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date: 20 April 2018

Documentaries about Crime and Criminal Justice

Summary and Keywords

Documentary films have significant appeal because of their claim to represent truth and authenticity. Within the criminal justice system, they are important not only because of the public fascination with crime and punishment, but also because the everyday workings of the criminal justice system often remain outside of the direct experience or sight of most people.

There have been major stages in the technical and institutional development of documentary film. In its early years, actualités, short shots of realistic events, illustrated the new technology. As rudimentary narrative forms emerged, real events, including crimes, were recreated on film for paying audiences. Fiction films soon came to dominate and documentary was relegated to a supporting role, particularly in the form of newsreels that offered news and features prior to movie presentations. It was during the late 1920s and 1930s that the potential for film, including documentary, came to be recognized as a potential medium of state power. This was most notoriously seen in Nazi Germany, but also more benevolently in New Deal America. In the United Kingdom, John Grierson’s documentary movement spearheaded the use of documentary in workplaces, professional clubs and institutions as a means of promoting state sponsored social improvement. State control remained important during the Second World War and the subsequent period of reconstruction. The growth of television and the development of portable cameras and sound equipment opened up a new approach in the late 1950s and 1960s. Cinéma-vérité and direct cinema not only brought about stylistic innovations, such as hand held camerawork, but also took the filming into new spaces and offered a voice to previously unheard people, reflecting the social upheavals of the age. This approach became more widespread as a stylistic trope, but its original political purposes waned. Since the 1980s, the documentary field has become more diverse and fragmented, as a result of deregulation and the expansion of media markets, and the greater accessibility of equipment. Popular documentary on large network channels has often focused on entertainment, leading to new forms of infotainment. In contrast, there has been more opportunity for critical voices to be heard that contest dominant ideas. Throughout these eras, documentary has featured and responded to crime and criminal justice within the context of broader social change.

The evolution in documentaries about crime and criminal justice has, in particular, been shaped by three factors. The first is the role of individual agents, such as prominent filmmakers whose work has stood the test of time or has influenced the field. Second, there have been institutional factors, including the technology of film, notably the development of more portable and affordable equipment, but also there have been changes in the production process including sources of funding and distribution. The third factor is ideology. Cultural products, including documentaries about criminal justice, are created and consumed within a contested ideological context, and their meanings or significance can only be understood by reference to that context. As a result, these documentaries are important means of understanding the criminal justice system and the wider social context in which they are situated.

Keywords: documentary film, criminal justice, prisons, cinema vérité, direct cinema, cultural criminology

Documentary Film and its Significance

In considering documentaries on crime and criminal justice, it is necessary to start with two questions: what are documentary films, and why are they particularly significant in the field of crime and criminal justice?

Defining documentary film is not straightforward. There are some generally accepted elements (Nichols, 2010): they are about reality and events that actually happened; they are about real people; and they tell stories about what happens in the real world. This basis in reality, or “truth claims” (Winston, 2008), is central to understanding documentary film. These claims, however, are controversial and contested. This can be seen from the very birth of cinema in the late 19th century, when audiences were enchanted by the Lumiere brothers’ short films of a train entering a station, a wall being demolished, a baby being fed, and workers leaving a factory. It was the ability of these films to capture spontaneous reality or “the very essence of life itself” that transfixed viewers (MacDonald & Cousins, 1998, p. 4). On closer inspection, however, these truth claims are more ambiguous. These films, in fact, were often organized and planned, possibly even staged, rather than capturing life as it happened. At the very origins of cinema, therefore, the appeal and controversies of documentary film coincided.

Documentary film encompasses a degree of creativity. Filmmakers, or production institutions (Lam, 2014), select the subject matter and decide who and what is recorded and how that material is then arranged into narrative form. These are all choices that interpret and modify the subject matter, introducing the subjective influence of the author. More directly, there is also a role for re-enactment and staging in many films. Documentary forms do not therefore offer unmediated truth but instead are a creative representation of reality. As Stella Bruzzi (2000) has argued, there is a “perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (p. 9).

This agency by the filmmaker gives rise to a range of modes of expression (Nichols, 2010; Ward, 2005). These modes are diverse and include the poetic mode, emphasizing visual imagery, tone, and rhythm; expository mode, focusing on education, information, and a persuasive argumentative logic; observational mode, in which there is minimal interaction with the subject and the filmmaker is like a fly-on-the-wall; participatory mode, engaging with the subject through, for example, discussion and interviews; reflexive mode, calling to attention the assumptions and conventions of documentary film; and performative mode, featuring a subjective or expressive approach that focuses on heightening viewer engagement and affect. The prominence of these approaches varies across time and in particular subject matters. This diversity does, however, highlight the importance of the filmmaker as agent.

As well as the filmmaker, there are other contextual factors that constrain and enable the development documentary film. Most important of these are the availability of technology, and the economic context, particularly regarding production and distribution (McLane, 2012; Lam, 2014). These structural factors are significant in establishing and challenging the boundaries of what is produced and how it is expressed.

In defining documentary film, it is not simple to propose a universal definition, although there are core and generally accepted elements that tie documentary films to the reality of the world, actual events, and the experiences of people. A series of tensions exist within the field that are central to understanding documentary film. The first is that there is a tension between reality and creativity in the act of representation, and this leads to the question the “truth claims” that are so central to the nature and appeal of documentary. The second is that there is an artistic tension between practitioners within the field, who adopt a diverse variety of approaches and styles. The third is that there is a tension between the agency of the practitioners and the structures of technology and economics that form part of the field. The documentary film is therefore not simply a technical classification, but is a social construct, one that is dynamic and constantly evolving. To encapsulate this, new definitions have been proposed. For example, Ward (2005) has drawn on the concept of “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which describes learning and practice across a group, such as documentary filmmakers, as socially situated, in which new ideas and established approaches are in a constant state of flux, and it is through this critical and active engagement that individuals become participants. In defining documentary film, the focus is often upon the “truth claims” that they assert. It is, however, in the tensions and ambiguities that their complexity comes fully into light.

The second question is why documentary is particularly significant in the field of crime and criminal justice? To answer this question it is necessary to reflect on the resources that members of the general public draw on in order to produce and sustain an image of crime and justice. It has been argued that our view of reality is drawn from a combination of personal experiences, the experience of intimate and influential others that are shared with us, information from institutions including the state and political machinery, and also from popular culture (Surette, 1998). Because most people have little direct contact with prisons but popular culture is saturated with images of crime and punishment (Rafter & Brown, 2011), it is argued that the public relies to a greater extent on media representation to form their image of imprisonment (Surette, 1997), policing (Manning, 1996), and the criminal justice system more broadly (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991). As Ray Surette (1997) has described:

People use knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a picture of the world, an image of reality on which they base their actions. This process, sometimes called “the social construction of reality”, is particularly important in the realm of crime, justice, and the media.

(p. 1)

Just as the role of criminal justice in society is contested, so this is reflected in popular representations (Rafter, 2000; Rafter & Brown, 2011), which may play a range of roles including: encouraging regressive and punitive responses, being concerned with order and the maintenance of social systems, promoting reform, or presenting a more radical critique. Bill Nichols (2010) has argued that documentary filmmakers play an active role by engaging with social issues:

Like the orator of old, the documentarian speaks to the issues of the day, proposing new directions, judging old ones, measuring the quality of lives and cultures … The voice of documentary testifies to engagement with the social order and to a perspective on the values that underlie it.

(p. 93)

In relation to order, commentators have described media representations are a “power resource” (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991, p. 11), which “provide[s] people with preferred versions and visions of social order, on the basis of which they will take action” (p. 4). From this perspective, media representations offer a discourse on social order, authority, and legitimacy. Inevitably, there are contrasting perspectives on such a profound issue as criminal justice. On one extreme, it has been suggested that media is a form of social control, generating a climate of fear so as to soften people up for political and economic marketing (Lee, 2007). Others have gone even further to argue that the representation of prison in the media is often much worse than the reality or that it focuses disproportionately on the most serious crimes, and this functions to prepare viewers for a decline in prison standards and an increase in the use of imprisonment (Nellis, 2005). More modestly, there are many who argue that media representations largely reinforce and legitimate existing conventional penal policy and social power structures (Surette, 1997). In contrast, it has been suggested that the media may play a reform function (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). It has been described that depictions of criminal justice shape views by providing an insight into a world that the general public knows little about and has little direct experience of; providing a benchmark for acceptable treatment; translating academic and political concerns into digestible narratives; exposing perspectives that are often at odds with media and official descriptions; and creating empathy with offenders, victims, and staff. From this perspective, popular culture is an important resource for challenging received wisdoms and encouraging reflection and engagement with debate. The contested nature of criminal justice is therefore played out in popular culture. The debates and controversies can be discerned in popular culture, including documentaries, over successive eras, reflecting changes in public policy and professional practice (Wilson, 2000; Lenz, 2003; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Although documentaries about criminal justice have been addressed to only a limited extent in academic literature, they should not be underestimated in their influence and the way that they offer a medium for public discourse about crime and criminal justice.

