AP Photo/Dan Powers, Pool
AP Photo/Dan Powers, Pool
A documentary is meant to record history, but what happens when it changes it in the process? These films know what that's like.
When Wisconsin native Brendan Dassey was ordered to be released from prison pending an appeal on Monday, the Making a Murderer figure became another example of what can happen when a documentary captures the attention of a nation and raises new questions in the process.
In Netflix's ten-episode series, the 27-year-old was featured along with his uncle, Steven Avery, in a review of their trials for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.
Following renewed public interest in the case stimulated by the popular series, Dassey's murder conviction was overturned in September by a federal judge after a new investigation determined that he was coerced into giving a confession. Nearly a year after Making a Murderer debuted and more than a decade after Halbach was murdered, a federal judge then ruled he should be released from prison within 90 days pending appeal.
Dassey is not the only person to have their life changed after a documentary brings new attention to their story. In HBO's documentary miniseries, The Jinx, famed director Andrew Jarecki launched 10 years of research into the life of real estate heir, Robert Durst, whose wife mysteriously went missing in 1982, whose neighbor was dismembered and whose longtime friend, Susan Berman, was found murdered in her California home.
The series concluded with a sit-down interview with Durst himself. However, the climactic moment arrived when Durst got up to use the bathroom with his mic still on and muttered to himself, "Killed them all, of course."
While the comment raised a lot of unclear red flags, he was arrested by the FBI in New Orleans on the night the finale aired in connection with Berman's murder—thanks in part to the series' findings, including a letter Durst sent Berman a year before her murder that was noticeably similar to an anonymous letter sent to the police notifying them of her death.
"These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years," former Westchester County district attorney Jeanine F. Pirro told the New York Times. "Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused. They were clear."
On Monday, Durst appeared in court for a hearing where he said he is not guilty, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Suzanne Allee
While those documentaries were busy tackling problems on land, Gabriela Cowperthwaite faced one issue in the water with her 2013 documentary, Blackfish. The film was sparked by the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, the late trainer of SeaWorld's orca, Tilikum.
The film took a deep dive into the potential dangers of keeping orcas in captivity, suggesting there were other unexplored (and unsaid) reasons for why Tilikum had attacked Brancheau.
Following celebrity performance cancellations, declining park ticket sales and new legislation proposing bans on keeping orcas captive for entertainment, SeaWorld announced two years later that it would stop breeding killer whales in captivity and would phase out their performances.
"I hope you like the film. I don't know if it will change the way you feel about animals in entertainment parks. I didn't intend for it to do so," Cowperthwaite wrote for CNN. "I just wanted to tell the real story. And I trust that once audiences are armed with the truth, they will make the best decisions by themselves and their families."