Russian editing whizzes Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Lev Kuleshov proved it in the earliest days of silent film: Truth rests in the eye of the beholder. In Fred Schepisi’s 1988 true drama, “A Cry in the Dark,” Meryl Streep starred as the woman who famously cried “a dingo took my baby!” to resounding disbelief in Australia. Police and others looked at her inexpressive face, surrounded by a cowl of dark hair, and decided she was guilty of murdering her child.
Similarly, the court of public opinion — as well as the courts of Italy — declared that 20-year-old party girl Amanda Knox, studying abroad in Perugia, murdered her roommate, Meredith Kercher. It took eight years, but in 2015 the Italian Supreme Court finally declared her innocent, and that she had no motive.
Who supplied her motives? According to Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst’s documentary “Amanda Knox” (Netflix, September 30), which took five years to make and debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, a local prosecutor was all too eager to swiftly solve the case, and supplied often made-up “evidence” to the gaping maw of the global tabloid press, who were desperate to beat the competition and get clicks. Finally, “Amanda Knox” is a perfect storm of culture clashes, as a pretty young American abroad and in love confronted colliding world views. She will never be the same.
Was Seattle native Knox — now 29, and back home after spending four years in a Perugia jail — guilty or innocent? The filmmakers did not set out to answer that question. It took years, but filmmakers McGinn (“Chef’s Table”) and Blackhurst (“Here Alone”) persuaded the story’s primary figures — Knox, ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Perugia prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, and UK journalist Nick Pisa — to talk on film. They address the camera, and explain what the ordeal felt like. “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing,” Knox says, “…or I am you.”
Rather than setting out to make a true-crime whodunit, the filmmakers sought to probe the layers of the onion. “We’re arguing for people to consider the nuances of the human experience,” said Blackhurst, who believes the characters in the center of the unfolding drama became accidental celebrities due to “the stories being told about them. But nobody had heard from any of them directly. In 2011, we wanted to take a first-person narrative look inside the snow globe, because everything that was happening was from the outside looking in.”
Unlike such unfolding stories as “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” many more people believe they are already familiar with the Amanda Knox case. “We weren’t interested in re-litigating the case and finding the smoking gun,” said McGinn. “From the beginning, that was not as compelling for us. We saw the film as a way to hold a mirror in front of the audience and shine it back at them, and ask questions about why we are so fascinated by this story, why we get so excited for the latest twist and turn. The end of the film was the final verdict, regardless of the outcome.”
While they began the film in 2011 (Netflix signed up in 2015), they didn’t begin editing with Matthew Hamachek (“Cartel Land”) until 2015. “We were aware of a number of key moments and touchstones of this case,” said McGinn. “They would be in the film, but we did not know what the ending was going to be. The Italian Supreme Court made its final ruling in 2015 when we were without the third act of the film.”
While Blackhurst said that gave them “the luxury of time, we didn’t know where we’d end up. You have to pull hard and see what unravels. It’s such a fascinating a thing. Throughout the years working on the film, we’d look for other elements, pieces of archive and photographs that could contextualize these moments that had happened many years before.”
They uncovered new material that had not been shown to the public: video of Kercher shot days before her death and photos taken during Knox and Sollecito’s week-long romance, as well as footage shot on the first day of the crime scene. “So it was not just a single image of the couple embracing,” said Blackhurst. “We provided context, another way to see the story we thought people had to see from a larger angle and perspective.”
Mignini and Pisa had never talked about the case, and the attorney and DNA experts had never spoken publicly about their findings. The filmmakers also revisited the players as news broke, talking to Knox three times, prosecutor Mignini twice, and UK freelancer Pisa once. “All of these people had something on the line,” said Blackhurst, “and all wanted to be heard, to contribute to the conversation. We needed both sides in order for a full picture of this story to emerge from the two people living directly at the heart of it.”
It’s disturbing to see how both young lovers broke under aggressive questioning, doubting the other; how Mignini assembled his portrait of Knox’s behavior and motives, somehow convinced that no man would cover a nude female victim; how Pisa ran with the ball without checking his facts, eager to get a scoop. “We discovered with each of these people the universal truth that everyone is flawed,” said McGinn. “Each one had their point of view grounded by what was put in front of them and everyone brought their own personal baggage.”
For Pisa, a freelancer for Daily Mail, NBC, and Sky News, that meant mining the story to meet the demands of the then still-new digital news platforms. “As things were moving online, and social media people looked there for news, stories were reduced into tweets and headlines competing for eyeballs and attention,” said Blackhurst. “This shift created stories that were designed to appeal to people’s emotions. We saw the way the story was presented. Once it was ingrained in the headlines, the narrative was set, and once the police declared the case closed, it was hard for anyone to break free of that narrative.”
And what a narrative, one that had Amanda Knox conspiring with two people she’d just met to participate in a rape-murder. It was so powerful that only the Supreme Court could kill it, eight years later. “That motive did not add up for them,” said Blackhurst. “It shows the power of narrative and the deep psychological interest in these carnal events in seeing darkness in all of the people that are accused of crimes, doing terrible things, to see the potential that anyone around us had to commit a crime.”
Knox, who finally graduated from college in 2014, now writes a column for a Seattle newspaper and advocates on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. “They’re all trying to move on from this,” said Blackhurst, “because they’ll forever be defined by this case and trial and ideas people have about them. We forget these are real people. We use them up and drop them off, latch onto the next thing and keep churning forward.”
Added McGinn, “In this case, you can boil it down to an intersection of cultures and people slamming into each other in a way that created chaos.”
Netflix made it possible for these young filmmakers to take the time they needed, missing the deadline for Sundance 2016. At the Toronto premiere in September, they saw their work of five years projected before 600 people. And on September 30, Netflix blasted it out to 190 countries around the world. Netflix will qualify the film for the Oscar and will show it at DOC NYC as part of the Shortlist.
“Ten years ago, people didn’t have a way to access a documentary like this,” said Blackhurst. “They’d go to an indie cinema, or look for things in the back stacks at a DVD rental store.”
Next up: McGinn just turned in his latest episode of “Chef’s Table,” while Blackhurst seeks to follow up his fiction feature debut, “Here Alone,” which won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens via Vertical in 2017.