The major periods in the history of documentary film can be used as a means to explore how representations of crime and criminal justice have evolved. The periodization inevitably imposes an artificial neatness, but it is not intended to suggest that a clear dividing line exists between eras. It is simply a way of offering a general ordering, highlighting broad tendencies and trends (Cooke, 2003). These major periods begin with the early years of cinema, followed by the institutionalization by the state, the liberation of documentary with the advent of cinéma-vérité and direct cinema, and, finally, documentary film in the neoliberal age. This ordering allows reflection on how documentary film and its response to crime and criminal justice have reflected broader social developments. The approach taken here is not to attempt to cover the complete spectrum of all films produced but instead, to look at particular films that represent important moments in the historical development of the form, thereby illuminating the technological, institutional, and ideological influences at play (Cooke, 2003).

Early Cinema and the Development of Documentary

The very earliest cinema, including the work of the Lumiere brothers, showed short slices of life, or actualités. Given the long public fascination with crime and punishment, it is unsurprising that filmmakers soon sought to capture this on the new moving image.

Alison Griffiths (2014) has analyzed the content of three early prison actualités: The Lock-Step, Male Prisoners Marching to Dinner, and Female Prisoners: Detroit House of Corrections (all USA, 1899). The first of these films shows prisoners marching in military style, while the other two show prisoners lining up and then moving into buildings, supervised by prison staff. Griffiths argues that as with other actualités, there is a preference for showing movement because it “demonstrated the medium’s own kineticism” (p. 182). The films also show forms of social order as prisoners are subjected to various forms of control and submission. Griffiths also highlights that while these filmed fragments enable the viewer to gaze in on the prison, a hidden world, they also induce a certain amount of discomfort because the prisoners gaze back. In this way, the viewer is taken beyond voyeurism, and instead the film “imputes co-responsibility for the punishment” and “reminds us that witnessing is never just about seeing, but bound up with questions of power, access, accountability, pleasure and guilt” (p. 184).

Despite the early domination of nonfiction films, popularity soon gave way to fiction. In part, this reflected technical limitations, which could be better managed in situations in which greater control could be exercised over action and equipment. Creativity, imagination, and artistry therefore flourished in the fictional film industry. An interesting early development was the hybridization of fiction and nonfiction, in particular through the reconstruction of recent, high-profile criminal cases. In particular, the celebrated pioneer Georges Méliès, better known for his wildly imaginative fantasies, such as A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902), produced his lower-key and more naturalistic actualités reconstituées, or reconstructed documentaries, including L’affaire Dreyfus (France, 1899), an 11-part serial charting the imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, in 1894, and the subsequent developments in the case, which was continuing to divide France at the time of the film’s release (Ezra, 2000). In the United Kingdom, early documentarians Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon produced The Arrest of Goudie (1901), a reconstruction of the arrest of Thomas Goudie, a Bank of Liverpool employee who embezzled £170,000 in order to fund a gambling habit. The film was made in actual locations involved in the case and was screened only three days after the Goudie’s arrest (Toulmin, 2004). This reconstruction emphasized authenticity and would have been screened as part of a larger program of films, likely accompanied by a lecture. Toulmin (2004) argues that that the pictorial realism draws on news media, attempting to offer a “visual newspaper” (p. 49) but also reflects a popular fascination with the macabre as typified by Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors and the Black Museum.

As fiction film came to dominate the cinema, documentary was relegated to a secondary position. This shift was formalized in 1910 by the production of the first newsreel (Barnouw, 1993), which was produced as supporting material for cinema shows. These newsreels proliferated and saw the growth of many famous companies including Pathé News, Hearst Metrotone News, and, later, the March of Time and Universal News. Many of the archives of the primary newsreel companies are now freely available (for example, British Pathé, and provide a rich source of historical material.

Many of the earliest of these films, such as Police Inspection (U.K., c. 1910–1920) and Manchester Police (U.K., c. 1910–1920), fit into Griffith’s (2014) framework, emphasizing kinetic movement, reinforcing the social order and opening up a hidden world. Later, the wider development of documentary film saw the popularity of travel, anthropological, and expedition films, such as Herbert Ponting’s film of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic quest, The Great White Silence (U.K., 1924); Frank Hurley’s South (U.K., 1919), which included footage from Ernest Shakelton’s heroic Antarctic survival; and Robert Flaherty’s famed film of Canadian Inuks, Nanook of the North (U.K., 1922). Newsreel responded to this by gathering international stories. In particular, American crime issues feature in British Pathé’s archive. This includes news features on notorious cases, such as the arrest of armed robber “Baby Face” Nelson and coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnap and murder case of 1932. There was also films of exceptional events, such as Amazing Prison Mutiny (U.K., 1929), which shows uniformed staff preparing to quell a riot in Auburn State Penitentiary and the aftermath, with the damaged and smoldering buildings. Prison Fire Horror (U.K., 1930) focuses on a fire in an Ohio prison in which 319 men died, showing fire fighters tackling the blaze before cutting to images of empty cells and charred and scorched fabric. There was also an attempt to capture more local traditions, a form of “anthropology at home” (Jackson, 1987). For example, The Majesty of the Law (U.K., 1932) shows the rituals associated with the opening of the court of Assizes at Kingston-on-Thames. It is “a little bit of old England,” featuring trumpeters on horseback heralding the arrival of the court from the bridge and market place, church bells peeling, and the assembled clergy and judges parading into the church in full ceremonial dress. Although the film attempts to conserve and document an ancient ritual, it also exposes the limitations when the filmmaker’s access is constrained; for example, there is no filming in the church or the court, and the focus is on showing the rituals themselves rather than examining their meaning and effects.

The most significant of the British Pathé newsreel films is Dartmoor Prison Mutiny (1932), which covers one of the most important events in British interwar penal policy (Brown, 2013). The film opens with a title claiming, “Britain shocked as news of convicts desperate fight at ‘toughest’ prison.” There is a voice-over, the film having been produced in the early years of sound cinema, which explains that it “seems strange to us in this country although America is accustomed to such incidents … Although prisons in America are overcrowded and prisons in Britain are at least humane.” It is stated that initially cameras were not there, as “it wasn't staged for film purposes.” There are aerial shots of the prison, showing the smoke emerging from buildings and police and prison guards rounding up prisoners. The subduing of the riot is praised for its restraint and for avoiding the use of firearms, but the prison staff is praised for showing strength in the face of “a real rough and tumble.” Members of the prison staff are shown nursing injuries and then re-entering the prison with bandaged wounds. The film also covers the visit by commissioner of prisons Alexander Paterson, who is “determined to assert law and order.” The film reveals some of the key features of newsreel films. The first is the emphasis on the exceptional, realizing their “news” function. They also tend to adopt a conservative position, in this case, for example, reassuring viewers about the authority, power, and legitimacy of the establishment in the face of resistance. As with the wider media coverage, critiques of penal policy or examinations the underlying causes are excluded (Brown, 2013). It also, however, shows how film remained on the periphery. Although technological developments meant that cameras were quickly on site and the use of aerial photography was innovative, most of the filming took place outside the prison.

