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A True Crime Film Festival in NYC—Sort Of

(by Henry Stewart, NOTEY, November 9, 2016, Link)
 

DOC NYC is the largest documentary film festival in the country and thus rather unwieldy, with a something-for-everyone approach to programming. The trick is figuring out which of those somethings within its week (November 10–17) of 110 features and almost as many shorts is for you. For example, the True Crime sidebar is essentially a mini-festival of six features, all making their NYC premieres, each captivating and distinct.

Each series in the first wave of New True Crime identified a justice-system wrong, drew attention to it and effected change. Serial got Adnan Syed a chance at a new trial; The Jinx got Robert Durst arrested; Making a Murderer got Brendan Dassey’s conviction overturned. The most familiar and satisfying doc in this festival lineup, then, should be The Promise (Nov. 13, 8:45pm, IFC Center) , which continues in that tradition, reexamining the 1985 murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom at their home in Central Virginia (called “Loose Chippings”). Their daughter and her then-boyfriend are presently in jail for it, but if enough people see this movie, the latter might not be for long.

Nathan Heller covered their story last year in the New Yorker, in an article that embraced an issue of epistemology common to New True Crime: lowbrow murder becomes highbrow when invested with the philosophical problem of our inability to know for sure what happened, even in the age of DNA. Heller is suspicious of the official story but also of the two people in jail for it—Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering—and insinuates they could both be guilty, though who knows of what. “None of these scenarios seem plausible,” he writes. “One seems to have occurred.”

The directors of The Promise, Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, are not so agnostic—they clearly believe he should be freed, and the movie is pro-Soering advocacy. (He wants to be sent to Germany, where his family is from and where there is much more sympathy for him than in Virginia; not coincidentally, it’s also where both the documentarians are from!) In a newly recorded prison interview, he comes off well (despite repeated and hilarious reaction shots of a bored guard and cameraman)—reasonable, intelligent and meek. It’s one thing to read his quotes in a magazine, another to hear him say them for yourself.

Also to his benefit, the filmmakers identify motives, alternative suspects and circumstantial evidence, amassing mountains of reasonable doubt for Soering and presenting it as such, even though at one point he’d confessed to the crime, in what he says now was a misguided attempt at gallantry. As one investigator puts it, 75 percent of people in jail are there because their mouths put them there.

It’s a compelling ...

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