Interview: Joe Berlinger On ‘The System,’ the Problem With Nonfiction Television Today and Going In Front of the Camera For the First Time


This Sunday night, Al Jazeera America will premiere a new documentary miniseries called The System with Joe Berlinger. It’s an eight-part examination of faults and issues with the American justice system, each episode focused on a different controversial topic. For instance, there are episodes titled “Flawed Forensics” and “Mandatory Sentencing” and “Prosecutorial Integrity” and the first installment, “False Confessions.” It’s a new direction for Joe Berlinger, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker best known for the Paradise Lost trilogy and music docs like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Not only is it a more serious sort of docu-series, fitting with the noticeable rise in prestige nonfiction TV programs, but it’s the first time we’re really seeing him on screen as a sort of first-person investigative director.

Earlier this week I talked to Berlinger, who also has a new feature film, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, out in theaters and on VOD next month, followed by a CNN broadcast later in the year. We mainly discussed the show, which he thinks of as being a bunch of mini Paradise Losts, and why he changed up his usual style to now go in front of the camera. He also addressed the current landscape of TV and theatrical opportunities for doc-makers, indicating how lucky we are that AJA gave him the chance to do something so important. Read our conversation below.

There appears to be a trend right now with notable documentary filmmakers turning to TV projects. What prompted you to make this docuseries now?

On the one hand, I’ve always had TV as part of my portfolio. I did six years as one of the creators of Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel. I did the first two seasons of Master Class on the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’ve always juggled long-form docs, TV commercials and TV programming. But the TV programming has always been kinda on the lighter side, and this was a real opportunity to dig in to some of the issues that I’ve discovered in my long-form documentaries, most notably the Paradise Lost series.

There has never been more opportunity for nonfiction television makers, but we all know what most of that television is: Duck Dynasty, Long Island Medium, shows that are extremely popular, character-driven docu-soaps. I think it’s harder and harder to do serious investigative series. That’s why I jumped at this. Not so much because I’m trending towards television, because I’ve always had television, but even Iconoclasts was light and airy and celebrity-driven and Master Class was very celebrity-driven. This was an opportunity to do something meaty.

With Paradise Lost, that’s almost two decades of following a story, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, it was an amazing experience, but the long-form feature docs take several years to do. What prompted this idea is that every time Paradise Lost airs, I am flooded with letters from people claiming to be wrongfully convicted. You can’t do a long-form feature documentary that takes years on every story that motivates or moves you. Certainly I’m not saying everyone that writes me from prison is actually innocent. I’m not that gullible. But I believe many are. I was just very excited by the idea to shine a light on potential abuses of the justice system in the television format.

Al Jazeera America

Al Jazeera America

A lot of the characters I’ve seen so far on the show could have easily been the focus of a feature. I think in particular the young woman in the first episode who was acting in self defense and then became convicted of murdering another person, that story has so many layers to it. But the other question is would you even be able to have that kind of commitment and relationship with so many people the way you did the West Memphis Three?

The amount of time we spent on that series, I don’t think it could be replicated with the number of stories we cover.

I like the criminal justice system because of what we started doing with Brother’s Keeper. And I’m not taking credit for what I’m about to say, but in general in the ’80s there was a dearth of ambiguous character-driven documentaries. What Bruce [Sinofsky] and I were trying to do, and I think we were one of the earliest in this new wave of documentary making that happened in the ’90s and culminated in this explosion into the 2000s, was use a trial for something more aesthetically driven, to take the best qualities of narrative fiction filmmaking and imbue them into documentaries. We have a music score, we have a certain style of shooting and, most importantly, there is a real dramatic structure to Brother’s Keeper. Classic dramatic structure with a beginning, middle and end and rising and falling action and a climax and conclusion.

That wasn’t exactly a hallmark of documentary making in the ’80s. My interest in trials is that they are inherently dramatic in terms of a classic definition of what is drama. Drama is conflict. In a trial you have two opposing sides who are in conflict with one another, each side trying to present their version of the truth. You have a clear beginning, middle and end. I gravitated towards the legal system more for aesthetic reasons. That’s what drove us to do Paradise Lost, frankly. We were interested in making a dramatically satisfying cinematic experience, thinking we were making a film about kids killing kids. We thought the kids were guilty. It was only after a few months when we realized the wrong kids had been rounded up. And then experiencing the trial, in which we saw how easily it is for the justice system to run off the rails and that a horrible miscarriage of justice was committed.

That’s where my sense of advocacy was awakened. Where I realized you can be a good storyteller and make things dramatically satisfying. That’s when my desire to not just be a storyteller but to shine a light on injustice took over. Since then I’ve become keenly aware of the American justice system. Our most basic core American value is our belief in our personal liberty. That’s what America is all about. That’s the essence of what it means to be American, our sanctity in our personal liberty. So if the justice system is going to take that away, it better be done fairly and appropriately. Through my experience in making my documentaries I have seen how easy it is for people to get fucked over by the system.