The early era of cinema saw an amazing period of creativity in which the new medium was explored and started to be formalized. In documentary, early actualités offered a reflected glimpse of life as it was lived. Unsurprisingly, given the deep-rooted fascination with crime and punishment, this soon started to be captured on film. As technology and commercial opportunities developed, the form expanded and re-creations proved to be a more satisfying way of representing crime and punishment. Actualités reconstituées attempted to combine the authenticity of real events with the more elaborate realization possible in fiction film. As fiction film came to dominate, documentary was initially relegated to a supporting role through newsreel. Erik Barnouw (1993) has dismissed this development, arguing that newsreels “tended to turn the customary documentary items into a ritual composite: a royal visit, a military maneuver, a sports event, a funny item, a disaster, a native festival in costume. The newsreel institutionalized the decline of the documentary. Little now remained of its first vitality” (p. 26). Such an analysis is too polemical. Newsreel offered a sustainable institutional base for documentary filmmaking and has bequeathed a rich archive of material. A small number of feature documentaries started to expand the possibilities of the form, and this was reflected in newsreel, which started to incorporate a more international outlook and an ability to capture local peculiarities in ethnographic detail. Clearly, however, there were limitations. In terms of form, the short length of newsreel documentaries constrained their content, as did technology, such as sound and mobility, which only improved over time. Most importantly, the newsreel was a conservative form that reflected and reinforced the dominant institutional perspectives and values. The potential of documentary film to play a role in social order was to become particularly significant in the next phase of the development of the medium.

The Institutional Period

The 1930s saw the spread of technical developments including the normalization of sound in cinema. This, of course, influenced documentary film, although it would be social developments that had a more profound impact.

The role of the state expanded significantly across the developed world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, this was driven by the more interventionist Keynesian economics of governments attempting to ameliorate and address the consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression. In Russia, an increasingly totalitarian communism was emerging under Josef Stalin, and in Germany, the rise of the Third Reich saw the incremental spread of an ideological dictatorship. In this context, it came to be understood that the institutionalization of documentary film could be of instrumental value to the state in promoting dominant values and ideas. Most notoriously, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (Germany, 1935), depicting the Nuremburg Rally of 1934, and Olympia (Germany, 1938) based on the Berlin Olympics of 1936, have been both applauded for their artistic innovation and condemned for their content, widely seen as sophisticated Nazi propaganda. More positively regarded are Pare Lorentz’s American-government-agency sponsored films, The Plow That Broke the Plains (USA, 1936) and The River (USA, 1937). Both were concerned with environmental damage and the potential for government intervention to regenerate and harness the natural resources of the country. They were essentially propaganda films for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

The most enduring influence was in the United Kingdom, where John Grierson established what became known as the documentary movement. A former teacher and deeply religious man, Grierson’s vision was for documentary to be more than entertainment, having utilitarian value and offering educational or material benefit to society as a whole. He established production facilities funded initially by the Empire Marketing Board (1927–1933) and subsequently the General Post Office (1933–1937) and later the Central Office of Information (1948–1950).

The movement created a strategic vision and established a solid economic base for production. It also developed modes of distribution that focused less on theatrical releases and more on nontheatrical channels, such as training and promotional films shown that were shown in offices and workplaces, as well as film clubs and institutional theaters. It was all part of the strategy of creating effects: “what the documentary gave up in mass appeal it gained in social utility and precision-tooled effectiveness” (Ellis, 2000, p. 61).

The documentary movement also encompassed the creation of a particular style of film. It has been remarked that “the characteristic Grierson documentary dealt with impersonal social processes; it was usually a short film fused by a ‘commentary’ that articulated a point of view” (Barnouw, 1993, p. 99). These films concentrated on broad social issues, such as housing, working conditions, education, and national identity. Rather than attempt to capture spontaneous reality, they often used actors and re-creation to depict issues. These carefully constructed and tightly articulated films performed as much of an ideological function as other films of the period. As Bill Nichols (2010) has observed:

Rather than fostering the revolutionary potential of the dispossessed of the world, Grierson promoted the ameliorative potential of parliamentary democracy and government intervention in order to ease the most pressing issues and most serious abuses of a social system that remained fundamentally unquestioned.

(p. 222)

These films adopted a liberal democratic perspective, reflecting the dominant political ideas of the time. They have been criticized, notably by Brian Winston (2008), for eschewing the experiences of real people in favor of more macro-level arguments, and for speaking on behalf of marginalized people rather than giving them a direct voice, promoting a patriarchal system and reinforcing power and inequality rather empowering those who are nominally depicted.

The documentary movement explored a wide range of aspects of social life, including criminal justice. Two films, in particular, serve as representative examples: Four Men in Prison (Dir. Max Anderson, U.K., 1950) which was produced by John Grierson, and Children of the City: A Study of Child Delinquency in Scotland (Dir. Budge Cooper, U.K., 1944), which, though not made by the man himself, is Griersonian in its style.

Children of the City: A Study of Child Delinquency in Scotland was made by the Ministry of Information for the Scottish Education Department and Scottish Home Office and produced by Paul Rotha, a collaborator of Grierson. The film offers a description of the juvenile justice process and its social context, using fictionalized case studies of three boys involved in a shop burglary.

The film opens with a voice-over explaining the social milieu of the poor urban area in which the film is set, highlighting that many of the fathers are absent on military service or experiencing long-term unemployment, while the mothers face the burden of employment and household management. Families live in overcrowded housing, and the film even criticizes the urban planning that provided insufficient social space and facilities for children. The three children in the film, Robbie, Duncan and Alec, are caught in the act of committing a burglary. Reports are prepared by the schools and they must undergo a home-circumstance assessment by probation officers, whose expert advice “will help the court to reach a full understanding of the children’s behaviour … Their aim and object is the good of the children.” Robbie is from a “good home,” in which both parents are present. However, he suffers from a problem with his sight. The court issues him a warning and refers him to a child guidance clinic. His case will be reviewed in six months. Duncan’s father is on military service, and his mother is struggling to cope on her own. Fundamentally, his “home is a good one.” He is given probation supervision for 12 months. Alec is seen as the ringleader of the group. He has had a previous probation supervision order. The probation officer concludes that another period of supervision will not be sufficient to change him. His home is “deplorable”; his father is “a drunkard and never stays long in a job”; his mother is “apathetic and feckless.” The court concludes that “the only opportunity for Alec to improve is for him to be taken away from his family.” He is sent to an “approved school,” an institution for detention and training, which is the “kindest” decision. This compulsory state detention is described as “no more and no less than a boarding school of a special kind.” It is concluded that these children, as a result of the individualized and expert intervention of the criminal justice professionals, “have been given the help they so badly needed.” The film ends with a hope that social change will help all children, not only those who enter the criminal justice system. In particular, besides support for good parenting and education, the film calls for social clubs, youth activities, and structured social spaces as offering a more positive future. The final words of the film are “We must decide to get to grips with the problem or allow this sort of thing to go on.”

Children of the City typifies Griersonian techniques. It is filmed in authentic locations, including streets, homes, schools, courts, and places of detention. It does not, however, capture real cases or real subjects but instead substitutes these with actors representing those facing arrest, trial, and punishment. The voice offered by the film is not that of those directly affected by criminal justice but instead those who operate and benefit from it. What is served up is a rather uncritical representation of a benign criminal justice system capable of categorizing deserving and undeserving individuals and families and determining appropriate interventions. It is situated in the utopian idealism of the 1940s, at the cusp of the creation of the postwar welfare state. It is a peacetime call to action to create a better future based on state intervention in a wide range of aspects of social and personal life. This would include a fair and effective criminal justice system as part of a wider system of social justice, including improved housing, education, family support, and community building.

Four Men in Prison (Dir. Max Anderson, U.K., 1950) was made by the Crown Film Unit on behalf of the Home Office, and John Grierson acted as producer. It was intended to be an educational film about prisons for those working in the criminal justice system. The opening title explains, “This film gives an impression of prison life and conditions in England at the present time and shows the effects which prison sentences may have on certain types of offender.”

