Joe Berlinger has made a career of heart-hitting, intellectually provocative documentaries that also manage to be immensely entertaining. The many films he has directed, such as the Oscar-nominated "Paradise Lost" series he crafted alongside long-time colleague Bruce Sinofsky, manage to balance being educational and engaging, providing avenues for advocacy while rarely succumbing to polemicism.
His latest solo effort, "Whitey: The United States of America V. James J Bulger," tells the tangled tale of James "Whitey" Bulger, the convicted kingpin of South Boston's notorious Winter Hill Gang. Bulger's exploits were mined for Nicholson's character in "The Departed," and the figure of Whitey seems the stuff of Hollywood concoction -- street thug, gang leader, community Robin Hood, brother of a former State Senator, and fugitive on the run for a decade-and-a-half.
Moviefone Canada spoke with Berlinger about the challenges of dealing with such a complicated narrative in a fixed amount of time, the contributions of this film to Bulger's own desire for mythmaking, and the role of the filmmaker in providing perspective while still being sensitive to the many conflicting points of view.
Moviefone: What was your own connection to the Bulger case?
Joe Berlinger: I have, as you know, a penchant for crime stories and the criminal justice system and I was completely fascinated by the fact that this guy was allowed to rule a criminal empire for 25 years and not even be stopped for a traffic ticket.
I've always been fascinated by the criminal history and the corruption that allowed him to operate. As a media maker myself, I can think of no other figure, at least a criminal figure, who has so passed into public consciousness in the cultural myth-making machine like Whitey. We're on a first-name basis with the guy and over a dozen books have been written about him.
For these many years of fascination, it never occurred to me to make a documentary about him because I thought with all of this media, what do I have to offer? How could I set myself apart? When he was finally apprehended, [I thought] I [could] bring something to the table and actually explore both of these themes ... to take the present tense of the trial and use it as a springboard, and use it to examine not just the 30 years of history, but how a myth is made.
In doing so, you have to be careful not to simply perpetuate the narrative Whitey wishes you to present.
Bulger was a vicious, brutal killer who deserves to be behind bars. I was very concerned about perpetuating the myth, but not by presenting Bulger's point of view. [His]point of view shatters a number of the myths about how he was allowed to operate. I was concerned about using some of the voices who've written about certain things that may or may not actually be accurate in hindsight.
I had to juggle and really balance what is the myth and how are we going to ask the provocative questions that might shatter the myth, chief among them, was he an informant or not. The defense presents a very compelling case, that he actually might not have been an informant. That story was sold to the media and the truth of the matter may be much more sinister. The second level of corruption that hasn't really been talked about is that if Bulger was not an informant, it's just a myth that has been sold to the public by the Department of Justice, by the FBI.
I have to make it really clear that I don't know if this is true of not, I don't possess the knowledge to say that this is accurate, but I'm also saying that these are questions that were not allowed to have their full airing at the trial. Perhaps the goal [of the Justice Department] is a noble one, to bring down the mafia in New England, but the tactics that were used produced a lot of moral ambiguity, in my opinion.
From your crime docs to the superb "Under African Skies" about Paul Simon's "Graceland" record, you have an ability to tell multiple sides of a story while still very much presenting your own point of view as a filmmaker.
Some corners of the documentary world are confused by my films because they don't have a singular point of view, but I don't think life has a singular point of view.
The media tends to reduce things to black and white. Life is much more nuanced and much more gray, and that's why I've taken the controversial position of this film. I truly think that I'm giving all sides their say without taking a position other than what rises in all of my films as a fundamental truth, which is that something deeply disturbing went on in our institutions of justice and these questions have not been answered.
This is a man who was enabled by the very institutions that were prosecuting him, and the families of the victims and anyone who cares about retaining trust in our institutions need to have answers. So that is the fundamental truth that rises to the top without taking sides.
Despite his claims about getting to the truth, Whitey chose not to testify. On one hand, that was a result of the Judge and prosecution limiting what he could testify about. As Whitey's lawyers present it, this is the Government preventing a defence, and silencing those that would undermine the credibility of the FBI and the Justice Department. How do you come down on this argument?
His point of view was that for him to take the stand without the benefit of a foundation having been laid at trial by calling certain witnesses and allowing certain of his defense claims to have been presented, it was a suicide mission to go up on the stand. Every time his defence attorney would have asked a question about the immunity or any of the areas that the government deemed unacceptable, he would have started the question, objection, sustained, and then by the third time, the judge would say to the defence attorney: "Say it again and I'll hold you in contempt of court."
I believe he should have been allowed to present any defence he wanted to present. That's a fundamental core value. I'm not necessarily in agreement, but I'm disappointed he didn't take the stand because there's a certain way of introducing information even if you can't fully introduce it. Any defendant, no matter how heinous their crimes, deserves a full and meaningful defence, and there's no reason in my mind that the government limited its inquiry into these areas.
"Whitey" is playing at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival on various days (visit link for schedule), and will get a theatrical release in June 2014. Additionally, the documentary will be broadcast on CNN later this year.