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Full Frame 2011: "Scenes of a Crime" Challenges Our Ways of Seeing

By Christopher Campbell | Spout April 16, 2011 at 7:54AM

Though I was unable to attend the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Festival this week as planned, partly due to my accreditation being through Cinematical/Moviefone, for which I no longer work, I was able to see this one selection from the program and so am reviewing it as a single piece of Full Frame coverage.
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Though I was unable to attend the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Festival this week as planned, partly due to my accreditation being through Cinematical/Moviefone, for which I no longer work, I was able to see this one selection from the program and so am reviewing it as a single piece of Full Frame coverage.

We've all seen enough cop shows and legal dramas to have in our head an idea of what police interrogations look like. But those fictions aren't anything like the reality presented in Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock's "Scenes of a Crime." The documentary involves a case of possible infanticide in which two detectives interview a man for ten hours regarding the death of his four-month-old son. Along with excerpts from the video footage of that lengthy examination, the film also presents parts of an interrogation training video and testimonials from the policemen about how they conducted the proceedings and lawyers and expert witnesses commenting on those proceedings. Did the men force a confession out of an innocent person? If so, does such injustice happen often? Those are the main questions the doc asks, and as with other works of its kind it will frustrate, infuriate and/or provoke a lot of discussion.

It takes a lot more than raising familiar doubts about police and judicial practices, however, to make a good documentary. Hadaegh and Babcock ("A Certain Kind of Death") also construct the story of their film's case similar to the best of them. While it doesn't have all the strengths of masterpieces like "The Thin Blue Line" or "The Staircase," mostly because the case itself isn't as deep, "Scenes of a Crime" guides us through a narrative in an engaging way, the sort of manner in which developments are revealed to us late in the film that make us, as they did the investigators, rethink what might have happened. I don't want to call a film like this "edge-of-your-seat entertainment," of course, but it does what any good court drama or doc does in that it keeps us enough in the dark that we can't wait to find out the outcome of the trial. Even if we have an expectation, probably one born out of cynicism, what the verdict will be.

For those doc fans interested in social justice, there's a lot here to meet your favor. And to that aspect, "Scenes of a Crime" is yet another film that contributes to my being difficult whenever I'm involved in a jury selection process (one day I would love to serve, actually, but I believe I'm always relieved due to my honesty about what "reasonable doubt" means to me). But that's not what I like about the film. I was more fascinated by the levels of testimonial displayed and what their reliability factors may be. Just about any legal doc can have a "Rashomon" type of mystery and complexity to it, but the unreliable witness and subjectivity angle is growing old. Hadaegh and Babcock add to it (courtesy of this case, which itself does) concepts of doubting what we see and what we might logically regard as acceptable truth finding.

One thing I wish, though, is that we could see the entirety of the ten-hour interrogation video, as the jury had. It's probable that what's omitted -- obviously for the sake of a suitable running time, and the fact that documentary films are traditionally more film than document -- is inconsequential to the points and questions at hand. And what is seen is already filled with some repetition and redundancy. Yet, and this is true of any legal doc, as well, it's hard to properly discuss let alone make up your mind on a court case and its verdict without knowing every last detail. Then again, that only hurts the social justice aspect of the film while it may enrich the intriguingly complicated parts of the storytelling.

Really the only faults with "Scenes of a Crime" can be the same as the faults of testimonial and visual evidence it addresses, making it almost as much about itself as it is the crime at hand. Whether or not Hadaegh and Babcock meant for their doc to be so reflexive, I don't know. I bet not. Given the issues of the film, I doubt they'd mind viewers coming with different ways of seeing, either. Whichever your interest and perspective, I recommend it.


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