The film uses four fictional characters to illustrate the effects of imprisonment. Henry Pectable is serving a short sentence for a first offence. Steve Laggerty is a hardened criminal inured to prison life. Albert Oddy is a mentally ill youth who has been stealing from churches. And Edward Hope is a young man who is in danger of becoming a career criminal and has been sentenced to corrective training. Pectable, facing an uncertain future, is tempted by an offer to become a bookkeeper for an illegal betting operation in the prison. At the last minute, he rips up the calling card, rejecting a life of crime, and manages to secure himself a job. Laggerty looks for the easiest way to serve his sentence and at the end of the film is shown returning to prison on a further sentence, putting up a sign in his cell reading “Home sweet home.” Oddy is eventually discharged to a hostel, but as he is being released, a doctor is heard saying that it is “psychological treatment he needs. It will take more than four months to get any. It’s a pity the magistrate didn’t think of getting the medical report.” The voice-over confirms that he is “as defenseless as when he arrived.” Hope goes to the corrective training center, which is a more relaxed environment and offers constructive training and education in such skills as bricklaying, decorating, engineering, gardening, teaching, and music. The manager of the center explains, “We pride ourselves on being rather a high-class civilized community.” Hope trains as an agricultural mechanic and looks forward to a successful reintegration into the community. The film closes with a title reading, “Prison is a place of punishment, yet it aims to send a man back to his home fit and ready to take his place in society. To achieve that end new methods must be tried. They are being tried.”

Although Four Men in Prison was shot in real locations, including Wakefield prison, it uses actors playing composite characters rather than real people and situations. There is an attempt to capture the authentic details and rituals of prison life, such as the initial arrival and reception processing, including the allocation of a prison number, showering, and dressing in prison clothing. The tone of the film is optimistic rather than utopian. While Hope and Pectable show that prison can be navigated and even be an opportunity to change, the limits of rehabilitation are clear in the case of Laggerty, as is the inadequacy of criminal justice in dealing with the mental health problems of Oddy. Other problems are also illustrated, including the potential of prison to encourage and nurture criminalization, as Pectable almost succumbs to temptation. Pectable also discusses with one member the prison staff the effects of imprisonment on families, arguing emotionally, “You’re all so kind and sympathetic to me in here and so cruel to them outside … I’m the thief, not them.” The inclusion of these criticisms of the system is significant, and the discomfort created is intended to be both educative and a call for action. Some of the darker features of prison life are omitted, however, including violence, suicide, and the more profound pains of imprisonment. The film is not a radical critique of imprisonment, but instead advocates what could be described as liberal reform, which attempts to ameliorate the worst aspects of imprisonment and encourage its higher moral ambitions, without attempting to subvert or overthrow the system itself. This approach is the archetypal Grierson vision.

The institutionalization of documentary within state production took place around the world in the 1930s and after. It took different forms according to the local ideologies being promoted by the states in question, but the idea of using documentary and media as a tool of statecraft certainly took hold. The promotion of governmental policies and dominant national ideologies is reflected in the films of the period, including criminal justice documentaries, but without the urgency of war and international crisis, and in the austere financial climate of the postwar years, the appeal of state-run documentary production started to wane. The films in the United Kingdom had promoted an image of liberal humanitarianism, presenting criminal justice as an element of broader social justice concerns. Criticism was muted, critique excluded, and the medium was tightly controlled. Changing social circumstances as tensions started to build during the 1950s also meant that the harmonious and benign image being projected on screen would prove hard to sustain. Voices from below were becoming harder to contain, and it was only a matter of time before this began to spill out onto the streets and onto the screens.

Cinéma-Vérité and Direct Cinema

Technological and social changes in the late 1950s and early 1960s combined to take documentary film in a new direction. The development of synchronized sound recording and lightweight cameras gave filmmakers more mobility, allowing them to capture spontaneous action. Production also became more diverse as the growth of television reduced direct state involvement in documentary filmmaking and enabled new creative companies to emerge. The 1960s were also a time of tumultuous social change, including a decline in deference to authority, indeed, growing skepticism about the role of government and the powerful; greater assertiveness by marginalized groups; and an invigorated search for individual liberty and self-expression. The emergence of direct cinema in America and cinéma-vérité in France was a product of these times.

Cinéma-vérité and direct cinema both involved innovating and deploying new technologies and seeking alternative approaches to documentary filmmaking that resisted the consensual and didactic approaches of Grierson. The mobility of the camera and the ability to record the voices of subjects were themselves politically meaningful. “The documentary camera is now able to follow its subjects across social boundaries which previously served to keep it from intruding … to wander into the semi-private spaces and exclusive places of everyday social life. In short to cross from the public sphere into the private domain” (Chanan, 2007, p. 166).

As well as accessing new social and emotional spaces, these new approaches also sought out subjects whose experiences had not previously been authentically represented. As filmmaker Jean Rouch noted, the camera could become a means for people to communicate their experiences to others, “It may be the only way out for these persons who have some trouble, to open this window and to say to other people what their troubles are” (quoted in Issari & Paul, 1979, p. 73). The emerging documentary practices of cinéma-vérité and direct cinema reflected the rising resistance to the dominant ideology of the era, taking an active role in the process of change. Again, Rouch articulated how documentary could expose and critique the prevailing orthodoxy, “It is a question of throwing light on truth which is hidden from us by the particular prejudices and social values and conventions of our time” (Issari & Paul, 1979, p. 80).

The most influential cinéma-vérité film was Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicles of a Summer (France, 1961), which is a series of interviews, discussions, and interactions with Parisians. The encounters are intended to enable to participants to reveal their values, experiences, and emotions, and so to build up a picture of the culture of a particular time and place. The approach drew heavily on Rouch’s work as an anthropologist and ethnographer, and so the camera was not merely there to observe; rather, the documentary was an act of participant-observation. American direct cinema was developed initially by Robert Drew and his associates, in films such as Primary (1960), which focused on the Democratic primary election in Wisconsin being contested by John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and drew its inspiration from photo essays, such as those published in Life magazine, which attempted to capture events as they were happening and from the center of the action (Saunders, 2007). Direct cinema was based on unobtrusive observation of the action and allowing the natural drama to unfold. Direct cinema and cinéma-vérité are often conflated because they emerged at about the same time and in a similar technical and social milieu, but they are distinct strategies for attempting to capture life in an honest and intimate way. Cinéma-vérité is interactive; it aims to elicit and draw out the inner experience of the participants; direct cinema focuses on the external surface as a means of capturing life in an un-self-conscious and relaxed way, including unguarded moments that reveal more profound emotions and insights (McLane, 2012). Cinéma-vérité is a provocateur, while direct cinema is an uninvolved bystander (Chanan, 2007).

One of the earliest direct cinema films was The Chair (Dir. Gregory Shuker, Richard Leacock, and D. A. Pennebaker, USA, 1962). It focuses on two lawyers, Donald Page Moor and Louis Nizer, who are representing Paul Crump, a prisoner on death row who is facing his final appeal for clemency. The film documents parts of the hearing, as well as scenes of the lawyer’s office as preparations for the hearing are being made. The legal team argues that Crump is rehabilitated, having demonstrated his remorse and shown good conduct and a commitment to helping others. They spend long hours preparing the case, in an increasingly messy and fraught office, and at one point Moor breaks into tears as the enormity of the task and the potential consequences overwhelm him. By contrast, the prosecuting lawyer is seen practicing on a golf course and socializing with the city elite: the task ahead nothing more than a professional challenge. In one memorable scene, there is a long, hand-held shot in which the camera follows the warden of the prison, a supporter of Crump, as he walks through the bowels of the prison and into the execution chamber, where the workings of the electric chair are explained. As the face mask of the chair is shown, there is a fade to Crump’s face, emphasizing that this is not an abstract, theoretical policy debate; the life or death of a real person is in the balance. The day before the scheduled execution, it is announced that it has been canceled and that the sentence has been commuted to 199 years in prison. Although he has avoided the electric chair, Crump faces prison “for the rest of his natural life.”

The documentary technique draws out the natural drama of real life. It captures not only the surface processes or detached information in the Grierson mold, but elicits an emotional response from the subjects and the viewer, and moves the camera from the periphery into the action in the court, prison, and the lawyers’ offices. The film clearly has a political motive and is a form of activism. It is the prisoner and his representatives who are humanized, not the state’s representatives, and it is this voice from below that is privileged. The death penalty was being increasingly contested at the time, and its use had started to decline even before the decade-long moratorium in the United States, from 1967.

The purest and most consistent practitioner of direct cinema is Frederick Wiseman, who is particularly noted for observational documentaries made in American institutions, including schools, hospitals, and the military. His films are almost ethnographic in nature, focusing on the sometimes mundane details of everyday practice. There are no interviews, explanatory commentary, or conventional narratives. Instead, the films are sometimes described as a “mosaic” of scenes that reveal patterns of behavior and values (Rapfogel, 2002; McLane, 2012). Three of Wiseman’s earliest films addressed different aspects of the criminal justice system: Titicut Follies (1967), made at Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane; Law and Order (1969), which followed the officers of the Kansas City Police Department; and Juvenile Court (1973), filmed in Memphis, Tennessee.