The idea of doing a series on that subject was hugely appealing because on a television schedule I’m getting eight very serious documentaries about the justice system in the span of a year as opposed to one story, Paradise Lost, devoted to three films over two decades. Again, I’m not knocking that at all. I’ll go to my grave with that being the work I’m most proud of. It was so life-changing for me. But the ability to do this on a weekly basis in an eight-part series was hugely gratifying.

Joe Berlinger in The System

Al Jazeera America

Did Al Jazeera America come to you, or did you pitch the idea to them?

They came to me and said they’d be interested in working with me. They came with a different idea, which was “Cops Gone Bad.” I think because of my work on Paradise Lost, they thought that would be an interesting idea to explore, to do a series on when police do bad things. I thought that was an interesting idea, but I wanted to widen the lens and focus on the larger justice system and not just focus on bad police work. I wanted to focus on these larger issues that lead to wrongful convictions. “Cops Gone Bad” felt a little too one-sided. The series is not just wagging a finger and saying that the justice system is broken. All of the episodes explore both sides of an issue, and there are a number of episodes where it’s just not obvious what the answer is.

For example, in the “Mandatory Sentencing” episode we focus half of the time on a guy in Florida who felt threatened and fired a warning shot to make his daughter’s boyfriend leave the house. He’s normally a law-abiding citizen with a legally registered firearm, but because of Florida’s 10–20-Life law (10 if you pull out a firearm, 20 if you fire it, Life if you hurt somebody) he’s sitting in prison for 20 years, and it’s destroying his family, financially. Then the second half of the episode is about a young girl who was gunned down, a girl with tremendous promise with her whole life ahead of her, an honors student. In a case of mistaken identity, a gang member killed her. Her parents are fighting for mandatory minimums because had there been mandatory minimums in Chicago the shooter would have still been in prison on a previous gun charge. You can’t argue with parents like that who believe in mandatory minimums..

You’re not usually one to be in front of the camera in your documentaries. Why did you decide to appear on screen for The System?

This is very new for me to be on camera. I went into it with a lot of hesitation. Frankly it was the network’s suggestion. Originally I had pitched this as a more verite doc series, and they felt I should be on camera. My hesitation was because I didn’t want it to get in the way. There’s a camera on me while I’m doing what I normally do, and I didn’t want that dynamic to interfere with what I do and the process of being very organic. We figured out a way to do it. That’s why there’s more narration in it than I originally contemplated. I try not to be all over it visually but I’m definitely the on-camera host, or on-camera filmmaker.

What we’re trying to do is Paradise Lost on a weekly basis, and in a much shorter format. Having me on camera explaining things to the audience, bringing my 20 years of experience covering legal cases is, I think, a way of condensing screen time by communicating to the audience what they’re seeing. More importantly, I don’t want the series to have this finger-wagging vibe to it. Issues are complex. In the “Flawed Forensics” episode we hang out with the families of the victims who don’t understand. In that show, the mother of Tiffany Miller thinks Willie Manning is guilty and, yes, maybe the FBI screwed up in their lab, but why does he deserve a new trial? She’s utterly convinced that the guy is guilty. I took a moment to speak to the audience because I truly felt at the time that covering these stories is very difficult.

Having experienced the Paradise Lost drama where the parents of the victims for years believed (and one family still believes) the West Memphis Three are guilty, it’s an important dynamic to understand. And I have reservoirs of sympathy even for the Moore family, which hates my guts and wrote letters to the Academy begging them not to nominate Paradise Lost 3 for an Oscar, that the film is false and manipulative and the West Memphis Three are killers. Even people who are cursing me out, I have tremendous sympathy for them, because nothing could be worse than losing a child. Their whole healing process is predicated on believing what the police and the prosecution has told them. And closure is a terrible word for a murder victim’s family member, but in order to move on and feel they’ve achieved justice for their loved ones, they don’t want people coming in and disrupting that belief.

So having me on camera talking to an audience explaining my experience covering these cases allows a greater depth to the series instead of just the straightforward “this is wrong, this is right.” It allows for a richer experience to see what an investigative filmmaker does, what he goes through to get at the truth. Sometimes the truth is complex. Because I’m constrained by 48 minutes of a television hour, the device of having me on camera, whether I’m on camera physically or narrating, allows information to be condensed in a way that it doesn’t have to be in a two-hour documentary.

It also brings the prestige of who you are. Even the title is “With Joe Berlinger.” Not everyone knows you by name necessarily but your prestige can still draw viewers to this particular series as opposed to just any true crime show.

You can say that, but I can’t. The first time I saw the title, I thought it was a little odd. It’s a little embarrassing. I happen to think I’m one of those filmmakers, and maybe it’s because I’ve made a number of these films with Bruce, there are people who know the titles of my films but I don’t have that presence as a name in the marketplace like an Errol Morris or a Morgan Spurlock. Nor am I aspiring to that nor knocking that. Those people are who they are, and I do what I do. The common experience I have when I’m at a cocktail party getting to know somebody is people know these films individually, but they say, “Wait, you did Paradise Lost and the Metallica film and Brother’s Keeper? What’s your name again?”

