"People come to our film expecting some kind of true crime story but that's not what we were attempting to do," said 30-year-old filmmaker Joe Berlinger of the award-winning documentary "Brother's Keeper." The strange saga of Delbert Ward, an illiterate 59-year-old dairy farmer in Upstate New York accused in 1990 of murdering his brother in the bed they'd shared for 50 years, the film, which opened Wednesday for a one-week run at the Nuart, does indeed offer a good deal more than your standard crime story.
In addition to leaving a question mark around the issue of Delbert's guilt or innocence, "Brother's Keeper," which Berlinger co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky, opens up several complex areas of debate. Among them: the differing codes of behavior governing city and country life; the inaccurate, stereotyped beliefs each realm has about the other; community loyalty; incest; the socializing effects of media and the manner in which we acquire language.
"We're not presenting the official version of Delbert's trial," said Sinofsky, 35, who met Berlinger in 1986 while both were working for seminal documentary filmmakers the Maysles Brothers. "We're simply mirroring what we saw going on in that community. We tried to keep our opinions out of the film and let the participants express their own feelings."
Added Berlinger who, like Sinofsky, was mesmerized by the story of Delbert Ward when they stumbled across it in a New York newspaper, "by the time the film closes, the question of Delbert's guilt or innocence has become irrelevant because you've become involved with these peoples' lives."
Daily life in Munnsville (pop. 499) where the story unfolds is oddly fascinating and should strike the sophisticated audience that supports documentary films as strangely exotic. But even within this tiny backwoods town untouched by time, the four unschooled Ward brothers stand out as certified eccentrics. Ranging in age from 59 to 71, the Wards are all bachelors who live without indoor plumbing or heat (this is ostensibly the reason why Delbert and Bill shared a bed). Living on a 100-acre parcel of land that's been in their family for two generations, they tend their herd of 28 cows by day, watch TV at night, subsist on approximately $7,000 a year, and live in shocking squalor.
Needless to say, these men have a deep suspicion of city folk, and when Sinofsky, Berlinger and cameraman Douglas Cooper arrived at their door convinced Delbert's trial was the perfect subject for their first film, the Wards took some convincing.
"We went up and just hung out with them for several weekends before we even started shooting," said Sinofsky, who made the self-financed film (budgeted at $500,000) with Berlinger on weekends while both maintained full-time jobs at Maysles Films. "When we first got to Munnsville there were some high walls we had to get over, and we also arrived with our own set of negative ideas about what we were going to encounter. We'd heard all these weird stories about the Wards--the case against Delbert was based on the idea that his brother's death was a mercy killing, but there were also unsubstantiated allegations that it was a gay-sex-turned-violent situation--and we were expecting these 'Deliverance'-north types. However, the minute you meet these men and see how innocent and childlike they are, it's hard not to feel affection for them."
"We all have cliched ideas about what country people are like and one of the central intentions of the film was to break down those stereotypes," Berlinger added. "I think by the end of the film the viewer has become more respectful of these people and that the success of the film rests on the intimacy we were able to establish with them--we felt a real responsibility to this community.
"I've seen too many documentary filmmakers go in and strip-mine whatever world it is they're exploring," Berlinger continued. "Films like 'Roger and Me'--that's ambush journalism and there's something mean-spirited about it. I think we left this community better than we found it because for the first time these people were given a voice. Nobody had ever asked their opinions about anything and suddenly they're speaking publicly about the justice system, homosexuality and community loyalty."
Indeed, one of the most intriguing subtexts in "Brother's Keeper" is the concise chronicle it offers of a sequestered community becoming media savvy--over the course of the film we see the people of Munnsville's distrust of the big-city interlopers melt into pleasure at the attention being lavished on them (the high point of the Munnsville media circus was a visit from Connie Chung).