As the camera pans inside the ramshackle shack, piled high with rubble, dirty laundry, and unwashed dishes, we'd think we were visiting the Third World were it not for the bluegrass music in the background. But the old geezers deeply absorbed in their television game show aren't from Appalachia either. This is rural territory in central New York—a tiny hamlet called Munnsville, where everybody knows everybody and their business. And the three unshaven souls who may not have even changed underwear for weeks are known as the local eccentric dairy farmers—shy and gentle souls who wouldn't even harm a dead cat (indeed, the filmmakers find a deceased feline peacefully sprawled out on the premises).
The four illiterate Ward brothers had lived quiet lives of non-desperation for six decades, but that all came crashing down in 1990 when 64-year old William was found dead in bed one morning. Since his health had been failing recently, this passage should have been routine; however, a local lawman suspected foul play and instantly youngest brother, 59-year old Delbert, was thrust into national prominence. Whether the lawman was seeking recognition for political purposes or had just been watching too much television police crime shows is unknown, but the dramatic story of possible hayseed fratricide brought out Connie Chung and other NYC media, along with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky on their first joint documentary project, Brother's Keeper.
Devoted to the principles drawn by Robert Drew and associates (note: the film is dedicated to the memory of David Maysles), Berlinger and Sinofsky are unsurpassed developing a natural drama without playwrights and actors with "cinema direct" techniques. While dramatic effects are enhanced through smooth editing and effective original music, the key remains recording authentic raw footage. The filmmakers avoid the deadly traps of too many "taking head" documentaries by incorporating Drew's documentary rules:
1. No interviews—at most we hear an off screen filmmaker ask a conversation starter question to get one of the Ward brothers to do something besides gaze at his fields
The title itself increases the dramatic tension, as it's taken from the Biblical verse about Cain and Abel. So if you've not read the final results of the trial, the film builds up to a dramatic finish. Plausible explanations are non-judgmentally offered that generally range from a natural death to mercy killing, and the filmmakers wisely allow the brothers, community members, and prosecution to speak directly on the theories. Most outrageous are the dark charges of the district attorney. Foreshadowing the lengths to which Kenneth Starr will later pursue a semen stained dress and invoking Deliverance imagery, the prosecutor hints that Delbert had a sexual relationship with his dead brother. After all, the four bachelors had lived together all these years without any women around, and they shared beds.
2. Never ask anyone to do anything
3. Never ask someone to repeat a line
4. Never ask someone to repeat an action
Lacking physical evidence, the prosecution relies primarily on Delbert's signed confession and his brother Lyman's deposition, both stating that Delbert had suffocated William to put him out of his misery. Both brothers deny their statements later, claiming that they merely agreed to whatever the police investigators said after hours of interrogation—they just wanted to get back home to relax. The authorities state firmly that they never coerced the brothers and that they waived their rights to have a lawyer present, but as one supportive neighbor retorts: ". . . Delbert didn't know the difference between that and waving to someone on the road." As proof of his competence, the prosecution goes to great lengths to demonstrate Delbert's legal savvy by the fact that he's a huge Matlockfan. (Of course he also religiously watches Jeopardy, but it's apparent that he's no whiz at that either).
Berlinger and Sinofsky have crafted a fine documentary with far more nuances and tension than anything Andy Griffith ever supplied in his highly scripted television show. The drama builds tremendously, but that's not the true gifts of this remarkable film—that lies in the character development of protagonist Delbert, his two brothers Roscoe and Lyman (ages 70 and 62), and the various community members that rally behind Delbert when the aggressive prosecutor goes all out to convict him. Brother's Keeper is a layered work that not only explores this specific case and paints first hand pictures of rural life, but also strikes at the very heart of the judicial system in the U.S. and the common man's sense of civil liberties. The filmmakers pursue a similar theme in their next documentary, Paradise Lost, but that's a whole different scenario. Both films are well worth close examination, as they demonstrate that documentaries truly can be as suspenseful and dramatic as any fictional narrative.