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The Dueling Cavalier: Truth and Cinéma Vérité in ‘Serial’ and ‘Making a Murderer’

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With NPR’s podcast Serial back at long last and the prevalence of Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer in the popular discourse, the longform, investigative documentary style of both shows is having a moment. And understandably so: the two series are suspenseful, compelling, and filled with gripping plot twists. In addition to the skillful storytelling guiding them, the shows have garnered particular appeal due to their depiction of unsettled real-life cases, inspiring sleuthing and petitioning by amateur detectives across the Internet. To understand the significance of the narrative styles used in each, it’s worth considering them within the context of one of the most famous and influential of all documentary traditions: cinéma vérité.

Cinéma vérité, a style first popularized in the 50s and 60s by directors such as the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker, features the clear presence of the filmmakers within the films themselves. Throughout Grey Gardens, for example, the Maysles talk to their subjects, Big Edie and Little Edie, thereby calling attention to the filmmaking process. More recently, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour features the director interacting with Edward Snowden, highlighting her role in the representation of Snowden after the NSA leak. In the emphasis on the director’s hand in these films, they highlight the importance of perspective in any recounting of ostensibly “true events”: there’s always someone guiding the telling of the story, no matter how much they may be trying to avoid bias. As a result, cinéma vérité approaches an honesty less present in films which attempt to hide their subjectivity.

Sarah Koenig captures this honesty in Serial, even if the show is more structured and polished than the traditional vérité style. Koenig is a warm and ingratiating presence throughout Serial, making herself known and apparent to the listener. Although she was accused of siding too heavily with convicted murderer Adnan Syed in Season One, her clear representation of her subjectivity brings the show closer to the honesty to which vérité aspires. Even if she believes too much in Adnan’s innocence, her style emphasizes for the listener that it is merely one person’s belief. As omniscient as Koenig may appear to be, she remains as much a character in Serial as Adnan or his professed accomplice, Jay, highlighting her role in the telling of the story.

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The same cannot be said of writer-directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos in Making a Murderer. Although the series bears the marks of excellent narrative craftsmanship, the filmmakers keep themselves relatively invisible, thereby hiding the subjectivity Koenig makes apparent. As a result, Koenig’s narration is replaced by a disembodied narrative informing viewers of Steven Avery’s innocence and framing. Although evidence has been raised countering the show’s conclusions, the lack of an obvious subjective voice makes Avery’s innocence seem harder to question. In deviating from the aims towards truth made by vérité, Making a Murderer hides the work its creators do to construct its representation of Avery’s case, thereby obfuscating the perspective inherent in the documentary form.

But working outside the vérité tradition certainly has its advantages, and Ricciardi and Demos use their style to striking ends. Their absence makes the show all the more compelling, since the evidence they present comes across as objective truth rather than evidence culled to argue for a point of view. There’s a good reason Making a Murderer has reached its level of popularity, and Ricciardi and Demos’s concealment of their subjectivity emphasizes the drama.

Of course, they simultaneously miss out on the honesty of cinéma vérité, and therein lies the show’s key limitation as a factual representation (regardless of its dramatic merits). Unlike Koenig in Serial, Ricciardi and Demos present their series as truth by hiding their role in the telling of Avery’s story, thereby de-emphasizing the possibility of other perspectives on his guilt. In forgoing vérité techniques, Ricciardi and Demos make their show more compelling as entertainment and less convincing as a thorough and honest investigation of a criminal case.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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