Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.
Four year before they made the excellent Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – a documentary that spawned two sequels, and is often held up as one of the best true crime docs in history, Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky made Brother’s Keeper – a “true crime” doc in a lower key than the other film. It focused on the case of Delbert Ward – and his brothers. They lived in Munnsville, New York – a small town of only a few hundred people – one of those places where everyone knows everyone. And everyone did know the Ward boys – four brothers who didn’t bathe very often, came to town riding a couple of tractors, and basically kept to themselves on their large farm. While no one in town could rightly be called friends of the Ward boys – they weren’t enemies either – everyone basically kept to themselves. That is until the second oldest Ward boy – Bill – was found dead in his bed one morning – and Delbert was charged with his murder.
The Ward boys are not very smart – although, whether Delbert and the others actually suffered from intellectual disabilities, or whether they simply choose to remain mainly cut off from modern life, and hence no wise to its wise, is open for debate. Bill, the brother who winds up dead, had been suffering for a while – coughing and wheezing, complaining of pain in various places, etc. There is no evidence that any of them ever went to a doctor – so when Bill wound up dead, everyone assumed it was natural causes. But the cops find some evidence that confuses them – there’s debate as to whether a pillow was used to smother Bill, and some strange results on the autopsy. The police haul Delbert in for questioning – while there were four brothers, there were only two beds, and Delbert shared with Bill. They get a “confession” out of Delbert – but did they trick it out of him, coax it out of him – bully someone who wasn’t smart enough to know his rights to confess to something he didn’t do? The state at first floats the idea that it was a mercy killing – and then starts talking about something darker, and more perverted than that.
If you’re thinking this is going to be a documentary about a small town divided – you’d be wrong – while a few people do wonder if Delbert really did kill Bill as a mercy killing, no one in town wants to see him go to jail for it. They hold fundraisers for his legal defense fund – and the surviving Ward brothers become more accepted in the community than ever before. The case draws national attention – the filmmakers show the brothers watching themselves in a segment with Connie Chung for example. But what Berliner and Sinofsky capture is deeper than those segments on the show – because they stay there for so long, that everyone ends up simply accepting their presence. One of the other brothers, Lymon, is painfully shy in almost all social situations – but eventually he is able to open up to the camera – at least somewhat. The same is true for Delbert – who’s more articulate with the filmmakers than he is anywhere else.
The filmmakers also capture this small town brilliantly – and the attitudes in it, and why the police officers and the prosecutors – both from “the city” (what city? Who know, who cares) never do understand. I do worry that we’re going to spend the next four (or God forbid 8) years comparing everything to Trump, and Trump’s America – but you can certainly see the attitude many talk about contributing to the rise of Trump in this film. The locals talk about how everyone from the city thinks they’re all a bunch of idiot hicks – and they look on them, and think they can walk all over them without noticing. The prosecutor describes Delbert and the rest of the Wards as “outcasts” in their community – and he may not really be wrong – but the community would rather have their own outcasts, than someone from the city. The feeling that led to Trump’s rise didn’t spring up overnight – you can certainly see that in this film from 25 years ago. Yet, you can also see the humanity in rural people – some of whom are more open minded than you’d think (as one older man says even if there was sex going on between the brothers, who cares – it’s none of his business).