Titicut Follies became embroiled in legal action and for over 20 years was unavailable for exhibition to the general public. On the face of it, this was because the state argued that the subjects had either not given consent or were not competent to do so, but Wiseman always maintained that the real concern was the reputation of the establishment, comprising the state, its institutions, and its officials (Benson & Anderson, 2002). The film captures the neglect, petty rules, physical and verbal abuses, and everyday degradations experienced by the prisoners. It also shows some of the incarcerated who are articulate and resist the system, only for this to be used against them as evidence of their insanity. Despite this intense critique, the centerpiece of the film is a musical performance, the “Titicut Follies” of the title, involving staff and prisoners, which is at times a joyous occasion in which there is a sense of shared humanity and community. It is through such contrasts and contradictions that Wiseman distinguishes himself from more polemical filmmakers, offering a complex and nuanced depiction of the messiness and contested nature of institutional life.

Law and Order shows the range of police work, from intervening to prevent a potential armed robbery to dealing with domestic and personal disputes, looking after a lost child, and even negotiating a fare dispute between a cab driver and a passenger. By concentrating on the mundane nature of much of the work, the film reveals that policing is not primarily about the detection of crime, but is instead concerned with the maintenance of social order, including the structures of family life and capitalist exchange. Juvenile Court shows a range of cases, including theft, armed robbery, drug dealing, and sexual offenses, and observes the decision-making processes, including determining whether to hear the case as a juvenile or refer it to the adult court, whether to detain or release the defendant, whether children from troubled homes should remain with their parents. One scene, in which a switchboard operator answers calls in a robotic voice and refers callers to the various departments, gives the sense that there is a vast, bureaucratic machinery at work. The courts balance competing values about punishment, public protection, and reform. The process is sometimes patrician; decisions are often made in back rooms and draw on expert or experienced practitioner advice rather than consulting with those directly affected—the children and their parents. The officials are, however, often conscious of the power they wield and its potentially painful and destructive effects, and so attempt to mitigate and ameliorate the consequences of their decisions. In this and, indeed, all three films, there is an intimate and detailed observation of the everyday practices, revealing the complexity and contradictions at the heart of these institutions.

In the United Kingdom, the 1970s saw the emergence of Rex Bloomstein, a less celebrated but nevertheless important figure in the history of criminal justice documentary. His early films, such as The Sentence (1976) and Parole (1979), attempted to engage viewers as participant observers by detailing criminal justice processes using unexceptional but real cases. Bloomstein also used interviews and observation to explore the effects of imprisonment in Release (1976) and Prisoners’ Wives (1977). His most extensive work was undertaken in the early 1980s, including the 8-part series Strangeways (1980), an intimate study of HM Prison Manchester that remains one of the most important films ever made on prisons. In 1983, he made Lifer, another influential film, this time looking at the life-sentencing process and the diverse people serving that punishment. The interviews filmed for this were also developed into a seven-part TV series, Lifers (U.K., 1984). In 2000, Bloomstein produced Strangeways Revisited, in which he returned to the prison he had documented 20 years before; he also returned to some of the prisoners he had interviewed for Lifer in Lifer: Living with Murder (2004). Bloomstein interacts with his subjects on camera and also uses more observational material. As such, his work is closer to the cinéma-vérité model than the direct cinema model. The depth, breadth, and longevity of his interest in criminal justice marks him out as a significant figure in documenting criminal justice (see Bennett, 2006a, 2006b; Jewkes, 2011).

During the 1970s, the politicization of documentary films became pronounced. Direct Cinema and cinéma-vérité became a generalized stylistic trope rather than the expression of a cohesive ideological movement. This bifurcation of documentary can be seen by contrasting four observational documentaries from the late 1970s: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s Juvenile Liaison (U.K., 1976) and Tattooed Tears (USA, 1978); The Police Tapes (Dir. Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond, USA, 1976); and the Academy Award–winning Scared Straight! (Dir. Arnold Shapiro, USA, 1978).

Juvenile Liaison was about a police program to tackle the problem of juvenile offending in the English town of Blackburn by creating a team of police officers who would deal with anti-social behavior by children at school, in the home or in the street. The approach taken by the police was often heavy-handed and intimidating, with little effort to uncover the underlying social and family problems of the young people. Scenes included ones in which a seven-year-old boy who has stolen a cowboy suit is being taken into a police cell and a learning-disabled boy is dragged out of bed by his hair. The film was screened in Parliament, attracted press attention, and led to the commissioning of an inquiry by the Home Secretary. Subsequently, seven of the nine families who had participated in the film withdrew their consent after being pressured by the police, and the film was withdrawn from public view. Churchill and Broomfield were only able to tell the full story when they filmed a follow-up, Juvenile Liaison 2 (U.K., 1990), returning to Blackburn 15 years later to revisit the participants and discuss the effects of the film on their lives. The suppression of the original film had prevented a public debate over the police practice from taking place, and the filmmakers discovered that the inquiry that had been commissioned was simply an internal police investigation into specific allegations against an individual officer instead of a wider examination of police policy and practice. The investigation cleared the officers involved and the scheme continued to operate under a different name. Juvenile Liaison 2 exposes the process of suppression and the failure to effect change. The suppression of the film led the filmmakers to move to America in order to continue their work (Wood, 2005).

The first film Churchill and Broomfield produced in the United States was Tattooed Tears, an observational documentary filmed in a youth prison in Chino, California. It opens with the following title: “The California Youth Authority Created 1941 ‘to replace Retributive Punishment with Treatment and Rehabilitation.’” This cuts immediately to a staff briefing in which a manager states:

The primary concern of the youth training school is not rehabilitation. The primary concern of the youth training school is the safety and welfare of the public. The Governor has recently advocated that, he has said that rehabilitation has not necessarily worked. They are here for punishment of the crime. Our job is safety and welfare of wards and staff.

This opening sets the tone of the film. The contrast between the title and the manager’s statement is intended as a polemic and to illustrate the changing penal philosophy and the gap between official rhetoric and the everyday reality. The exercise of power is central to the institution. The film shows uses of hard forms of control, including searches, physical restraint, and the degradation of prisoners. The soft forms of control shown include the institutional panel that assesses progress of individual inmates, making decisions on progress or further detention. The panel sets conditions, including psychological and psychiatric evaluations, and imposes additional time on sentences for infractions. The interactions between staff and prisoners are often confrontational; in the prison education department, teaching is impersonal, delivered through rudimentary computers. The institution is depicted as one that has abandoned its progressive ambitions and instead fallen back on enforced containment. As a result, the system lacks legitimacy and provokes acts of resistance from prisoners, including violence, refusal to comply with instructions, and self-harm. Unlike Broomfield and Churchill’s efforts in the United Kingdom, the film won acclaim, received an award from the State Bar of California, and contributed to a decision to change the rules on time being added to sentences (Wood, 2005).

Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond filmed The Police Tapes over three months, embedded in the 44th police precinct in the South Bronx, an area that at the time had the highest crime rate in New York City. The film is made from the perspective of the police and shows them dealing not only with the kinds of everyday domestic and neighbor disputes seen in Law and Order, but also with violent crime and casual violence directed toward the police themselves. The film portrays patrol officers who are concerned about growing violence, citing that there have been 51 murders in 51 days, and frustrated at the perceived ineffectiveness of the courts, which buckle under the weight of administrative burden, and resort to plea bargaining that results in lenient sentences. The residents of the district, meanwhile, are depicted as lawless, and one officer goes as far as to say, “All we are trying to do is protect society from the animals out here.” An alternative perspective is offered by the police commander, Tony Souza. He recognizes the frustration of police, who join the force optimistically, hoping that they will be able to help people and contribute to “preserving the fabric of society” but who find, in reality, that they are “bitterly resented” and have to become hardened and cynical so as to manage their own emotions. Souza goes on to describe the social conditions in the area, including “poverty, the lack of education, the inability to articulate their concerns, alcoholism, unemployment, inadequate housing,” all creating the conditions for crime. Indeed, he argues that “we are conditioning people to fail” and that “we are manufacturing criminals,” and that the police have become “an army of occupation” in the ghetto. This film captures the tensions of the times and many of the then contemporary controversies in police work (Wilson, 2000). There is the social liberalism of Souza, whose words bring to mind both the idealism of the New Deal and the more recent scars of the Vietnam war, while the conservatism of the police officers heralds the growing voice of the New Right in American politics.

