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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The Magic Touch: A Look at Exchange and Ritualistic Magic in Wamira

As Miriam Kahn’s book Always Hungry, Never Greedy shows us, the Wamiran people of Papua New Guinea have a culture that is almost exclusively concerned with control through the vessels of taro and pigs. Two of the ways that express this are strengthening their food through sorcery and then exchanging said food. Both are used as ways to control and keep a balance in tribal life. When comparing Wamiran traditions with other ethnographies and articles, it is clear that there are both differences and similarities in the way that people use magic and exchange.

After watching Ongka’s Big Moka, which takes place in New Guinea as well, it is clear that the Wamirans have a different way of dealing with exchange. One factor that I think sets them apart is the level of globalization in both exchanges. When Ongka delivered his large collection of goods to the neighboring tribe, it included not only pigs, but also a large sum of money, a motorbike, and other western trinkets. Material goods such as the bike were clearly western influenced additions, and Ongka took great pride in including them with the pigs. Though Jeremiah of the Inibuena Wamirans did have some canned goods and a bag of rice in a feast, there were no material goods, just food. The Wamirans were still almost purely traditional, while Ongka’s area was not. Though both ethnographies date from the 1970s, it is clear that global trading was becoming more of a presence in Ongka’s area than in Wamira. As we know from Contemporary Warfare in the Highland New Guinea, the somewhat peaceful moka was descending back into warfare due to the influx of western trade (Podolefsky). Crosscutting ties and reciprocity were breaking down during Ongka’s time, and Kahn even warns of this at the end of her book saying, “We should encourage true independence, as well as equally weighted interdependence, for new nations rather than making them dependent on cash, imported food, and outsiders’ often exploitative ideas of development” (Kahn 156). Unfortunately for Ongka’s tribes, this warning wasn’t heeded.

The Inibuena feasts are also different because of their reciprocity. As Kahn writes, “Jeremiah gave the people a pig. In return, they supplied him with vegetable foods, especially taro and plantains…” (Kahn, 133). The main symbol of male control was given to him, symbolizing faith in his leadership. The male villagers gave up their symbolic babies to him, thus quelling any conflict or unrest since the men gave up control to Jeremiah. Ongka’s moka functioned much more aggressively, mainly as a surrogate to warfare. Ongka shot for the stars politically, clearly to establish himself as an important Big Man. Jeremiah already gained his position and respect; therefore he had no reason to go overboard with his contributions to the feast. He merely was reinforcing the established social order through a more equal trade. Doing otherwise may have resulted in a breach of taboo, similar to Richard Borshay Lee’s mistake in Eating Christmas in the Kalahari. Lee didn’t understand the taboo of bragging, and was subsequently chastised, berated, and beaten down (Lee). Jeremiah was a smooth leader, alternating his food contributions from feast to feast as to not disrupt the social balance, which hinges on taboo.

Before any of this can happen, the taro must be grown with loving care and—perhaps more importantly—magic. Most westerners have great difficulty accepting these practices, but as George Gmelch says in Baseball Magic, “To professional baseball players, baseball is more than a game…they use magic to try to control or eliminate the chance and uncertainty built into baseball” (Gmelch 276-277). In fact, a better word for magic in our society is probably superstition. Growing vegetables has much of the same uncertainty as sport performance superstitions. Weather, planting procedure, and harvesting techniques can falter at any point of the growth, and since taro is such an important facet of male power and livelihood, much like the baseball players who must perform well for their means, failure is a heavy burden to incur. Sorcery becomes a dissociative measure that can be blamed without the sorcerer taking too much psychological damage. It is important to understand that magic is in nearly every culture, and empirical science hasn’t necessarily eliminated it at all.

Taraka’s Ghost dealt with this issue, except vulnerable Indian girls were the ones creating dissociative measures (Freed). Sita was, like many girls her age, married off very young. She was put in a village with no family, friends, or control over her life. To shield her psyche, almost exactly like patients suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, she was “possessed” to manipulate the situation indirectly and keep the unwanted sexual advance of her new husband at bay. She convinced herself that she wasn’t behind the possession. The men of Wamira use magic similarly to shield themselves from the potential failure of crops. They cast spells that “ensure” crop yields and keep their pride from breaking if there is no yield. Magic is a safety net for cultures without empirical science. As Bronisław Malinowski has shown, magic, science, and religion all play important parts in culture, and don’t necessarily override each other as the culture evolves. For example, science is incredibly important to our society, but we still have ritual and religious practice in more limited forms. The Wamirans put much stock into magic, and, as far as Miriam Kahn tells us, don’t have much in religion or science.

Magic isn’t benevolent though, and when wielded often brings strife and conflict. Kahn writes, “Jeremiah, while working his garden, noticed that his taro was withering and developing brown leaves. He, too, accused Osborne of sorcerizing the taro” (Kahn 138). Though Osborne merely sat in another man’s garden, and not even Jeremiah’s, he was still accused of evil sorcery. Feeling that his taro was deficient, he employed magic to seek revenge on those who still had their pride in their work. When Jeremiah noticed his vegetables turning brown, he immediately blamed the sorcery of others to protect his pride. Osborne subsequently was forced to throw a “transaction” type feast to repair the rift he had created. Taraka’s ghost was a malevolent form of magic despite the good it did in protecting Sita from more sexual torment. As the Freeds write, “The various amulets they gave her for protection from Taraka’s ghost relieved her anxiety and helped to reduce stress” (Freed 291). The dissociative episodes were very hard on Sita and her family. Though I would argue that the stress of her early marriage was much harder than the episodes themselves, it was still better for Sita to be done with the entire ordeal. The Wamirans also feel this way, and there was peace for many months after Osborne threw his apologetic mini-feast.

Osborne’s breach of conduct mirrors an event in Ongka’s feast as well. A rival, Reimar, disrupts Ongka’s feast by creating a rumor in the crowd as they watch the moka money being counted. This simple act, just like Osborne’s simple act of sitting in the garden, sets off a huge chain of bickering and fighting. The village that is involved in his rumor even goes so far as to march towards Reimar’s to either beat him, or kill him. Even Ongka’s persuasive speech cannot deter them. As a result, the moka is delayed, Reimar is forced into hiding, and as a consequence has four of his pigs slaughtered by the mob. Osborne also had to slaughter a pig of his own for repentance, and though he does it willingly, it is clear that he isn’t happy about it. Exchange clearly has many facets and variables at play. Reimar upended things politically through a vengeful rumor, Osborne employed the suspicion of magic to get back at more successful taro growers, and the core of reciprocity can either be strong, or weak.

The basic cultural structures at work in Wamira are very close to many other societies and tribes. Ethnocentrism has an incredibly bad habit of making us feel more elite than those in the third world, to the point where they aren’t even really considered part of humanity as a whole. This essay’s function is to break that down a bit, and I think it succeeds in this. Reciprocity and magic aren’t exclusive to Bushmen or Wamirans; they just go by different names in our culture. We have gifts and superstition like they do, and realizing this can perhaps create more of a sense of unity between seemingly disparate cultures of the world.