Just miles from top-50 school Colgate University is the town of Munnsville, New York. In Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s film Brother’s Keeper (1992), a reporter describes it as a portal to the past, the home of humble farmers living as they did “200 years ago.” But trouble has come to Munnsville. William Ward, one of four brothers described at best as “simple,” is found dead in his bed beside his brother Delbert. Although, as the defense will later argue, there is no forensic evidence of foul play, the police bring Delbert to the station. They question him and produce a signed confession asserting that he murdered his brother. Anyone familiar with police procedure might conclude that this is the end of the story.
But the story doesn’t end there. The town, previously indifferent to the Ward brothers, rallies behind Delbert, throwing fundraising dinners in his honor and proclaiming his innocence. Even those with doubts don’t break ranks.
Brother’s Keeper, screened by the UMass Boston Film Series and the Docyard October 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, was revolutionary for its day, and left an indelible mark on following generations of filmmakers.
In his introduction to the film, UMass Boston Film Series Curator Chico Colvard called his first viewing of the film as nothing short of a “religious experience”; Sara Archambault, program director of the LEF Foundation, said that it “changed how [she] saw documentaries.”
Brother’s Keeper is not one of the “antiseptic,” as Colvard described them, documentaries of its time, nor does it attempt to proclaim a single point of view; in fact, it does the exact opposite. Everyone interviewed in the film has a clear opinion—except, it seems, the filmmakers.
“Back then it was revolutionary not to tell the audience what to think,” director Joe Berlinger said in discussion after the screening. “The point [of the film] is to have the debate” over Delbert’s innocence or guilt, and other moral, social and ethical questions the film posits.
How, for example, do we navigate our stereotypes of people different from us? This is a question that the film puts forward from its first frames: a walk into and through the Ward’s dilapidated house, the cameraperson’s footsteps delineated clearly on the soundtrack. These footsteps serve as an entrance into, for lack of a better word, the Ward brothers’ world, and the world of their community—one that, from first appearances, an outsider would not want to meet on a dark night, according to Berlinger. And despite the face that the filmmakers, and even more the audience, are outsiders in this world, the film does an exemplary job of drawing the viewers in. The Munnsville community is not the band of yokels that contemporary media presented, but a group of individuals with opinions and beliefs that lack the coherency stereotypes tend to ascribe.
This is a film, in many ways, about empathy, but also about its limits. The film’s many extreme close-ups place an emphasis on faces—what they can tell us about an individual, and how our passions unite us. How, then, does one penetrate Delbert’s blank expression as his own defense attorney describes him as too idiotic for the jury to hold him culpable for his brother’s death? Berlinger and Sinofsky give Delbert and his brothers plenty of screen time, enough to create the illusion that we, to some extent, know them. But these lingering shots during the trial at the end of the movie acknowledge cinema’s limits in penetrating the human experience. Many of the closeups are angry, animated, showing people explaining themselves to an audience that does not share their experiences. And then there is Delbert—blank, passive, listening to himself being assessed by others.
During the discussion, Berlinger brought up the notion of emotional versus literal truth, and its place in documentary filmmaking. Previous to Brother’s Keeper, documentarians believed they had access to absolute truth; they are journalists, after all, and journalists must be objective. But Berlinger rejected any such pretensions. Films are subjective because filmmakers are subjective. If there is any notion of human nature that we can pin down from this film, it might very well be that.