Scared Straight! focuses on a program at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey in which long-term prisoners attempt to deter juveniles from crime. The film is introduced by the actor Peter Falk, who invites the audience to “imagine yourself the victim of one of these youngsters” and suggests the bleak inevitability of their futures: “Today’s prisons are filled with yesterday’s juvenile delinquents.” He goes on to explain that the program is intended to make the young people “come face to face with the brutalities of prison.” This includes being taunted by prisoners who “verbally molest the young boys with homosexual taunts.” They visit a cell, being locked in with its filthy sink and toilet, where they encouraged to smell its foul odor.

The main section of the film shows the program, which is run by prisoners serving sentences of 25 years to life for serious violent offenses. They intimidate and threaten the young people so as to shock, disorientate, and terrify them about prison life. The threats and abuse include such statements as “If I ask you again nigger, I’m going to come over here and break your neck”; “Look at me when I’m talking to you motherfucker”; “Keep that smile of your face or I’m going to hurt you”; and “You move one more time and I’ll bite your God damn nose off and spit it in your face.” The young people are told that they will be subjected to physical and sexual violence in prison. The alternative, they are told, is to avoid crime and get an education instead. The film closes with soundbites from the participants, who suggest that they have been scared and intimidated, and many say that they want to change their lives so as to avoid prison.

Scared Straight! suggests that such programs are effective, but this claim that is contradicted by research evidence (Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino, & Buchler, 2002). The film also both voyeuristically observes the program and engages in the “othering” of the participants and facilitators, presenting them as “barely human” (Cavender, 1981). The opening commentary deliberately prepares the viewer to put aside empathy for the juveniles, presenting them as a risk to the public, though many had no serious criminal record, and a large percentage had no criminal record at all (Cavender, 1981). The facilitators are shown as intimidating, frightening men, capable of extreme violence; and the prison itself is described as a brutal and lawless place. The documentary was made at the “punitive turn” (Muncie, 2008), as criminal justice policy was becoming tougher, with more aggressive policing and greater resort to imprisonment. The Rahway program ignores the wider social context and instead presents crime as a matter of individual choice alone. It eschews objectivity to deliberately appeal the viewer emotions, and encourages a lifting of the limits of punishment so that degradation and intimidation are represented as acceptable. This is a film that encouraged limitless retribution and deterrence (Cavender, 1981) and, indeed, helped to laying the foundations of a “new punitiveness” (Pratt et al., 2005).

These later films illustrate how the direct cinema and cinéma-vérité techniques were being developed and co-opted as a political tool. If the goal was to provide a more objective approach to filming, it was never apolitical. The choice of subject, editing, and the structure of the films could all influence the content and reflect an ideological perspective. This was an indication of the direction documentary film was to take in the contemporary period as it has come to be a site in which dominant ideas have been promoted, resisted, and contested.

Documentary and Neoliberalism

From the 1980s onward the erosion of the postwar welfare society became more acute, being replaced by the emergence of what has been termed “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is primarily concerned with a return to laissez-faire economics, including facilitating the mechanisms of production and exchange, enabling mass consumption, expanding the reach and control of commercial organizations, and legitimizing inequalities in wealth. Neoliberalism is not solely an issue of economics but has complex social, political, legal, and cultural dimensions that have permeated the life of the contemporary Western world (Bell, 2011). Its influence has particularly been seen in the criminal justice system through the expansion of commercial interest in the delivery of services. But the rapid growth of imprisonment and punitiveness also serves to obscure the consequences of neoliberalism by focusing attention on “undeserving” marginalized groups and is an attempt to legitimize the role of the state in the social and legal spheres as it retreats from the economic arena (Bell, 2011). As a result, mass imprisonment became a reality in many Western nations, which have seen the record high prison populations, increased use of mandatory and indeterminate sentences, increasing the resources available for policing, and the encroachment of everyday security, including closed circuit television and surveillance. During this era, cultural representation has come to have a growing significance. Media representation has served to reflect, reinforce, and even intensify dominant ideas about crime and punishment, leading to more fear, insecurity, and punitiveness (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). Alongside these changes in the politics of criminal justice, the media landscape has also transformed. Deregulation of broadcasting, the development of the Internet, and the democratization of technology have changed the ways in which films can be produced and distributed. Documentary films have responded to and been entangled with these developments in society and media.

The direct cinema and cinéma-vérité aesthetic and approach continued to have an influential role in shaping documentary. Both Rex Bloomstein, in the United Kingdom, and Frederick Wiseman, in the United States, continued to expand their body of works, attracting critical acclaim and conserving a space in popular culture for carefully crafted, thoughtful, and humane films. This aesthetic, however, was appropriated and put to new uses. The Police Tapes in particular had a significant influence, first in fictional television—for example, the successful series Hill Street Blues (USA, 1981–1987) was directly inspired by it (McLane, 2012)—and subsequently in the development of what might be called “criminal vérité” documentaries, that follow real police officers as they patrol and intervene in crimes, such as the Cops series (USA, 1989–; Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). Criminal vérité documentaries enjoyed immense financial and ratings success. They were shot with a hand-held camera and in the observational style of direct cinema, but differed in significant ways. In particular, they selected action for its excitement and entertainment value rather than for its ability to reveal everyday truth, and they attempted to shape events for this purpose, directing the action and the “characters” being observed. They are often described as “infotainment” (Hallett & Powell, 1995). These documentaries have a different political purpose from the original direct cinema. They are filmed from the police perspective, showing those committing offenses as objects of the action, rather than revealing the wider social context. The growth of these programs and the openness of criminal justice institutions to participate in them illustrate the desire to promote public understanding of their work, but what is represented is often a distorted and exaggerated version dramatized for the purposes of entertainment (Hallett & Powell, 1995).

In the United Kingdom, the popular series Her Majesty’s Prison (2009–) is filmed inside different prisons and purports to offer close-up, fly-on-the-wall style documentaries charting the daily life of those institutions. However, the shows employ the stylistic and ideological tropes of the infotainment genre. For example, “Her Majesty’s Prison Aylesbury” (2014) had a particular focus on violence and disorder (see Bennett, 2014). Prisoners involved in a hostage incident were filmed smashing cells and self-harming. This was accompanied by closed circuit television footage of historical incidents of violence. Prisoners were filmed talking in a macho way about violence, gang conflict, and the need for self-preservation. This Boschian, dystopic vision of prison life was summed up by a prisoner who shouted “Welcome tohellhel Hell” as he walked past a camera. The commentary reinforced this view, describing the prisoners as murderers, rapists, and drug dealers, “the most dangerous and disruptive 18- to 21-year-olds in the country.” Many of the comments by prison staff confirmed this image; one claimed that prisoners have “morals and principles [that] are completely different.” The young prisoners are depicted as feral, out of control, and volatile, a risk to everyone that they come into contact with. They are represented as exactly the people who should be excluded from society. They do not share the values of “law abiding” citizens. Through the foregrounding of violence, the film consciously and consistently engages in a process of distorting the reality of both the institution and the men detained in it (Bennett, 2014), constructing them as “others” or “some form of ‘folk devil’ upon whom the ills of society can be hung” (Warr, 2012). These forms of documentary, representing and reinforcing the dominant neoliberal ideology about crime and punishment have won significant popularity and been screened in prime-time slots on major broadcast channels (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). They encouraged anxiety about crime and criminals while also profiting from this, feeding into a vicious circle of fear and punitiveness (Lee, 2007).