For whatever reason, I’ve been lucky in my career that a number of my major documentaries have broken through and achieved cultural recognition and that’s good, but for whatever reason people aren’t connecting the dots. So I was actually embarrassed. There are some promos with me on camera where I’m being treated like an on-camera investigative reporter, like on any network. Like Wolf Blitzer or Morgan Spurlock or Anthony Bourdain saying “This is CNN.” Those types of promos. It’s new for me. I felt like an actor playing the role of a TV investigative reporter. I felt silly doing them just because it was a little embarrassing. It’s not necessarily who I’ve been for the past 20 years. The network has been fantastic about promoting the show and it’s a new experience for me and I certainly don’t intend to stop making long-form cinema verite documentaries that don’t involve me being on camera. And obviously the Whitey film is coming out in June.


Al Jazeera America

Do you see a difference in the way documentary filmmaking is landing more on TV now, whether with a docuseries like The System or with Whitey being acquired by CNN Films, than 20 years ago when Paradise Lost was primarily seen as a doc on HBO?

Paradise Lost was kind of a hybrid. Sheila Nevins allowed it to be 2 ½ hours long, which is unheard of today. It had the vibe of a feature documentary. Obviously I was very proud and happy that it played on HBO, and that’s where it got most of its attention, but the film was also released theatrically. Brother’s Keeper was clearly a theatrical film. We self-distributed that and it did really well, almost $2 million at a time when movie tickets were $5 and we did it without any P&A money. There’s been an evolution. I definitely started making films because I thought the best place to see them is in a big room with lots of people, and that was my dream for Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost. Besides the HBO broadcast, but that was tremendously impactful, bringing in all the supporters.

Theatrical entertainment has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. I’ve lived through several waves of documentaries being popular at the box office but the pendulum has swung away again. It’s the rare exception, a documentary that does well theatrically, and in general that’s because audience tastes have changed significantly and Hollywood and mainstream fiction filmmaking has changed significantly. There’s less and less edgy, independent feature films of all kinds, not just documentaries but films like The Crying Game or Reservoir Dogs or any number of the smaller films for which Miramax became famous in the ’90s. All the creative and dramatic and edgy kind of filmmaking in the narrative space has moved to television. Hollywood has become about making huge tentpole blockbuster movies, often sequels and often based on cartoon superhero characters. Cool edgy stuff, people know they can see in other ways.

Documentaries have, at the box office, suffered along with that. Especially with all these other distribution platforms. Of course, there are a handful of theatrical documentaries, including my own Whitey film, but even that is a day-and-date VOD release. But I hope that film does well. Generally speaking, there is a move away from theatrical docs. There are only couple that break through and do really well at the box office now. Increasingly the smaller, edgier stuff, that includes documentaries, has migrated to television.

What’s a little more confusing for someone like me who’s been doing both for years — I’ve worked with virtually every network — is there’s a general blur. The History Channel is hugely successful, so who am I to say they shouldn’t be doing present-tense character-driven docu-series like everybody else? I’m not picking on them, but you used to be able to understand what the identity of each network was. American Movie Classics did classic movies. History Channel did history. MTV ran music videos. They’re all doing the same thing in the reality space: character-driven docu-soap series. There’s little distinguishing between networks. There’s a certain aesthetic and focus on a certain kind of subject matter and character and I think everybody’s doing the same thing.

What’s been left off the table by and large is the kind of serious long-form documentary making like Paradise Lost. There are exceptions to the rule. Frontline still exists. American Masters still exists. For The History Channel in 2005 I did a 10-part series that won an Emmy called 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. We got 10 great doc-makers, and I was one of them, each to do an hour on a different day. It was pretty serious filmmaking. But that series probably couldn’t be sold today. The vast majority of stuff is character-driven immersions into people’s occupations.

It’s harder and hard to do serious long-form documentary filmmaking for television. They get made and then they end up on television, and there’s CNN and Al Jazeera America and HBO and Showtime. This glut of nonfiction on the rest of the networks is not necessarily serious nonfiction filmmaking. It’s one of my motivations for doing this series, to have the opportunity to do eight one-hour mini-Paradise Losts. Take that comparison with a grain of salt obviously. But to focus on problems in the American justice system, to bring that to serious television, there aren’t a lot of places that would have bought the series in today’s environment.

Well, hopefully people respond to what you’re doing here. Not just for the sake of nonfiction television but for the issues and the specific people you focus on. Many are ongoing cases, and perhaps some will garner support the way the West Memphis Three did.

That’s my hope for the series, that it continues on for another cycle and we can track these cases and continue to advocate for people whose voices need to be heard.

The System with Joe Berlinger debuts on Al Jazeera America on Sunday, May 18th at 9pm ET.

Each episode will premiere on Sunday nights at the same time and then repeat the following Wednesday.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.