Monday, October 6, 2014

NYFF: Tales of the Grim Sleeper

The festival ended for me today with my final screening, a documentary called "Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Here's what I thought of the film:

"Tales of the Grim Sleeper" is the latest documentary by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield. A probing work of investigative journalism, it digs into the case of the titular Grim Sleeper serial killer. Over the course of 25 years he is suspected to have killed over a 100 victims, mostly black women. Of course, this stagerring figure would imply a rigourous police investigation into the matter but what Broomfield found was quite the opposite. The murders took place in the impoverished black community of South Central Los Angeles, an area with a history of endemic problems with crack cocaine use, violence and prostitution. Viewing these people as a lost cause, the authorities effectively treated the murders as a natural process of cleansing the city of its human trash. As such, the Grim Sleeper (Lonnie Franklin Jr.) was allowed to wreak havoc.

The mystery that unravels through the rest of the film is one of the most gripping investigations I’ve ever seen in a documentary. At the beginning of the film, many of Lonnie's neighbours claimed that he was a nice, normal guy. However, as they became more comfortable with Broomfield (with the aid of a local woman named Pam) the truth comes out. As we gradually learn more, the secrets that are uncovered by the end are as shocking as the most lurid crime movies. As the saying goes, reality is stranger than fiction. It’s fitting that this was the only documentary included in the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate section. Broomfield’s film does a great job of heightening the suspense and building narrative momentum.

Yet the things that make the film so strong have little to do with Broomfield at all. In the press conference after the screening, he explained that his directing style is to let the story develop organically, rather than setting out to proactively form a narrative. That approach manifests itself quite clearly here, since the film is fueled by the cooperative, insightful interviewees. They are all amazingly candid, painting the whole picture just from their own experiences and knowledge of Lonnie. The main subject Pam - a former prostitute and crack addict herself - is particularly engaging, as her plain-spoken personality adds color and humour.

It’s a good thing she’s there to add some levity too, as the film is a massive downer. The truth behind the lackadaisical investigation into the Grim Sleeper is bound to make you feel hopeless and depressed. When you hear about police officers using the slang term NHI (No Human Involved) to describe drug addicts and prostitutes, you know that prejudice is alive and well. The crack epidemic doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon either. These people have been crying out for help for decades now and the authorities refuse to heed their call. Social issue documentaries are often designed to stir up action but in this scenario it seems like there’s no immediate solution.

It’s been 25 years after Spike Lee’s seminal “Do The Right Thing” - coincidentally around the same time that these serial killings began – and yet these rallying cries for justice are still as relevant as ever. I don’t know how America is going to stop treating disenfranchised black people like animals, but something needs to be done. Hopefully films like these will foster a stronger push towards equality. Rating: ★★★★


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