Nick Broomfield, having abandoned direct cinema, adopted a more reflexive approach in his films. He returned to the criminal justice system in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (USA, 1993). But rather than simply observe the subject, Broomfield made himself a visible presence in the film, decked out in headphones and holding a boom microphone, and he increasingly used the process of making the documentary itself as a means of exploring the issues. In both visual and narrative terms, Broomfield was deconstructing the documentary, rejecting observation as a means of seeking “truth.” The film focused on Aileen Wuornos, charged with seven murders and frequently described as America’s first female serial killer. As he tells the story of the murders and trials, Broomfield also uses his attempts to get an interview with Wuornos as she awaits trial, negotiating with her lawyer and a woman who had become her “adoptive mother,” as a means to explore deeper issues. In particular, he shows the commodification and commercialization of the case as various people attempt to profit from it. He films himself paying for an interview with Wournos, and also discovers that police officers involved in case were negotiating with commercial filmmakers, and that there were a television movie and two films in production, 15 Hollywood films being negotiated, as well as various books, talk shows, and documentaries. By becoming embroiled in the commercial process and revealing it, Broomfield illuminates one of the ways in which neoliberalism has seeped into and distorted the criminal justice process.

Although dominant ideas are reinforced and promoted through media representation, there has also remained a space for alternative voices and for resistance. This includes films that highlight potential wrongful convictions, as well as those that articulate a broader critique.

Individual cases have been the subject of investigative television journalism, including the distinguished British series Rough Justice (1982–2007), which did much to highlight and bring pressure to bear on many cases that resulted in the convictions being overturned. A feature-length documentary, Errol Morris’s acclaimed Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988), is the benchmark of this type. It explores the case against Randall Adams, convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas. The film uses naturalistic interviews with those involved in the case, along with highly stylized, expressionistic re-creations based on the testimonies. Morris’s approach has since been widely replicated but was novel at the time, deploying visual re-creation and representation as a form of evidence and scrutiny. Adams’s conviction was subsequently overturned, adding significantly to the film’s reputation.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, USA, 1996) concerned the conviction of three adolescents for the murder of three children in Arkansas, in a case in which it was claimed that the killings were part of a satanic ritual. The documentary probed the evidential weaknesses in the case but also focused on the social conditions in the community that could have led to a wrongful conviction, in particular that the accused, three young outsiders, were misfits in the socially conservative Bible belt. The film is notable as the first that prompted the establishment of an online community of supporters and activists, who agitated and engaged in protest on behalf of the defendants (Aguayo, 2013). The three convicted men were eventually released in 2011, not formally cleared but with sentences reduced to time served.

Andrew Jurecki’s documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (USA, 2015) took a different approach, focusing on a wealthy real estate heir who was implicated in the murders of his wife, who disappeared in 1982; a friend, in 2000; and a neighbor, in 2001. He was tried for the 2001 death and though he admitted that he had killed and dismembered the victim, he was cleared on grounds of self-defense. The film is based on some 20 hours of interviews with Durst, as well as interviews with others, and forensic examination of the case, including stylized re-creations in the mold of Thin Blue Line. Dramatically, Durst was arrested and charged with murder the day before the final episode was aired, an episode that included an interview in which Durst is confronted with incriminating evidence and subsequently retreats to the bathroom, where he makes a rambling statement, including a potential confession, apparently forgetting that he was wearing a microphone. The film departs from the wrongful-conviction films and instead investigates a wrongful acquittal. It also marks a shift from analyzing or presenting evidence to using the documentary process to create proof and condensing the time frame so that the documentary is no longer part of a prolonged search for justice but instead becomes an immediate agent of justice, as the criminal justice system responds to and is led by the film. The Jinx spawned imitators, including the 10-part online series Making a Murderer (Dir. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, USA, 2015), which concerns Steve Avery, who had served 18 years in prison on a sexual assault conviction before being exonerated and released, in 2003, but was subsequently convicted of a murder, in 2007. All 10 episodes were released on December 18, 2015, and within two weeks it generated a petition sent to the White House calling for Avery to receive a Presidential pardon that garnered over 100,000 supporters and therefore received an official response, declining jurisdiction as it was a state matter. Again, this illustrates the condensing of time, with the documentary generating popular support and forcing immediate official action. These films illustrate the growing intimacy between film, media, and criminal justice.

The conditions of neoliberalism have also led to broader social critique in documentary film. This has been described as a “golden age” in which documentary is the “flagship for a cinema of social engagement and distinctive vision” (Nichols, 2010, p. 2). It has been argued that documentary “animates the critique of neoliberal hegemony, contesting authority and catalyzing debate, and a good part of the new documentary audience represents a growing constituency of ideological resisters” (Chanan, 2007, p. 15). This can be seen in works that tackle the financial industry, such as Inside Job (Dir. Charles Ferguson, USA, 2010), or the economic system, such as Capitalism: A Love Story (Dir. Michael Moore, USA, 2009) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Dir. Alex Gibney, USA, 2005); those that address environmental harms, such as An Inconvenient Truth (Dir. Davis Guggenheim, USA, 2006) and The Age of Stupid (Dir. Franny Armstrong, U.K., 2009); and war crimes, such as Standard Operating Procedure (Dir. Errol Morris, USA, 2008) and Taxi to the Dark Side (Dir. Alex Gibney, USA, 2007). This approach has also been adopted in films about the criminal justice system.

Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond produced Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House (USA, 1991), filmed at Lewisberg, a federal maximum-security penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The narration explains that when the penitentiary system was established, there was optimism that prisoners could be reformed but that “no one believes any longer that criminals can reform themselves.” The institution is revealed to be one based on containment, failing to reform prisoners, lacking in legitimacy, and struggling to manage the violent population it holds. In their later film, Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A (USA, 2015), they focus on prisoners serving indeterminate sentences, claiming that this is one of every nine inmates and that there are “50,000 men, women and juveniles serving life without parole.” The film concentrates on the California State Prison’s Progressive Programming Facility, which offers inmates serving life sentences without parole the opportunity to live in a racially integrated, violence- and drug-free environment. The film examines the experience of serving a whole life sentence, which many contend is a form of death penalty. It includes an encounter with an 18-year-old man, clearly still in shock at his sentence, facing spending his entire adult life in prison. There are also interviews with inmates who have already spent many decades in prison, including one man who married and became a parent while in prison, and whose daughter has reached adulthood without knowing her father outside prison. The film shows how these men construct a life within the confines of the unit, finding meaning and surviving a life of imprisonment. In these two films, the Raymonds penetrate deeply into the human experience of imprisonment in contemporary America, asking profound questions about its values and effectiveness.

In The Farm: Angola, USA (Dir. Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau, and Jonathan Stack, USA, 2000), the issue of race in criminal justice is addressed. Louisiana State Penitentiary is set on 18,000 acres of land and houses 5,000 inmates, many of whom are serving long sentences and will never be released. One prisoner points out that 80% of the inmates are black, but 100% of the staff are white and explains, “It’s called Angola because the slaves that worked the fields came from there. Nothing has changed in the last 200 years. It’s the same people.” The concern that the mass imprisonment of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a re-creation of America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery has been the subject of academic commentary (Wacquant, 2000) focusing on the disproportionate impact on minority ethnic communities, particularly black men.

A more recent concern has been the use of informants in antiterrorism policing. This is addressed in (T)error (Dir. Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, USA, 2015; aired in the United Kingdom by the BBC under the title FBI Undercover), which follows one such informant on an operation. The film illuminates the background, motivations, and practices of informants, who are often recruited from among ex-prisoners and others on the margins of society. The film claims that their numbers have increased from 1,500 to 15,000, and they are an important but controversial mode of investigation. The film draws significant concern about this practice, in particular, questioning its reliability and whether it is simply a form of incitement and entrapment. It also shows that the mainstream media often celebrates the arrest of terrorist suspects giving the informants a credibility and legitimacy that the film contests.

There have been two particularly successful films that have taken a broad social critique of criminal justice: Bowling for Columbine (Dir. Michael Moore, USA, 2002) and The House I Live In (Dir. Andrew Jurecki, USA, 2012). Moore’s film received significant international acclaim, winning an Academy Award for best documentary feature, and was at the time the most financially successful nonfiction film at the box office. Ostensibly, it was concerned with American gun ownership and violent crime. It took a wide-ranging approach, examining historical roots, media representation, fear, political interests, financial interests, poverty and inequality, and racism. It was essentially a metacritique of power, domination, and their relationship to violence. Moore’s style was not that of the earnest essayist but more that of a pamphleteer, presenting polemical arguments in emotive, populist terms and attempting to spur action among as wide an audience as possible. The film ends with Moore using the media to pressurize the retailer Wal Mart to stop selling certain types of ammunition. It is intended as an inspiring affirmation of the power of activism.

