As I noted in my reaction to the film after I saw it about 2 weeks ago, The Central Park Five is an informative, infuriating affirmation of America’s racial animus.
For those planning on seeing it when it opens in theaters this Friday, or when it airs on PBS in 2013 (and I certainly hope all of you will indeed make a concerted effort to see it), expect to be provoked, to be enraged, but in the best of ways.
The film, a fine piece of heightened documentary reporting, simply presents the facts, and does so exhaustively, despite what seem like attempts by the City Of New York to contest them, or at least to use them to help in their defense against the pending $50 million federal lawsuit filed by the defendants (the Central Park Five – Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise) 9 years ago.
As co-director Ken Burns noted, it’s ironic that the city would issue subpeonas now, given that the city repeatedly rejected his requests for interviews, which would have given them the opportunity to challenge the evidence the film presents, or at least tell their side of the story.
Of course the filmmakers, Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and his son-in-law David McMahon, are fighting the subpoena, calling it “outrageous,” citing New York State’s shield laws, which are designed to protect journalists from having to compromise their sources.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah Burns and David McMahon about the film, the challenges they faced in making it, any understandable resistance they may have faced from the 5 young men given how they were treated by the media during their trial, whether they attempted to get the jogger who was raped in the 1989 Central Park Five incident, involved in the making of the film, the status of the subpoena, what they hope audiences will take from the film, the potential for a follow-up film, and a bit more.
Here’s a summary of that interview:
– On challenges they faced in the making of the film:
DAVID – The main challenge was our failed efforts to get police and prosecutors to join in our project, and give on-camera interviews. We reached out to them repeatedly, and were rebuffed. And we were saddened when the first time they really came to us was to issue a subpoena, requesting our outtakes and notes, which you may already know about. So that was a challenge; but we feel like we at least offered their perspective in the film; you can see the theories that they offered in 1989, and get a sense for their investigation, and the narrative they were going to present in the story.
Another problem we had was that, while there are the video tape statements which they [the Central Park 5] each gave, those are a product of, in some cases, 30 hours of interrogations, and there’s no documentary evidence of what happened over those 30 hours. All that’s present are these somewhat scripted video statements, that are the product of working with the interrogators, to come up with the narrative, which will ultimately incriminate them. And so, because this is really a film about false confessions, it’s not a question of whodunit, it’s a question of how did this happen, that 5 different innocent teenagers confessed to this crime? So we wanted to unpack how they came to falsely confess to this. What helped us with that is that the 5 understood so well what happened to them in those interrogation rooms many years later, that, with them, we could reconstruct those events, and then we just had to figure out what visuals to put with them.
SARAH – It was certainly frustrating to not be able to talk to everyone we wanted to talk to. And it required us to be especially careful about representing those points of view, when we didn’t have everyone to talk to on camera. But we feel like we were able to overcome that. The same thing with Matias Reyes [the man who would eventualy confess to the rape], we’d hoped to have interviewed him, and at one point he indicated the he would give us an interview, and then didn’t. But luckily, miraculously, we were able to dig up the interview that you hear with him at the very beginning of the film, and then later on, where he’s essentially confessing, and that was what we really needed to hear from him, and so we were able to use that instead and felt that it actually wasn’t detrimental that we couldn’t interview him on camera, because we’d found that.
– On any resistance from the Central Park Five in telling their stories on film:
SARAH – No there really wasn’t, because I had been working on the book with them already for a number of years, we developed a relationship, and I think they were more comfortable. Even with the book, they were surprisingly eager to participate from the beginning, given what the media put them through in ’89 and ’90, it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising for them to not want to talk to anyone. But I think they felt like, once I’d talked to them a little bit, that I was really trying to tell the true story here, and that it was sort of therapeutic for them to be able to tell their story, really for the first time, because no one had ever really asked them before. And so, over the course of working on the book, and many interviews, each of them became more comfortable and more at ease with talking about the more difficult aspects. When I first started working on the book and talked to them, I started with the real straightforward, factual questions (like where were you at this time, and who were you with), and as we got to know each other, they became more comfortable talking about some of the more emotional and difficult stuff. So by the time it came around to do interviews for the film, they all seemed sort of ready, as difficult as it was to go back to some of this stuff and remember it; it also probably felt cathartic to them; and I think they’d probably say the same thing.
