Thursday, January 25, 2007

Watched Brother's Keeper This Weekend

I first watched the film Brother's Keeper about 10-12 years ago, largely at Roger Ebert's recommendation, and liked it quite a bit. This weekend I got it out of the library and watched it again (I remember enjoying it but I was hazy on the details). This is an excellent documentary and I recommend it highly.

It's about these mentally limited brothers who lived in contented squalor on a cow farm in upstate New York. All the locals know the Ward Boys, and when one of them is charged with murdering his brother, they put out the coffee cans to raise money for his defense.

A couple of observations on the film (as opposed to the incident, which may or may not have been a crime):

First, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are the guys who went on to make the Paradise Lost documentaries on The West Memphis Three (the teenage Metallica fans from Arkansas accused and convicted of killing three young boys), which I blogged about here. So, they study two rural towns upset by local murders (and make no mistake -- the West Memphis killings were as brutal as you can imagine). The residents of the upstate New York area where the Wards lived were portrayed as very supportive of Berlinger, Sinofsky, and the Wards, and very skeptical of the police. The residents of West Memphis were portrayed as the opposite -- very hostile towards Damion Echols and the other two boys, cagy towards the filmmakers, and accepting of the assurances of the police and prosecutors. The attitudes were very mirror-universish... obviously, people are more comfortable with people who are "like" them (farmers feel good about farmers, even if they are eccentric) and less comfortable with the unknown (rural Southerners are freaked out by goth/metal/occult teenagers).

Another parallel I noticed was between BK and Grey Gardens. The conditions that the four Ward Boys lived in were not unlike those seen in the patrician estate of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale. Sinofsky got started in the film business working for Maysles Films, the organization run by documentarian brothers David and Albert Maysles. The cow-farming Wards and the blueblooded Beales kept to themselves, with strong family ties outweighing most social considerations (noone else would put up with any of them?), and yet seemed not to mind having a camera live with them capturing intimate interactions. I wonder if Little Edie would have thought the Wards were arguing over her?

All three films (or films + sequels) --BK, PL, GG -- are well-worth watching, all the more so if you are able to watch two or more close enough to each other to keep your eyes open for potential comparisons.

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