If all filmmaking is struggle, none struggle harder than the documentary director who: searches for truth and injustice; raises the money to expose it; fights to escape the common result of barely leaving a festival footprint before vanishing; and then starting all over. Joe Berlinger has fared better than most. An argument could be made he and ex-partner Bruce Sinofsky helped reassemble the band Metallica, and it’s indisputable they kept one member of the so-called West Memphis 3 from being executed and the other two from dying in jail for the murder of three Arkansas children prosecution said was part of a satanic ritual, though it offered no physical evidence.
Berlinger’s gone solo as Magnolia this weekend released Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger. Hollywood loves the story of the ruthless Boston mob boss who used his station as protected FBI informant to build a criminal empire and get rid of rivals. Johnny Depp plays Bulger in an upcoming Warner Bros film, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are percolating another, and Jack Nicholson played a composite in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed. Berlinger takes an unexpected path into a familiar story. What if, as Bulger and his lawyers claim, he was not a rat, but a pawn to obscure widespread law enforcement corruption? Berlinger chases that thread while following survivors of Bulger murder victims who sought truth when Bulger was finally captured and put on trial. Here, Berlinger talks about the documentary life, how luck plays a part in great docus, and about processing the shocking death of Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul.
DEADLINE: The Paradise Lost trilogy you and Bruce Sinofsky made kept Damien Echols from being executed, and Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin from dying in prison. What compelled you to make a film that explores the alibi of a notorious criminal like Bulger?
JOE BERLINGER: The film in no way is a Bulger apology. Bulger was a vicious, brutal killer who did terrible things, but he was enabled by the government, he was allowed to kill. You know the accepted story about Bulger that people have written books and made movies about; he was an FBI informant. It’s bad enough as an FBI informant, FBI agents look the other way and in some cases aided and abetted some murders by giving him information. This is the first time Bulger has ever been heard from. Despite the glut of media, the dozen books, the Affleck-Damon movie, the fictionalized version in The Departed, as the film unfolds you see there is very strong evidence he may have not been an informant at all.