Documentary filmmaking the process of being a subject of a documentary have long amounted to a type of performative therapy, the camera acting as a sort of hybrid therapist / priest / judge.
An interesting spin on that theme, in recent years, has been the rise of performative therapy as a documentary. Robert Greene (Procession, Bisbee ’17 and Kate Plays Christineand Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) are among the leading figures in this subgenre, in which filmmakers observe or sometimes orchestrate artistic exercises as a way of helping people confront psychological wounds and maybe reach catharsis, rather than simply making a film about the psychological wounds themselves.
Mind Over Murder
The Bottom Line
More interesting as a portrait of the power of art than as a true-crime docuseries.
Pushing the form to docuseries length is HBO’s Mind Over Murder from director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation). A feature documentary absolutely could be made exclusively about the six people convicted and then exonerated for the murder of a Nebraska widow in 1985. Mind Over Murder comes close to justifying its extended, six-hour running time with a parallel focus on a community theater production about the horrible situation, a play aimed at making a town come to terms with a complicated and painful past. The first side of the documentary is sometimes repetitive and the second side is underserved, but Mind Over Murder remains a provocative thing, defying any kind of simple hero / villain / victim classifications.
In 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was raped and murdered in Beatrice, Nebraska. Leads were followed, but for several years no arrests were made. A few years later, six people were arrested. There was no evidence tying them to the crime. There was barely evidence tying them to each other. But five of them confessed, and the sixth was convicted in large part on the basis of those connections. More than a decade after that, DNA evidence pointed at an entirely unrelated killer and led to the exoneration of what the media called the Beatrice Six, because the media is lazy and thinks nothing of conflating one injustice with another – the Central Park Five, of course – however dissimilar the situations.
What actually happened to Helen Wilson? What happened in the police investigation of the crime? What did Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez have to do with anything and why, if they had nothing to do with the crime, did they confess? These are questions that Wilson’s family – represented here by several of her grandchildren – and local law enforcement and the town at large have been grappling with.
Enter the Community Players Theater, director Cecilia Rubino and the play Gage County, NE, assembled from court and interrogation transcripts. Will the three-night production of Gage County, NE offer healing or will it tear the fragile town apart?
The basic documentary that Wang is making about the general legal catastrophe is solid. With that group of Wilson’s grandchildren present, Wang keeps the actual victim in the case front of mind, and she never loses awareness that no matter where wrongdoing took place here, there are still-grieving family members whose tenuous closure has too often been an afterthought .
At the same time, “sad family members” can’t compete, when it comes to on-screen drama, with the conspiratorially railroaded accused. Wang has four of the six exonerated figures candidly on-camera in what unfolds as a steady mystery even if “history” will spoil the end of the story for anybody with Google. Wang distributes the twists and turns and resolutions to “Huh?!?” cliffhangers episode by episode. I’ll leave the most infuriating and unfathomable details to play out in the series. Suffice it to say, slightly disappointingly, the worst perpetrators aren’t featured in the series and bigger points about systemic injustice – repressed memories, treatment of the mentally ill, etc. – has soft-pedaled. But there are enough participating figures who still insist that their police work was sound to roil the calmest of blood.
There’s a lot of contextualizing and recontextualizing of confessions and filmed or recorded interrogations that mean Mind Over Murder is telling the same often graphic stories over and over again without always getting results. That’s where I wish Wang had leaned more aggressively into the structuring and development of the play, the casting and rehearsal process and, particularly, the positioning of the actors within the community they’re about to unsettle.
That, to me, is where Mind Over Murder is most fascinating – like when the actor playing detective-turned-florist Burt sits down with the man he’s playing and tries to get his assistance with mannerisms and motivation. Burt is frequently the documentary’s key figure, or at least one of the people Wang is trying to build a character arc around through confrontations like giving him a very meta solo screening of a rough cut of the documentary. There isn’t enough of that, nor enough follow-through on the specific connections the actors have within the community and therefore to the tragedy they’re depicting.
The idea that art can force reckonings that the steady, forward creep of history and the steady recession of memory perhaps deny is such a potent one that I wish the play wasn’t left to five or 10 minutes per episode throughout most of the series. When the staging finally occurs and we witness some of the aftermath, that’s when Mind Over Murder finally escapes its more rudimentary true crime trappings. That’s when Mind Over Murder finds a thrust that’s deeper and more complicated than literal imprisonment and exoneration, that gets to bigger issues of what it truly looks like to recover from all the miserable things in this case and how imperfect the idea of recovery can be.
From The Thin Blue Line to The Staircase to Serial to The Jinxwe’ve seen many examples of the role documentaries can play in achieving justice. Mind Over Murder comes too late to the party for that and maybe dwells too long on trying to contribute to that discussion as well, when its examination of the role documentaries can play in achieving solace is every bit as meaningful.