My Brother’s Keeper: A Close Reading Essay

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky don’t have to appear in front of the camera or even utter many words to get a specific message across in their 1992 film, Brother’s Keeper. The two filmmakers demonstrate a clear understanding of how to mix the observational and reflexive modes effectively by staying behind the camera at all times, allowing the presence of the camera to be a component of the film, and carefully editing scenes to the advantage of their goals. What I will be examining is how these cinematic choices strengthen the filmmakers’ message of wrongful accusation towards Delbert Ward, and how some do not.

By the end of Brother’s Keeper, it is clear that Sinofsky and Berlinger believed Delbert Ward was the innocent victim of an unjust investigation. This is the central message of the film, made with few interjections or appearances on camera by either filmmaker. Instead, one tactic they use is letting the subjects of the film speak their opinions at length. They catch the real thoughts and feelings of the social actors through long interviews and simple fly-on-the-wall cinematography. All of the Ward brothers are given numerous chances to speak their minds—though most times there is little comment from any of the three—and much more screen time is given to them than to the police. This is most likely due to investigators not wanting to get involved with a documentary about a case they were currently conducting. While neither filmmaker outright says what view audience members have to take, the sheer amount of interviews of the Wards and Madison County residents present much more support for Delbert’s innocence and block many of the contrary opinions and assertions.

Outside of interview scenes, Berlinger and Sinofsky take care to make the audiovisual content support Delbert. Long scenes of the Wards doing farm work, chewing tobacco, and watching television give support to Delbert’s case by showing his simple humanity. He doesn’t talk much, barely reads, and has little social contact outside of his brothers. The scenes of the brothers’ dilapidated house communicate that these are people who care for their hygiene and wellbeing in the most elementary way imaginable, but they still are portrayed as human beings. Relatives and neighbors admit “the boys” aren’t educated individuals, but they still can interact and function well enough to stay alive and content.

Meanwhile, scenes of media reports and the prosecuting attorney are interspersed to show the lack of understanding between the two sides of the crime. The dichotomy between their lifestyle and the Wards’ is positioned as a reason for Delbert’s innocence; how could state police and media outlets positioned in urban areas understand the Wards’ plain life? Berlinger and Sinofsky don’t have to use Michael Mooreian outspoken words to make it clear that there is stereotyping and a lack of understanding between the police and the Wards. A media outlet reports that William Ward may have been killed after having sex with Delbert, and little evidence is brought up through the entire film. The filmmakers present both the cultural misunderstanding and lack of evidence as objectively as they can while staying silent. They use the dialogue of the real people involved in an observational mode to bring about a truth claim.

Even when the filmmakers do include their voices during interviews, it is almost always to the advantage of supporting the Wards. For example, any time that Lyman is asked questions by either filmmaker, he tentatively answers and nervously begins to walk away. Likewise, Delbert says, “I don’t know,” to even the simplest questions that Berlinger and Sinofsky ask, and Roscoe appears to be either deaf or incapable of understanding many things that are asked of him. This works wonderfully because it makes the audience wonder what dubious tactics police investigators used to get confessions and statements from the brothers. It also foreshadows the trial when the brothers have difficulty remembering anything they signed, said, or heard. Their lacking education hasn’t been exaggerated, and the filmmakers are smart to show the audience that early on and reiterate it later.

The presence of cameras around the Wards comes up as a reflexive component of the film and is commented on during interviews. At least two different interviewees claim that all the attention has changed Delbert’s personality. The filmmakers themselves don’t break their observational objectivity to comment on this, so the audience is free to make their own conclusion. One strange affect of this assertion is that it highlights Delbert’s behavior and actually serves to make the audience more wary and cynical of him. The audience starts to wonder if Delbert is playing coy. In a way, it works against the filmmaker’s message, but adds to the objective realism of their observational practice. If the doubt and opposing opinions weren’t a part of the film, then it would fall into more of an expository mode than an observational one.

The editing choices that were made cannot be understated as a major force in the message of Brother’s Keeper. I already mentioned crosscutting of media and police interviews with long scenes of the Ward brothers, and many more examples exist that clearly reinforce the police as antagonists. The choices to not only keep the camera on, but to include a large amount of Lyman’s time on the court stand sticks out clearly. As Lyman sits shaking violently, the goal is clearly to make audience members feel that the prosecutors are in the wrong. Lyman’s questioning is split between two scenes, clearly on two different days of the trial, and the reactions of relatives and friends to his breakdown are situated directly after the second episode. The filmmakers don’t include the reactions of either the defense or prosecution to Lyman, just the community members. Clearly Berlinger and Sinofsky want to win the audience over even more with these editing choices. In fact, the entire trial, which lasts nearly thirty-five minutes, is edited to maximize sympathy towards Delbert, and maximize contempt for the coroner and prosecutor.

Another example is the pig slaughter scene, which is edited in just after both medical examiners have given their opinions on how William Ward died. Directly after this scene is one where the defense brings up the fact that the medical report was made after the examiner had knowledge that Delbert had been charged with murder. The positioning of the pig slaughter just before this information is a clear indication by the filmmakers that it is a metaphor for Delbert’s case. He is the pig being led to slaughter by an unjust investigation. This scene could’ve been edited in to achieve a much different effect as well. If it occurred early in the film or when Delbert was demonstrating covering someone’s mouth, it would make a completely different claim at the truth.

Brother’s Keeper stands as a great example of how to mix observational and reflexive filmmaking together. The message of the film is complex and feels authentically objective, not expository or subjective. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to add voice over or ignore opposing opinions, but they chose to include them to add to the observational quality of the film. Like the Ward brothers, it feels raw at times, and certainly Berlinger and Sinofsky made some tough decisions when shooting and editing this film. But the end product is a powerful look into a simply human story, roughness and all.

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