True Crime Documentaries Explore Subjects And Stories Beyond The Limits Of Fiction 

Archita Kashyap - 79 weeks ago

Be it the shocking documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, or HBO’s polarising explosive docu series Leaving Neverland, true crimes make for engaging unravelling of complex, multi-faceted incidents. Such documentaries that evoke disbelief, grow in appeal with audiences and make for fascinating subjects.

True crime sells. It has played a pivotal part in defining the future for documentaries as infotainment, proliferating the television and streaming space. Crime stories that defy logical thinking, and sometimes are more dramatic and engaging than fiction or film, have become popular viewing for millennials as they go about discovering lurid details about human behaviour. Which is why, Wild Wild Country, a detailed chronicling of a devious, strategic mind Ma Anand Sheela and her process of thought control through the Osho cult is perhaps one of Netflix’ most successful programs ever. It does not spare length or detail, and indulges in elaborate flash backs from people’s memories. Produced as slickly as any feature film, Wild Wild Country made the sub-genre of true crime documentaries a turn on for audiences worldwide.

The past few months have actually witnessed a growth in popularity of true crime documentaries simply because of the sheer appeal of their subject matter. Firstly, Abducted in Plain Sight, the 2017 documentary currently streaming on Netflix that focuses on the mind boggling, skin crawling abduction of an adolescent girl by a friend of the family, has shocked committed buffs of this genre. This story is so hideous that it makes you wonder about this family’s naïveté. While true crime docu series pan out over 4-8 episodes, this Skye Borgman documentary is a 90-minute watch about Jan Broberg Felt, an actor who suffered serial sexual abuse and was abducted by Bob Berschtold, twice over, right under the noses of her parents. While the Brobergs spark incredulity and anger at their sheer inaction and inadequate response to what was clearly a creepy man lurking over their daughter, a mental blame game begins. How could they not see it coming? Why did they let it happen a second time? One begs to find these answers, which the efficient re-telling of this incident without analysis, leaves you wanting for more. But the documentary does indicate a very important social and behavioural challenge about us - most child abuse and sexual harassment happens at home. Most perpetrators are relatives or friends of the family. The culture of disbelief and scepticism around abuse is what comes to fore here, albeit with a punch to the gut. 

That getting close to someone at home is often indicative of forthcoming abuse also becomes part of the crucial narrative of Leaving Neverland, the HBO docu series that has gotten the world debating about the late Michael Jackson once again. Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year, shocking most viewers with its eye opening content about Michael Jackson’s history of child sexual abuse. As the Jackson estate hotly contests the documentary now, and has filed a 100-million-dollar defamation suit against HBO, the network. In this documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, young discoveries of Jackson as musical and film talent, revise their versions given in American courtrooms to tell the ‘truth’ about their relationship with MJ. The music icon’s behaviour towards both is eerily familiar in its patterns and evolution. Jackson gets very friendly with them, then invites the kids and their families to Neverland. He lets them stay and enjoy his fairy tale home with all its adventures. Then he begins to gradually separate the kids from their families- ensuring that parents stay at a guest house while the kids stay with him. When he is intensely involved with one boy, he tends to isolate the other, and keeps more such boys around him. He also gently threatens them with consequences of their activities together, saying that if the police were to ever find out, he and the boy involved would go to jail. Over time, Safechuck and Robson get so loyal and besotted by Jackson that they let him do anything he wants. 

The fact that he supports their creative ventures freely doesn’t hurt. It is also quite difficult to imagine that the families never suspected that anything was amiss if at all, the comforts of being close to Michael Jackson might have had a role to play here. It’s director, Dan Reed, swears by its authenticity and revelations. Currently, showbiz icons like Oprah Winfrey, who had given MJ tons of air time to clear the air about his sexuality and sexual habits, are mopping up the mess from past actions. Winfrey conducted a sombre, detailed interview with both victims that feature in Leaving Neverland. There will be more damage control, blame game and consequences to emerge from this explosive documentary. 

Like Abducted in Plain Sight, a documentary that took flight in the collective imagination of a global audience when Netflix began to stream it, a little known documentary from Israel tells an incredibly powerful tale of true crime, albeit for a reasonable cause. Dark Side, by First Hand Films, tells the story of Moshe, an Israeli citizen and Holocaust survivor. Narrated from the points of view of his three children, who knew little about their father’s mysterious travels, this documentary pieces together a story of calm, calculated and efficient revenge that their father took on Nazi collaborators. Moshe’s story stands out because it focuses on the one theme that isn’t very visible in mainstream cinema around the Holocaust- those who sought revenge. Moshe returned to Poland, joined the Polish secret service and targeted people that had given his family away, as well as those that had killed countless Jews, in an organised manner. This documentary, so ably supported by the animation work of Yoni Goodman, whose Waltz With Bashir is a cinema classic, doesn’t judge it’s subject. Instead it just tells the story like it is, making it effective. 

True crime can go beyond the trappings of breaking the law and committing hideous acts of violence. It has dimensions to explore, offering insights into human behaviour. Documentaries are the most impactful way to focus on the complexities of true crime, and that they have become popular is evident from the sizeable budget that Amazon Prime Video has offered Adam McKay’s company to make the docu-series This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy. Literally a sassy lesson in current macro-economics, this cut and dry subject has been ably converted into an eminently watchable engaging TV series shot over multiple locations and with multiple star cameos. As documentaries evolve to get increasing attention from audiences, a layered and varied space of engaging viewing opens up for everyone. 

(Dark Side is currently playing on myNK)


Dark Side / Wild Wild Country / Abducted In Plain Sight / Leaving Neverland / Michael Jackson / First Hand Films / Natalie Assouline

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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