By the time that many viewers tune into HBO’s new documentary series, The Case Against Adnan Syed, many will be coming to the story with pre-conceived ideas about who Syed is and whether he belongs in prison. In some ways, the new documentary is indeed an extension of the phenomenally popular first season of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, which offered intrigued listeners an immersive look at Syed’s murder conviction for the death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. But while ads for the docuseries might lure viewers in with the promise of new evidence that will help to determine the truth, director Amy Berg, whose Catholic sex abuse doc Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar, is ultimately less interested in drumming up scandal than in probing deeper into the unanswered questions of the case. While The Case Against Adnan Syed does provide viewers with a fascinating and important new look at Syed’s case, Berg’s careful work also fuses our insatiable drive for the truth with compassion for everyone who was touched by Hae Min Lee’s murder.
Still, how do you de-sensationalize a story that has already gone viral? Today, we are more connected by social media than ever before, and fans of the original podcast series are already chomping at the bit to fight over whether or not they believe that Adnan did it. The spectacle of true crime stories in an age of hashtags is always a little disconcerting. On the one hand, podcasts like Serial and documentaries like The Case Against Adnan Syed have the potential to illuminate the very real and myriad problems of our criminal justice system and encourage essential social change. On the other, the ways in which armchair detectives can intrude on real life cases can sometimes veer into seeing other people’s pain as entertainment.
One way that Berg contends with this phenomenon is by confronting it directly — in interviews we learn how, for Adnan’s family, Serial was a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness for the case and to work towards exonerating Adnan’s name. In contrast, we learn that for Hae’s family, the internationally renowned podcast series often felt painful in that it also prolonged the trauma of losing a loved one; what they wanted a quick resolution to the crime, rather than the constant reminder of her death. Both family and friends express concern that aspects of the popular series seemed to flatten their beloved friend and family member into someone who had no identity other than a crime victim. Throughout Berg’s documentary we also learn the ways that witnesses called to testify were often concerned by ways they were discussed and depicted by an audience hungry for clues. In one particularly poignant moment, Hae’s friend, Aisha Pittman tells viewers, “I want to make sure that people remember that this was a person that lived and had a life and not just become so focused about, ‘this is an interesting case.’ It’s people’s lives.”
In refusing to shy away from the less savory aspects of our cultural obsession with true crime, Berg deliberately uses the camera’s lens as a way to illuminate the humanity of everyone who was impacted by the murder, including Hae herself. When we are introduced to excerpts from Hae’s diary, the viewer is immersed in teen girl drawings, swirls of hearts and stars that capture the young student’s hopes, dreams, and fears. By making Hae’s art come alive on the page, we see a clearer image of a young woman’s humanity, which helps viewers to see Hae as more than just her yearbook image and prom pictures. Berg also wisely resists gruesome imagery or anything that smacks of victim blaming. The viewer is never shown too much when we learn key details about how Hae and Adnan would sneak off to motels without their conservative parents’ knowledge, nor do we see very much when we learn about how Hae’s body was found.
This same type of gentle restraint is utilized as Berg conducts new interviews with family and friends who were impacted by the crime. While audio can absolutely be used to emotional effect, there is something uniquely compelling about seeing video footage of testimony, which allows us to linger more closely on the profound sense of grief and confusion that has shaken everyone involved in the case. We see lips tremble and eyes twitch and tears rolling effortlessly down cheeks that have aged considerably since the time of Hae’s death. Berg allows emotion to come naturally, rather than prodding or cajoling her subjects. If one of the most famous aspects of Sarah Koenig’s work in season one of Serial was the way in which probed her own feelings and reactions to the case. Amy Berg makes the opposite choice, in the first three installments at least, to make herself relatively invisible. In doing so, she allows a gentler unfolding of the story, one that is not only invested in the drive for justice, but the subtleties of grief and the ravages of time.
In this same way, in The Case Against Adnan Syed we don’t just hear individuals grapple with memory and loss; we see that grappling on the screen. The result is a viewing experience that insists on ambiguity, even while teasing at a new resolution that many very well help to free Adnan from his life sentence. One thing is for sure: as the series progresses we see the many ways that police and prosecutors eager to for a quick conviction ended up mishandling or actively misrepresenting important information. In particular, it’s shocking to see how much the cell phone records that were used to piece together major aspects of the crime simply weren’t based on reliable information. Likewise, it’s incredible to see just how many of the people who spoke to police and the prosecution team felt manipulated and coerced. At one point, Adnan’s parents and brother reflect on a particularly heartfelt apology they received and discuss how they consider many of the witnesses and experts who were used to push a particular narrative about Adnan’s guilt to also be victims of this case.
In the end though, Berg’s film does more than probe deeply into a 20-year old crime. It offers a critical and compassionate look at a story of young love and murder that briefly became a worldwide sensation, while also giving voice to the many people who insisted on continuing to fight for justice long after that very frenzy began to subside.