Joe Berlinger was driving through the streets of Boston when he first heard the news. One of the witnesses in the trial of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was found dead. Not long beforehand, this local liquor store owner had told Berlinger how eager he was to testify against the mobster. His murder shocked the normally unflappable film-maker.
‘Paranoid scenarios started swirling about,’ says Berlinger. ‘Who would have an interest in keeping him from testifying? When we got back to the courthouse, speculation about what happened was the number one topic. There was talk that Bulger interests knocked him off.’
The murder was not connected to the trial, Berlinger concluded. Nevertheless, the incident captured the depth of cynicism surrounding the conviction of one of America’s most notorious criminals: a man who ran Boston’s underworld for almost three decades without getting so much as a parking ticket. When he was eventually caught in 2011, Bulger sat next to Osama Bin Laden on America’s most wanted list.
Berlinger’s documentary, Whitey: United States Of America vs James J. Bulger, plays at Dublin’s Stranger Than Fiction festival on Friday: the ‘perfect platform’ for a story about an Irish-American gangster, according to Berlinger. Rather than profile Bulger, who was found guilty of killing 11 people, he wanted to explore the corruption that allowed him to exist.
‘The goal of the film was to give Bulger’s victims a voice,’ says Berlinger. ‘They have been screwed by the situation. Law enforcement didn’t take him off the streets. Allowing people to kill is not acceptable. If he was not an informant – and I think there’s compelling evidence to demonstrate that – then the level of corruption ran much deeper.’
From his feature debut, 1992’s Brother Keeper, to 2014’s television series The System, Berlinger has always been fascinated with criminal justice and injustice.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills centred on the arrest of three teenagers for the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky were initially assured of their guilt, but when they met the accused they started to have doubts. The trial was farcical. Damning prosecution evidence included the fact that one of the defendants wore Metallica T-shirts and read Stephen King novels.
‘When those guys were led away in chains, it was devastating,’ says Berlinger. ‘We were the only media saying they were innocent. When the film came out in 1996, they had been in prison for two years. To the world, they were vicious baby killers.’
Berlinger followed his documentary with two sequels: Revelations (2000), and Purgatory (2011). These films led to a worldwide campaign to secure freedom for the West Memphis Three.
But their 2011 release was a pyrrhic victory. Under a plea deal, they could only be released if they acknowledged their guilt. ‘[The state of Arkansas] know these guys are innocent,’ says Berlinger. ‘It’s the same thing with the Bulger case – the avoidance of accountability. Exposing that is what motivates me.’
Berlinger himself was held accountable for his first non-documentary venture into feature film-making. Blair Witch 2 (2000), a follow-up to the seminal found footage horror, was an unmitigated disaster, which the director attributes to the lure of the Hollywood dollar and final-cut forces beyond his control. On the other hand, Some Kind Of Monster (2004), a queasy yet ultimately uplifting profile of rock group Metallica, was a critical triumph.
With every high in his career, there have been lows. His 2010 environmental documentary Crude, about Amazonian tribes suing Chevron, ended up in a torturous lawsuit over the film’s content. ‘Everyone involved, including myself, underestimated the risks and what could happen.’
Berlinger is now planning a return to working with actors, albeit on familiar ground. Facing The Wind, his next film, is about a man who murdered his entire family and argued the insanity plea. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital and walked free after two years. ‘What is the line of retribution? Should this guy have been allowed to start a new family? I don’t know what the answers are,’ says the director.
From the West Memphis Three to the trial of Whitey Bulger, Berlinger consistently reads between the lines. ‘I am fascinated with how the media tends to reduce things to black and white,’ he says. ‘Life is much more nuanced. Often we are presented with a false story. The truth about most situations is much more complex than a daily headline.’
Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger is being screened at the IFI on Friday as part of its Stranger Than Fiction festival. www.ifi.ie