Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Brother's Keeper (part 1 of 2)

I watched this great documentary last week. It's called Brother's Keeper and I highly recommend it. I love it when documentaries focus on personal stories rather than trying to tackle broad, usually controversial social or political issues as a whole, and this one did an excellent job of that. As a bonus, the film did address wider issues as they were involved in the story, but it did so without sweeping voiceover generalizations or a stated bias; instead quietly pointing the camera in the right direction and leaving the viewer to sort through the implications created. It explores the story of four elderly brothers living together in rural New York and what happened when one of them died and another was charged with his murder. All four were illiterate farmers, never married and living on their own with little contact with the outside world, or even with the other town members in Munnsville.

The documentary makers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, interviewed the brothers, townspeople, Delbert's lawyer, and various officials in the criminal justice system who were involved in the investigation and prosecution of Delbert Ward. They even filmed the courtroom proceedings and include a scene of the brothers watching a news story about themselves on the television, both of which were painful to watch. I found them painful because I was so attached to these men despite how foreign their lives are to my experience, and I think that's because the filmmakers succeeded in portraying them with compassion and understanding-- a level of empathy that many people involved in the story didn't seem capable of.

This film made me think about ethical research (and ethics in general) and even helped me appreciate the IRB approval that I've been grumbling about while trying to put together my application. Near the beginning of the film there is a scene where someone behind the camera asks, "Do you mind that we're makin' a film about you?" And the brother on screen (I can't remember which) says, "No. Don't bother me." At first I was a little skeptical of this 'proof of informed consent,' but I think the film as a whole is a testament to an ethical treatment of these men and of the situation as a whole. At one point near the end, one of the brothers (Roscoe maybe?) shows the camera the birds he keeps in an old bus and points out the ones he has named after the filmmakers and camera crew, stating that he gave them those names because they were his good friends. Pictures of this scene below.

Another element of informed consent in the story was the discussion of what happened when the police originally detained and questioned Delbert. It appears from the interviews with him in the film that he doesn't have a high level of language skills, that he's going deaf and he's generally sweet and a little confusable. According to a friend, when the police questioned him he agreed to waive his rights, although it's likely that he had no idea what this meant! How terrifying. The police also had Delbert sign a confession detailing how he asphyxiated his brother, which they claim was his account but which he claimed was created by them. It's hard to be sure, but seems likely that they suggested every bit of it even if he verbally consented at the time, and since he couldn't read, the validity of his signature on that piece of paper is pretty much nil. This isn't informed consent as it relates to scientific research on human subjects, but I think it's an excellent example of a similar legal act as a result of coercion and based on a false foundation of comprehension.

The interviews around this subject were an interesting point too. Delbert's neighbor/friend repeatedly and directly points out his illiteracy in a solo interview, but when the question comes up with Delbert himself he says the reason he couldn't read the confession properly was that he didn't have his glasses with him, and upon further questioning admits that they wouldn't have helped much anyway since he can't read "too good." Clearly this is a sensitive topic, and it seems that the filmmakers didn't push him too much to make a more direct statement, which to me seems like sound ethical practice.

There is so much more I want to say about this film. For now though, just a few last thoughts. I wish I could talk to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky more about the making of this film, because it seems like they did such a remarkable job of treating the Ward brothers as humans instead of means to an end. In comparison with the TV journalism shown in one scene of the movie, they showed such respect to the people they interviewed. And I don't know what sort of reciprocity or compensation they might have provided for cooperation, but Roscoe's description of them as friends certainly speaks well of them. There is also a scene at the end where the brothers are talking to them about how they should return for a visit, for a vacation in the countryside after the project is finished. I wonder if they ever followed through on this idea, just as I wonder if I will return to Ecuador after this summer. I felt compelled to return after last summer, but I'll be doing more research rather than coming only as a friend.

I'm glad I was able to see this example of thoughtful research in film form. I hope that wile practicing my field methods of reciprocity and consideration and rigorous participant observation, I will remember to be sincere in my interactions as well and build real relationships. I hope that genuine relationships will also aid in a good research outcome, and that these two goals will strengthen each other rather than compete while I'm in the field.

(Here are some screen shots of the setting in the film. For context, and to show that the documentary must have been filmed over the course of at least 6 months.)

No comments:

Post a Comment