The House I Live In is a polemical documentary attacking America’s “war on drugs,” which also garnered prestigious awards, including at the Sundance Film Festival. The main argument of the film is that the “war on drugs” has been ineffective in reducing drug misuse and has had a devastating impact on communities and criminal justice institutions (see Bennett, 2013). The film asserts that the impact has fallen particularly heavily on black and minority ethnic communities, with effects that reverberate through generations. It is also suggested that criminal justice institutions, including the police, courts, and prisons, are creaking under the economic and emotional weight of the work. In other words, the film represents a “crisis of legitimacy” (Cavadino, Dignan, & Mair, 2013, p. 22), in which the system has chronically failed to provide a sense of justice to those who operate it, those who are subject to it, and those on whose behalf it is provided. However, the film goes further to reveal how the “war on drugs” is deeply rooted in structures of power and inequality. It places the criminalization of drugs in its historical context, suggesting that it has been used in the past as a way of problematizing migrant and minority groups in America, such as the Chinese (opium), Mexicans (marijuana), and the urban black population (crack). These arguments are pushed to their furthest limit, by suggesting that the targeting of minority populations can be understood as having common features with the process through which communities move toward genocide. In one interview in the film, David Simon, the creator of television series The Wire (USA, 2002–2008), asserts that “the drug war is a Holocaust in slow motion.” The film also argues that the powerful are sustained by the War on Drugs, politically through punitive populism and economically through the wealth created as a result of the commercialization of criminal justice. The arguments that the film presents are familiar in critical criminology, concerned as they are with issues of power and inequality. However, the presentation of these arguments in an accessible, popular form is unusual, and Jarecki has intentionally crafted a space in which such arguments can be articulated and heard by an audience outside academia.

The contemporary documentary landscape is polarized. On one side are those criminal vérité or infotainment documentaries that reflect and reinforce the dominant ideology; on the other side are filmmakers who look at individual cases and social conditions, challenging the orthodoxy. This illustrates how issues of crime, criminal justice, and imprisonment are contested in real time not only in politics, academia, and professional practice but also in popular culture. The products of popular culture do not exist in isolation; instead, viewers engage with them, and they are distributed through institutions that themselves are implicated in wider webs of social power. Viewers exercise some agency; they pick what they watch, and their choices may reflect preconceived ideas and beliefs, but they also interpret and engage with the ideas represented (King & Maruna, 2006). However, the structure of the media is also important (Lam, 2014). It is worth noting that major broadcasters often air the more conservative films in prime-time slots on, while alternative voices are often pushed to the margins, generating an audience through diverse and dispersed outlets. The entangled nature of criminal justice, the media, and social power can be seen in this interrelationship.

The Evolution of Documentaries about Crime and Criminal Justice

Crime and punishment have long held a prominent place in popular culture, and it was no surprise that as film developed, criminal justice became a regular subject matter. Documentaries have a particular cachet owing to their claims to presenting truth and authenticity. The academic analysis of criminal justice in popular culture has often been concerned with effects. In particular, how they can shape in one way or another the views, attitudes, and actions of the public, politicians, and practitioners. There is, however, a different way in which the significance of documentary films can be understood, drawing on cultural criminology and the role of media in society.

This brief history of documentaries about criminal justice has traced a number of broad movements that characterize the history of the nonfiction film. In particular it focuses on the early years in which cinema found its footing, moving from an idiosyncratic novelty, then replicating existing cultural forms, before finding its own conventions. As fiction film flourished, nonfiction film was largely sustained through newsreels. As innovative filmmakers developed feature-length documentaries, the power of nonfiction film started to be recognized and institutionalized by states in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a situation that persisted through the Second World War and the immediate postwar era. Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s was documentary film liberated and took on a more radical form, in particular through direct cinema and cinéma-vérité. These approaches, which remain influential today, shaped a form of nonfiction film that promised greater intimacy and access to its subject matter. With the rise of neoliberalism, documentary film has become commodified as a product in a diverse and competitive marketplace, but has also responded to the political hegemony of the era. Many documentaries reflect and reinforce dominant ideas, while others critique and challenge those ideas.

This history reflects that documentaries about criminal justice reveal a complex interplay of different factors. There is a role for individual agents, such as prominent filmmakers whose work has stood the test of time or has influenced the field. There have also been institutional factors, including the technology of film, notably the development of portable, affordable equipment, but also there have been changes in the production process, including sources of funding and distribution. The third factor, which has been emphasized, is that of ideology. Cultural products, including documentaries about criminal justice, are created and consumed within a contested ideological context, and their meanings or significance can only be understood by reference to that. As a result, these documentaries are important medium for understanding and influencing the vital institutions of the criminal justice system, but also the wider social context in which they are situated.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

There are a number of books that give a good account of the history of documentary film. Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film helped to establish the major milestones and canon of documentary film. It is a highly regarded and widely used text that set out the orthodox periodization of documentary development, drawing upon a range of examples. The second edition has a wider frame of reference, taking in non-Western documentary history. Betsy McLane’s A New History of Documentary Film is an accessible account, particularly to be applauded for its attention to the changes in technology, production, and distribution as vital to understanding developments in the field. The Politics of Documentary by Michael Chanan focuses on the ideological context and content of the films, although it is a more complex historical overview, its critical engagement makes it an enlightening read.

For an overview of the key issues in documentary film, including definitions, techniques, and controversies, Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary is widely regarded as the essential textbook. Many books examine the issues in documentary filmmaking, but one of the shortest, Paul Ward’s Documentary: The Margins of Reality, is among the most interesting. It engages with documentary as a living and evolving form, being constantly expanded and challenged from the margins, where hybrid forms and new ideas emerge.

The relationship between cultural representation and criminal justice is the core concern of Cultural Criminology by Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Jock Young. It is the foundation text for a growing branch of criminology, an approach that explores the entangled relationship between criminal justice and culture, including media representation. A good introduction and overview is Yvonne Jewkes’s book Media and Crime. A number of texts give more specific attention to the interconnectedness among film and television and criminal justice. The work of Ray Surette is particularly important; his most significant work is Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice. In it, he sets out the concept of the “social construction of reality,” as a means of explaining how public discourse about crime is shaped by media representation. Representing Order by Richard Ericson, Patricia Baranek, and Janet Chan analyzes the role of new media, in particular, as a tool of social order, an analysis that is equally applicable to other forms of media representation. These are essential texts for anyone exploring the field. There is also a series of impressive books that examine the representation of crime and criminal justice in film and television, illustrating how they reflect academic discourse and influence the public debate. Nicole Rafter’s Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society and Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture by Nicole Rafter and Michelle Brown are particularly good examples. Both draw on a wide range of examples, offering close readings of popular films as a way of illuminating the key issues of how crime is represented and how these representations then influence the real world. A more polemical approach is adopted by David Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan in Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama. They make a case for the reform potential of popular culture, arguing that rather than encouraging punitive approaches, film and television can enable viewers to adopt more critical and humane attitudes. A more dystopian perspective is advanced by Mike Nellis, a consistently provocative and fascinating analyst of criminal justice in popular culture. In his essay “Future Punishment in American Science Fiction Films,” he argues that such films imagine punitive forms of punishment, softening up viewers for regressive measures including the use of technology as a means of control.

Further Reading

Each of the major periods discussed in this article is covered in significant texts. The early period of cinema is becoming more visible, as archives are being digitized and made available online. Alison Griffiths’s article, “The Careceral Aesthetic: Seeing Prison on Film during the Early Cinema Period” and Vanessa Toulmin’s “An Early Crime Film Rediscovered: Mitchell and Kenyon’s ‘Arrest of Goudie’” are excellent descriptions of the early years of the medium and how films had a different form and function than that which prevailed after the formalization of film as a medium.

The institutional period of documentary is particularly well covered in the United Kingdom, where John Grierson remains a towering figure. His life and work are covered extensively in John Grierson: Life, Contribution, Influence by Jack Ellis.

Direct cinema and cinéma-vérité have excited significant attention and in many ways, continue to cast a shadow over documentary film. The movement itself has been discussed in texts such as Ali Issari and Doris Paul’s What Is Cinéma-Vérité? and Dave Saunders’s Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties.

The contemporary relationship between crime and media is the central concern of the international journal Crime Media Culture, while Studies in Documentary Film is the leading journal in its field.


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