AUGUST SPOTLIGHT: AMANI MARTIN CONVERSES WITH ROD BLACKHURST

A newer member to The Hexagon Initiative, Amani Martin, whose recent credits include the true crime docu-series THE LAST DEFENSE, converses with another filmmaker Rod Blackhurst, whose directorial credits include the acclaimed true crime feature AMANDA KNOX. They discuss the development of relationships with subjects, gaining trust and of course, The Hex.

Amani:                  

I’m a relatively new member to The Hexagon Initiative and actually, I didn’t immediately see the utility for me; I have already had a pretty good network. It sounded really cool, I was just trying to figure out whether it was something that would be cool for me. But when I met with Ryan and he spoke about some of the members, including you - the director of the Amanda Knox documentary - I thought  to myself, “oh, I love that film.” That intrigued me; the caliber of the members. So, whether or not you knew it, Rod, you are a part of the reason I’m here in the first place.

Rod: 

Thank you! Those are some kind words. I’m glad to be a part of The Hexagon Initiative too. And I would agree with your initial reaction. Noah Lang is one of my best friends and closet collaborators and so when he first told me about Hex, I was all in, because of him and my respect for him and what he does and is involved with. But still I would agree with what you said. I kept wondering “how will this benefit me”… even if I know that’s a misguided way to think about this… or maybe anything. Once I stopped thinking that way, or wondering that, I just embraced the aspect of the Initiative where I just don't worry about who's who or who's done what. It's just like, "Oh, there's a conversation that's happening," or, "Somebody needs some advice, somebody has a question, maybe I can help."  And in that way it’s a sort of a fascinating “organization” . . . and I don't even know if organization is the right word.  Maybe it's called an initiative because I think most of the times one is kind of looking to everyone in a group and at what they've accomplished, and one is just approaching the “network” differently. There’s an underlying aspect to the term “initiative” where at least for me, I just kind of participate, I don't even think about what it is or who it is – it spurs movement, engagement, energy, and thinking. Plus when I heard everyone using the euphemism I’d been using for decades - “a rising tide raises all boats” – I just new there would be some synergy to be found and embraced. 

Amani:                   

Yeah, you said organization, I actually thought you were going to say organism because it has it's whole kind of life and it kind of reforms and reshapes. It seems like that everyone is kind of participating in it in good faith and with warmth,  and with love and generosity. So, it's this working, constantly reshaping entity.

Rod:                         

I would agree. It exists and moves and grows and expands, and I think because we're all involved in whatever our own ways are, whatever degree we can participate or be involved, it just kind of happens.

Amani:                   

I'm actually gonna go back to Amanda Knox. One, is I really like the film, but, also, [when I first joined THI] I ended up talking about [the film] a lot because I was in the middle of production on, what was for me, my first true crime project.

I was directing a series currently on ABC called The Last Defense. It is two current death row stories, one in Texas, one in Oklahoma. There were a few things that attracted me to the project. One is that Viola Davis was one of the executive producers and two, I have been thinking a lot over the last year, about our political climate, criminal justice system; shortcomings and failings; the inequities in that system. When I got a call to work on this project, I jumped on it.

 Photo courtesy of Amani Martin

Photo courtesy of Amani Martin

My TV background is entirely in cable, I'd never done a network show, so I was excited to give that a shot. Even though I'm usually really critical of re-creation in docs, when they're done well, I love them. I had a list of ten films that, with visual elements [that] were fictional, embedded in the non-fiction narrative. Those were good references for us. Amanda Knox was one of them.

I also want to say that I’ve been to Perugia, where the  Amanda Knox story took place.  I thought she was guilty [of two murders] until I saw your film. It was the first thing that exonerated her in my mind. 

I'm curious, [as] that project evolved, how it came about. It's a great subject, how were you able to get her to come and sit with you and spend time and relax?

Rod:

First of all, thank you for the kind words about the film and I'm glad that it was able to inspire something in your own process. That's always cool to hear.

The potential for the project fell into my lap in 2011. Amanda was still incarcerated in Perugia, and I was given potential access to her as a documentary subject should she be released. At the time, she had been in prison for about four years, and the story had, obviously, been headlines and tabloid fodder for those four years.

I thought for sure at that time that somebody like Errol Morris . . . was already probably making a documentary about the story. For me, the first thing that popped into my head was, this is a crazy story that's about something far greater than the crime itself. For starters, I think it's unfairly and unfortunately called her story. It is the Meredith Kercher murder case. Even the way that the conversation was at the time, it had become about Amanda Knox, and was no longer about the crime itself or justice or closure. It was a tragic event that had become entertainment or at least turned into entertainment by many. At the time I was looking at the story and saying, "this is all crazy." This is crazy that this thing is happening and that there are these people that are caught up inside this story that's been made about them. They've all been turned into characters taking part in some ways in a strange piece of theatre about their real lives, yet they don't have any control over their identity or the way that they're understood or seen. And they're living inside of this thing that everyone feels like they have an opinion or a thought on or wants to talk about. 

I was just immediately, I don't know if the word ‘sad’ is appropriate, but I definitely didn’t have a good feeling about any of it. I was just so curious about what it must be like to be living inside an event like this. The story and trial, at that point, had been going on for four years, didn't seem to have an end in sight and had the twist and turns of a Hitchcockian nightmare. 

I was immediately drawn to the narrative aspects of it; the way that the story itself has been turned into entertainment. This way the story was presented to us in the press, turned into entertainment, was done so because that moved the needle in the news cycle. The story that was being concocted by all these outsiders looking in was unfortunately so much fantastic and entertaining than the objective facts and the objective truth. 

I think from a storytelling and filmmaking standpoint, the first thing that I thought would be compelling to talk about would be identity, and what it's like to have your identity taken from you. What its like to have a new identity thrust upon you by outsiders, pundits, journalists and on and on and then in turn have that outsider’s impression and ideas continually define you forever and ever. While some of that may still be in the film, that’s ultimately not what the film ended up being about. Because of course, and you know this too, that as you start to make something, you learn a lot about it and all the projects around it, and it changes. And that’s very much the case here too. The story and subject reveals itself to you over time, and your responsibility is to accept that, and to follow that as it evolves and becomes something different than what you first set out to make or find.

Amani:

I thought that it was a piece of commentary or cultural examination, I think we want to try and see these whodunits, and this wasn't a whodunit. It was a "Why'd this happen to these people?"

It's really interesting. In thinking about the project that I just got off, it's two death row stories. There were hundreds of cases that were looked at. Then it came down to two, and we wanted there to be a balance. The first case, the one that's running now, is a woman named Darlie Routier from Texas convicted of killing her two kids. There's strong evidence that someone had broken into the house, an intruder, and killed the kids, and she was [elsewhere] during this whole event.

What ended up happening was, because she was a Dallas suburban mom, she'd gotten breast implants, and she had the peroxide blonde hair, and there was local coverage of her celebrating at her son's grave site in way that seemed frivolous, I guess, to a lot of people in the public. The prosecutor was able to make her out to be this woman who just cared about her appearance and could not be caring about her kids.

So, that was story one, where basically who she was, and who everybody who knew her thought she was co-opted by a prosecutor. It's very effective in capturing the narrative. In the story I directed, which is about an African-American man in Oklahoma, who was twenty at a time where gang violence was prevalent in the area, even though there was no strong evidence that he was even at the scene of the crime, he was painted as a gang banger, when the reality was that he was a two sport star athlete in high school. He had close to a 4.0 GPA. He was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma on academic scholarship, but that, in both cases, once you're incarcerated – you’re no longer in control of your narrative.

And part of, I think, what filmmakers do is give [people] agency by restoring their voice.

Rod:

That’s very true. Amanda wrote a book called "Waiting To Be Heard,” and it's precisely about that. The interesting thing to me is that everybody that had been a part of this case was waiting to be heard; not just Amanda and Raffaele; but also the prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini.

I don't know whom to call the protagonist or the antagonist in the film. You have two sides of the courtroom that have both felt like no one has understood them and their world views and no one is taking the time to listen to their experience or their version of it.

I think it was very important to give all these people agency in talking about themselves. And they were all afforded the ability to see the film before it was released. None of the subjects had any editorial control – but the were each given the ability to make sure that their words were represented accurately and not manipulated in anyway. 

Before the public was able to see these portraits of themselves, I wanted each of them to say, "Yes. Those are things I said. This is me." And all the subjects watched the film and said, "Yes. That's me. That’s who I am and how I see myself. Thank you."

Amani:                   

Wow. Right.

Rod:                         

Giuliano Mignini specifically said, "I learned so much about Amanda for the first time, her character and the type of woman that she is." 

And she said the same thing about him, that she understood the way that his upbringing and his connections to Perugia [influenced] the way he views his role in society as a man, a member of the Catholic church and all these things. She understood him differently for the first time. The fact that the documentary afforded each of them that still boggles my mind because I had no idea that would be the case.

Amani:                   

That's awesome. You know, when we talk to people, specifically outside of our fields, there's always a focus on getting awards and recognition in different ways [to define success]. But I've found, like what you experienced, you'll take that forever.  And in terms of building of your esteem as a filmmaker and human being, that you were able to do something so immense for those characters, did that make you feel good? 

Rod:

That's an interesting question. Yes. I think for each of these people, the film offered some closure to this saga. And not closure in the sense that this case or story will unfortunately continue to define them forever and ever.  Because I think if you were to look any of these people up, you'd see thousands of hits on Google and web pages and Wikipedia, etc . . . and that's going to follow them all around forever. 

But again, I think, but don’t know for sure, and can’t put words into their mouths, that the film does serve for each of them as a definitive piece of commentary condemning the culture that has come to exist around stories like theirs. And they needed that. 

That being said though, the unfortunate other side of things is that Meredith Kercher's family still doesn't feel like they have closure just based on the legal conclusions that the Italian courts came to. They will never have justice or know definitively – again based on the Italian courts final ruling - who committed this tragic crime. 

And so even in making this film and even if this is an important encapsulation of this story there will never be an ending for Meredith Kercher's family and they will never get her back. I think about this often because I spent six years working on the film, really four years of those very intensely, almost exclusively making the film. 

And . . .my life goes on. Right? I move on to the next project and these people will forever be defined by this loss and this experience. The tragedy of what happened to Meredith, and all of these people involved at the heart of the story will have to deal with this forever and ever. 

Amani:

You know, we're also filmmakers who are spending a lot of time in an office or an edit room looking at horrific gory crime scene photos and everything else. We're talking to victims who are really kind of obviously emotionally distraught as a result of these horrific circumstances.

And I know for me, and this recent project, talking to a guy who's on death row in his cell and talking to his family adamant that he was wrongly convicted, since he was home at the time that this murder took place across town, it took a lot out of me emotionally and it took me really a few months to kind of get over it after the project was over. Did you have that kind of hangover at all, when you finished?

Rod:                         

Yeah. I think that it seems like with the situation you're talking about . . . your proximity to someone's life or death,  would affect me. I would have a hard time. I guess I'm always aware of the privilege of my position where I can walk away. Right? That I can move on, or that I can walk out of this prison I’m filming in, or I can leave this behind. And I'm aware of that all the time and ... if I was in your shoes, I think I would still feel the same thing.

This [Amanda Knox project] was something that fell in my lap and to make the film I had to walk through the door. Because when something like that happens, I believe you have to walk through that door. For me, it was that I made a film that I'm proud of that I think contributes something to a greater conversation in the world. I'm proud of the film. I hope I've made something that's important. Again, adding something to the conversation – an important piece of commentary that’s not taking up space or noise - certainly not something I would term content. 

And . . . After having the creation of the film define my life, my career, my marriage, for six years, I thought, "I'm ready to talk about something new." 

Amani:                   

Right.

Rod:                         

I spent so much time with each of the subjects especially time off camera where we shared all aspects of our lives, because we're gaining each other's trust. And because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who they were as individuals, they could all be a little more honest or forthcoming. At least I hoped they could. I wanted to know who they thought they each were, in their own words. And so I was given access to intimate parts of their lives, their personal spaces and their thoughts.

And I always made it known that if any of them ever needed to talk to me or just have a conversation, "Hey. I'm here. Like get a hold of me. Let's talk." I didn’t want any of them to feel like I came in, they gave me access to their life and existence and emotions and fears and then I walked away and treated them like a commodity that was used for some other gain – like TV ratings for example.

Because I'm also aware that I too was making a piece of entertainment in that I was creating a film about them - even though it was commentary on the fact that their story and this trial had become entertainment. I was always very aware of that and had to personally emotionally navigate that all the time. 

I am rambling through this because it's such a strange experience to have and I can only imagine the same and more so would be true working with somebody who has spent time on death row.

Amani:                   

Actually, we only spoke on the phone. I was blocked by the state of Oklahoma from going to the prison, because they were nervous about the story. 

But what you made me think about, and this touches a little bit on my background, I used to work for HBO as a producer for Real Sports. And you were talking a little bit about gaining trust. Obviously, it's essential to gain trust, especially if you're talking about something as serious and as life altering as a homicide trial where someone's been wrongly convicted. 

But with Real Sports, I had the advantage of the show’s reputation. As a representative of the show, and as long as I didn't screw it up, people would confide in me. And then if you do two shoots, the second shoot would be the one where you get the more kind of revealing anecdotes and revealing access. 

There are lessons, though. It's that trust is hard earned, and persistence pays. If you hadn't put all that effort and commitment in, then you wouldn't have had a great film at the end of it.

Rod:                         

Yeah, I think so. I think that it's hard to even hear about what you're talking about, when it comes from the HBO Real Sports side of things. People expect so much out of subjects so quickly, yet the truth is that they deserve more respect than that. It should take time, yet we live in a culture where everything needs to get made, and put out tomorrow, and then whatever that is is only talked about for 10 minutes until some other thing occupies the general public's mind. 

Amani: 

All your interviews [in Amanda Knox] were straight to camera. I'm curious . . . why you chose to have them speak directly to the camera.

Rod:

There was a pure narrative reason for having the subjects talk directly to camera. So much of reporting of the story had been from third person takes on these people and their experience - pundits, news anchors, and commentators, trolls on Twitter, and arm-chair quarterbacks, all coming to conclusions about who these people were and what they did. We believed that you, the viewer, should be able to look at these people directly, as if they are talking to you. Look them in the eye and come to your own conclusions. And come to your own conclusion about “who do you believe?” The subjects are talking to you as much as they are to the filmmakers. 

Amani:                   

It made them feel almost part of the story. It definitely worked very effectively.

Rod:                         

Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

POST INTERVIEW FROM AMANI:

I wanted to thank Rod for taking the time to chat with me, and for the great conversation. In an unexpected, slightly eerie, but very welcome epilogue, two weeks after Rod and I spoke, the subject of his film, Amanda Knox,  tweeted out her support for Julius Jones, the subject of my docu-series, sitting on Oklahoma’s death row for a crime he insists, with strong evidence, he was wrongfully convicted.

Ryan Beickert