How Revisiting History Through the Modern Docu Lens Can Lead to Change
The amount of time that passes between a traumatic or otherwise subjective event and the way that event is recounted often greatly determines the response to and reception of those involved. In some cases, it may mean seeing someone who was once put on a pedestal as a much more complex and even criminal individual, while in others it allows for greater empathy toward someone previously thought of as a villain. And in some very special cases, revisiting a situation also allows for real social and systemic change.
“This series coming out in a post #MeToo [era] obviously adds an extra layer to it,” says “Lorena” executive producer and director Joshua Rofé. “There’s another lens through which it is viewed — I would say an even clearer lens than perhaps it would have been viewed a few years ago.”
Hindsight was vital to Rofé’s four-part series, which focuses on Lorena Bobbitt, who, 26 years ago, became a tabloid fixture and late-night punchline for cutting off her then-husband’s penis with a knife.
In 2017, Rofé set out to make a docuseries that re-contextualized Bobbitt. To accomplish that, he conducted new interviews with central figures from the story including Lorena, her ex-husband John Bobbitt, medics who were at the scene of the crime, the plastic surgeon who reattached Bobbitt’s penis, as well as Lorena’s friends and co-workers.
“Lorena was the ultimate example of somebody who had been victimized,” Rofé says. “The focus in 1993 wasn’t about what she had experienced, but on what she had done in response to what she experienced. So my goal was to tell the story as honestly and accurately as possible for [Lorena] to be understood, and not be a punchline anymore.”
Since the project debuted on Amazon in February, Bobbitt has made national headlines again but this time around, they are in her defense. “Today there is a louder feminist voice by way of social media that can meet the uproar on the other side,” Rofé says. “Part of the problem back in the day when this happened was that’s what was missing: You didn’t have a voice that was loud enough on Lorena’s behalf.”
Similarly, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who alleged Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children, were not often loud enough to rise above the roar of support for the pop star. But the fall of 2017 saw a cultural shift that changed things.
Dan Reed was in the middle of production on “Leaving Neverland,” the four-hour expose that detailed the allegations, when the shift occurred, and he believes that the collective awakening around sexual abuse and violence is what convinced a pivotal character in his project — Wade’s mother, Joy Robson — to participate in the docu.
“This is a movie about how two families came to terms with what their sons revealed to them many years after Jackson died,” explains Reed. “Joy had been sitting on the fence for a while, but felt really inspired by #MeToo and the surge of interest and understanding around child sexual abuse. It convinced her to go on the record. So while the timing of the movement and our film was purely coincidental, I guess you could say that we were lucky that the film coincided with an opening up of people’s consciousness to the stories of survivors of sexual abuse.”
By interviewing Robson, Safechuck and their respective families, “the film was an opportunity to allow people to take a deep dive into the psychology of child sexual abuse and how it happens,” Reed points out.
The #MeToo movement also spurred some of R. Kelly’s victims to speak to “Surviving R. Kelly” executive producer Dream Hampton. In all, the six-hour series (which is competing in the informational series or special category) features 50 interviews, including two of Kelly’s brothers, the singer’s ex-wife, former employees and music journalists.
While accusations of sexual misconduct against underage girls have dogged Kelly for 25 years, it wasn’t until the docuseries was released in January that the singer was dropped by his longtime record label, RCA, and was charged with 21 counts of sexual assault and sexual abuse.
“I don’t think that the world would have been ready [for this series] without the foundation of the work that #MuteRKelly, #MeToo and Times Up did,” says Lifetime senior vice president of unscripted development and programming Brie Miranda Bryant. “Those movements opened up the door and laid the foundation for the conversation that this series sparked.”
Although “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” didn’t involve sexual misconduct or women’s rights, the six-part Paramount Network docuseries also sparked conversation when it premiered in July.
Like R. Kelly’s history of sexual abuse, Trayvon Martin’s story is widely known. But Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s six-parter examines not just the untimely death of Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, but also the case against Zimmerman, the prosecutorial failures and the #BlackLivesMatter movement the murder spawned. Additionally, the directors plumbed the depths of racial tensions in America and provided a fresh perspective on the 2012 murder via cultural context, which includes the history of the controversial Stand Your Ground law.
“This series gives context from Trayvon to Trump and the six years in between,” says Nason. “It gives context to the string of events that happened, which has really opened a lot people’s eyes to what they may have thought was resolved in this country in terms of the levels of hate and anger and bigotry.”
What it means to be a person of color up against the legal system is an issue that Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg also wanted to highlight. In her four-hour HBO series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” she explores the 1999 disappearance and murder of Baltimore County high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Syed.
A story already well-known from the popular podcast “Serial,” Berg brought on two private investigators to look into the murder and shifted the focus of her docu from a whodunit to a deep look at the system that convicted Syed.
“I wasn’t trying to prove that Adnan was innocent in making this film,” Berg explains. “The idea that the legal system is on trial at the same as Adnan Syed was a central part of my storytelling because I found so many problems with the initial investigation.”
Like Berg, directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos also did not set out to make Netflix’s 10-hour “Making a Murderer: Part 2” to exonerate anyone. While the first season detailed the 2005 trial and convictions of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halbach, the series’ second installment sees Ricciardi and Demos return to the Midwest to follow Avery, Dassey, their families and the legal teams fighting on their behalf.
“We are hoping that the value of ‘Part 2’ is that people will come away with a better understanding of the role of the appellate courts and the function of them and the extent to which they are able to deliver justice,” says Ricciardi.
Adds Demos: “If, through the experience of these 20 hours, you have a greater capacity for empathy — if we all had a greater capacity for empathy — that would be the biggest change in the world there could be.”
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