– On whether there was any attempt to get a statement from the jogger herself:
SARAH – Yes, we did reach out to her, and spoke to her early-on in the project, and she declined to participate, and I think understandably. She’s written her own book, detailing her recovery and introducing her story. And she has always focused on being a survivor of a traumatic brain injury. And because she has no memory of the attack, she’s always shied away from talking about what happened that night. And I think she prefers not to really get to it. And I think undertsnadbly, she opted not to give us an interview.
– On where the City Of New York’s subpoena stands:
SARAH – We filed a motion to quash the subpoena last week. So we’ll now get a response from the city, and ultimately we’ll go before a judge, for the judge to decide if we have to turn anything over. We are protected by reporters’ privilege, so we really should not have to turn any of these interviews over.
– On what they hope audiences will take from the film:
DAVID – Our hope was that we could look at all the facts, talk to everybody and put together a film that maybe explained, for the first time, what happened then; our allegiance here was entirely to the truth. So we’ve come across people who’ve said that they didn’t even know that they [the Central Park Five] had been found innocent back in 2002; we’ve come across people who’ve said, “well, they’ll probably would’ve done something bad anyway;” and we’ve come across people who have been extremely apologetic to them, saying, “I thought you were guilty in 1989, and I want to apologize because I took the story that the press fed us, and that the police and prosecutors gave them, hook, line and sinker, and I’m ashamed and I’m sorry;” and so I think that what we wanted to do was offer the actual facts, give the 5, as well as the police and prosecutors, the opportunity to tell their stories, and really to put the whole truth out there in full, for the first time ever.
SARAH – And I think that also we hope that this is a beginning of a conversation about these things. Part of it is certainly to simply inform people about what happened here – this sort of unknown true story; people think they know what happened, and they usually don’t. But also to begin a conversation about some of these larger issues that I think are raised by the film. How do false confessions happen? What are some of these underlying suspicions and assumptions about, in particular, young men of color, that lead us down this road in the first place, that makes it so easy for people to believe that these guys – these children – could have committed a crime like this, even with no evidence. So we want people to be angry and be outraged by this story, and think about what we can change, and how we can confront some of these issues, and hopefully prevent something like this from happening again. Because as much as New York City is different now than it was then, I have no doubt that something just like this can still happen, and it does happen. This is not an isolated case; we know that this happens all over the place and with some frequency.
DAVID – There are measures that can be taken to prevent this from happening again. Police officers and prosecutors can begin taping custodial interrogations from the time that they begin; so that those video statements aren’t the product of something we’ll actually never see. But instead it’s all documented, and cops and prosecutors are protected from stepping out of bounds; and suspects are protected from tactics that are coercive in some way. And also we hope that it inspires family conversations; in some way, the 5 became the 5, because they were the most vulnerable. They weren’t prepared to understand what their rights were, because they hadn’t ever been through the system. And that’s true for the parents too; they just have to know to say that this has to stop until we get a lawywer here. And so hopefully it informs families so that if they were to end up in the same situation, they would know their rights, and be prepared to halt any proceedings until they had all the protection that they are afforded by law.
– On whether there are any plans for a follow-up:
SARAH – We don’t have any plans at the moment. But certainly this is an unfinished story, in the sense that the civil suit is still going on, and we’re certainly following with interest to see what happens with that case, not only because of our sudden involvement in it, but also just to see how things unfold for the city and or the 5. But I don’t know. It’s yet to be seen if there’s another completely new story here.
The Central Park Five opens theatrically in New York, this Friday, November 23rd, at the IFC Center, as well as Maysles Cinema, followed by Los Angeles on November 30th, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre.
Here are its trailer and poster: