Filmmaker Amy Berg on seeking justice and the power of the human spirit

Watching an Amy Berg documentary can feel a bit like a punch to the gut. Or at least, that was the sense I had when I first watched her debut documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, back in the mid-noughties. But then, such is the power of great filmmaking: your breath catching in your throat, hands to your face, wrought with anger, disbelief, disgust, the emotional beating catching you off guard but not allowing you to tear yourself from the screen.

Amy’s films have been described by critics as akin to thrillers, and it’s true – the emotional range and edge-of-your-seat tension could be straight out of fiction, but the disturbing truth is that they’re all too real. Since the release of Deliver Us From Evil, Amy has gone on to become one of the most well-respected and trusted voices in documentary filmmaking, with her work spanning harrowing subject matter, including child abuse, paedophilia, religion, and wrongful conviction. In the wrong hands this could be a recipe for disaster, but Amy’s masterful storytelling – and stoic pursuit of the truth – has meant that these cases of injustice and the victims at their core have found huge audiences that are willing to listen. And while there is little that can undo the atrocities suffered by those at the heart of Amy’s documentaries, the power of film is such that it can ignite conversations that help lead to justice.

But Amy’s path to becoming an award-winning filmmaker wasn’t always so clear-cut. “I took a lot of different routes before I ultimately started making films,” the New York-based director says from her office at Disarming Films, the company she set up in 2006 to forge social justice through film. Growing up in a liberal family in the San Fernando Valley in California, Amy spent her twenties working with bands in the music industry, and it wasn’t until her now 21-year-old son Spencer was born that she took a step back to reevaluate her career. She went back to school, took night classes in writing and journalism, and landed a job in CBS News’ investigative department as a researcher. “I was a cinephile, and I knew that I wanted to make films, so I was constantly trying to push the envelope with how I was working in the news, which was not exactly what they were expecting,” she says, laughing.

Little did she know then that the story that would make her name was just around the corner. “I got lucky,” she says. “I was working on a story about the Catholic Church at CBS, and then after a few years I left to go to CNN, and I was still working on the story. I was given Oliver O’ Grady’s phone number by an attorney who I had interviewed for another story. I had maybe a two-year on-and-off communication with him, and he eventually agreed to be interviewed by me. CNN didn’t want the story, so that was my moment where I realised that I had a jump-off point, and I decided to make a film with the access that I had to him. After that, I didn’t stop.”

Oliver O’ Grady, a priest in the Catholic Church from the early 70s, became the focal point of Deliver Us From Evil and through his on-camera interviews with Amy, he confessed to numerous counts of raping, abusing and molesting up to 25 children, many of which were covered up by the church. Including footage with victims and their families, it’s a sobering, heart-wrenching watch and a documentary that couldn’t be ignored – in 2006, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Six years later came West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson. The critically-acclaimed documentary followed the wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in the mid-90s. Their deaths were considered part of a satanic ritual, and the three teenagers – outcasts in their Bible Belt community for listening to heavy metal and not adhering to the area’s strict Christian mentality – served 18 years in prison before being released in 2011.

She then released An Open Secret in 2014, which dealt with child sex abuse in Hollywood, and directed her first feature film, Every Secret Thing, the same year. In 2015, she released two more documentaries: Prophet’s Prey, which delves into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its convicted child molester president Warren Jeffs; and – in a change of direction – Janis: Little Girl Blue, which explores the short life of Janis Joplin.

It’s well-known that documentaries can, and do, take years in development but according to Amy, the starting point always has to be the same: passion. “A project has to speak to me on a deep level. I have to be really moved by something,” she says. It’s from there that the grafting starts. “It’s about getting all the facts together from every potential aspect of the story and getting as close to the bottom as I can on everything,” she continues. “You can always tell when you’re watching a film if it doesn’t feel thoroughly researched. It’s challenging – especially with the wrongful conviction cases, as you’re usually dealing with the absence of information rather than being able to take something all the way to the end.”

Of course, each viewer brings their own principles, beliefs and opinions to a documentary, and Amy herself has been shaped by her own moral code. Surely staying objective must sometimes be difficult? “It is a real challenge,” she concedes. “We’re all human. My objective will be different to someone else’s, based on my background, my ideals and my ethics. But I try not to take people out of context, and I try to understand the heart of their story and take that into account throughout filming and editing. Seeing how viewpoints conflict and match with each other is always the way to make the story as understandable as possible.”

In recent years, documentaries have surged in popularity, and with the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, they’re now ubiquitous. But we’d all do well to remember that while, yes, they’re entertainment, they are still in the business of truth-telling, of picking up the metaphorical rock and revealing what’s hiding underneath. And now, in our ‘fake news’ era, with the United States being run by a man trading on racism, misogyny and inhumanity, the material is the richest it has been in recent memory. At the time of writing, the Boston Globe is taking the unprecedented move of galvanising newspapers across America to unite in publishing editorials that decry the President’s attacks on the media and press freedom. We’re living through times and acts that should have been relegated to history books, so how does this affect a filmmaker’s decision on how to effectively tell stories moving forward? Amy pauses and considers her answer. “That is a really good, but really difficult question for me, I have to say,” she starts. “I’m currently making a film about the women’s movement that I started just after the election. It’s been really exhausting and painful and is definitely one of the more difficult films I’ve ever made – and I’ve worked on cases involving paedophilia, abuse and wrongful convictions. But this, for me, is so hard because we’re watching a train wreck,” she says. “It’s difficult to turn off from it. I’m trying not to go on Facebook; I’m trying not to look at my phone in the morning because it’s really upsetting. The world is changing so rapidly, and a lot of it comes down to the racism that is at the core of the Western world. I haven’t even been able to watch the news about families being separated at the border because it brings me to tears. Growing up in California this was not an issue; we had such a mixed culture. To see what is happening now is really, really crazy to me.

“You have a responsibility as a filmmaker to stay informed, but what’s happening on the front lines now has no rhyme or reason to it. It is difficult to discern where we go next,” she says.

Outside of the political turmoil that has gripped the nation, Amy’s industry, too, has under come fire – and rightfully so. Starting with Harvey Weinstein last year, the abuses of the entertainment industry’s leading men have come to light one after another. “I think that there has been a progressive movement towards where we are now,” Amy says. “We probably should have been here a long time ago, but at least we’re here now. The #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful, and although it feels too late for the thousands of women affected, the acknowledgment of this abuse and the persecution of the perpetrators is of great importance. I do believe this moment has uncovered decades of an inequity of power and is going to continue to forge new opportunities for women in film.

“It is unacceptable to be racist or sexist in any industry. The entertainment industry is front and centre right now, but this happens in every industry and it needs to be called out. We live in a patriarchal society, and our generation maybe won’t reap the benefits, but hopefully our children will.”

Amy is also working on another documentary, one that will be familiar to the thousands of us that became obsessed with the Serial podcast back in 2014. The film will follow the case of Adnan Syed, the Pakistani teenager convicted of the murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. Amy has been working on the film since 2015, when producers Jemima Khan, Henrietta Conrad of Instinct Productions and Working Title Films’ Eric Fellner in the UK came to her with the rights to the story. She couldn’t say no. “I had been a big fan of the podcast and was really confused about the case, which made me want to dig deeper,” she says. “I personally was not convinced, based on the evidence that was given in the podcast and in the trial, that the right person was in prison. There is a lot to investigate because the evidence was so flimsy. I thought there was a whole world more to look into, and that’s what I’ve done.

“The podcast was genius though, because it showed you how frustrating the legal system can be and what else could go wrong for Adnan. I have that kind of a mind where I have to line things up to make sense and the more you try to do that on this case, the more it just doesn’t. I’m not suggesting that we know exactly what happened, but I think that because of Serial, and how it left the door open, we were able to figure out a lot of things. We also spoke to people that weren’t necessarily ready to speak at the time of the podcast, so we’ve interviewed pretty much everyone involved.”

Whether helping to uncover evidence to overturn convictions, recounting the painful stories of sexual abuse survivors, or looking into the prejudices at work in the American justice system, each of Amy’s documentaries is a lesson in tenacity, that grit we are all capable of, and it’s a strength that she has learned not to take for granted.

“The human spirit is precious,” she says. “Through filmmaking I continue to learn about the forgotten and unacknowledged voices. The spirit can be greatly tested, and often that does strengthen the person. But that said, the cost of discrimination and unfair treatment can be devastating. The fact that privilege plays such a great role in injustice and discrimination is maddening because keeping people down only brings the entire system down. We are better than this.”

“Every person I have encountered has taught me about my spirit, my patience (or lack of it), my passion, my fears. This is the human condition: to compare ourselves to others, and I hope I change every time I make a film by being more aware of what can be.”

The Case Against Adnan Syed will air on HBO and Sky Atlantic in early 2019.

wordsHolly Fraser
photographyOlivia Fougeirol