thousands of lives and leaves a chilling absence where there once was warmth and love. It is my hope that this film puts people right inside that experience and that no one will be able to come away from it unchanged.
— Statement from the Filmmaker, 2006 — Kurt Kuenne
I think Kuenne succeeded, and even the naysayers prove it with their complaints.
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Less emotionally fraught, but just as rejected by true crime fandom at large, is Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Into The Abyss. This, too, was focused on the repercussions of crime, generationally, culturally, and psychologically.
But it’s not the crime itself that repels potential profit-seeking: no infants or animals were involved. It’s dry, intentionally so.
There is no sensationalism from Herzog, no dramatics. He could’ve leaned into the genre with a mystery front and center. Instead, it leaves very little air for romance and vibes.
“The crime is something which is a real story. And the senselessness of this crime. The nihilism is so staggering and so frightening. That's what fascinates me.”
— Werner Herzog
Two teenagers in search of a car end up committing a triple homicide, and in a case of skewed justice Michael James Perry, convicted of one count of capital murder, received the death penalty and met with Herzog eight days ahead of his scheduled execution.
His accomplice, Jason Burkett, convicted of two counts of capital murder, was handed a 40-year sentence, sparing him the needle. His father, incarcerated on violent crimes himself, is the reason he was spared the death penalty, his testimony of how his son was doomed from birth gripping at least two jurors.
One of the victims’ brother breaks down at one point: he feels responsible for introducing his brother to the boys that killed him. He jumped bond to attend his brother’s funeral but was arrested and taken away before it was even over.
Perry was living in the trunk of someone’s car when he and Burkett met, and moved into his family’s trailer when the trunk was no longer an option.
Because Perry impersonated one of the victims in his first police interaction, the surviving family thought he was alive and unscathed until reality hit.
There’s little fanfare to their revelations of dysfunction; it isn’t even under the surface, the wreckage obvious and impenetrable.
That is partly what makes it so senseless: the trail of destruction that predates this particular crime spree. The banality of the aftermath. Even the tall tales Perry and Burkett told weren’t believable in the face of reality.
There was no mention of Perry’s campaign for innocence plea. Eight days to execution means the film was still in production when he was executed, and didn’t see the light of day until it was too late. There was no time to lobby for a stay; there was no purpose in feeding conspiracies that Perry was railroaded, though he was allowed to proclaim his virtuous innocence. The wide-reaching tentacles of tragedy are the story, and it has to be approached gently to make the most of it.
True crime isn’t going anywhere—it’s probably nowhere near its peak even now—so perhaps the antidote is to allow for content that hits just too hard. That brings the reality of what is being consumed into focus, the human cost behind the stories recycled through the mainstream.