By Kathryn O’Kane
There is no doubt that the “true crime” documentary genre is thriving and that such film and television projects are enjoying unprecedented buzz. Studies show that women are their biggest audience, and broadcasters are taking notice. By the nature of their work, non-fiction storytellers are always considering how to present and represent their subjects through the creative process. But how is that further complicated in the “true crime” space, when the stakes might literally be life or death? Where do they draw the line between journalism and entertainment?
New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) is hosting a panel of filmmakers and network executives who will discuss the brass tacks of telling these stories and examine their ethical boundaries and sense of responsibility in developing relationships with individuals whose lives or livelihoods are on the line.
NYWIFT board member Kathryn O’Kane sat down with Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker Bari Pearlman, who is also the Director/Producer of two forthcoming episodes of CNN Death Row Stories (Jigsaw/Sundance Productions), to talk about this phenomenon ahead of their upcoming panel: True Crime Stories: Relationships and Responsibilities on Wednesday, October 25th, 2017, at the Tribeca Film Center.
Kathryn O’Kane: Bari, you and I have known each other a long time, since our very first project together for Court TV, Shots in the Dark, a 90-minute special about crime scene photography directed by Derek Cianfrance. You’ve gone on to tell stories on a wide-variety of subject matter, from directing Daughters of Wisdom, a quiet and contemplative feature documentary about the first Buddhist nuns to live in a monastery in eastern Tibet to producing How to Dance in Ohio, a portrait of young adults with autism preparing for a spring formal dance. Is there a theme to the projects you chose?
Bari Pearlman: In the documentary films I have directed or produced, I’ve explored a range of seemingly unrelated subjects but if I had to point to something that unifies them it’s that they are all ways of exploring the idea of community, more specifically intentional community. I am fascinated by the question of what makes people choose who and what they identify with, what the implications are of having that identity, and how they navigate that choice. Thinking about the work that I’ve done recently on Death Row Stories, I’ve widened that idea to focus on the flipside of individual choice, where communities and society at large are operating within a judicial system that may not be serving its members fairly or humanely.
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