When picturing a police forensics investigator, the image that often comes to mind is that of the good-looking actor in a “CSI” TV show who applies state-of-the-art investigative techniques to magically solve a case.
Not so in “The Evidence,” the first of three parts in the nine-episode Netflix documentary series, “The Innocence Files,” about the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. In it the real-life investigators are experts like Dr. Michael West.
Roger Ross William directed “The Evidence.” Subsequent “Innocence Files” episodes were directed by Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney, Jed Rothstein, Andy Grieve, and Sarah Dowland.
Paunchy, unshaven, chain-smoking, a proud drinker of Miller beer, West is a Mississippi-based forensic odontologist with a Confederate flag painted on his wall. His specialty is bite marks, matching those found on victims with molds of suspects’ teeth, and he has given testimony in what he estimates to be 300 criminal cases.
Some question his methods and findings. He defies these critics, saying, “Deo vindictus.” Then he adds with a laugh, “That was the motto of the Confederacy, ‘God is our vindication.’”
Among the cases West investigated was that of Levon Brooks. In 1990 in Brooksville, Miss., a 3-year-old Black girl was abducted from her home, sexually assaulted, and murdered. The body was found in a nearby pond, covered with what appeared to be human bite marks. Brooks, who is Black, was among the suspects. He had a strong alibi, but West compared the marks on the body with a mold of Brooks’s teeth and saw a match. Other evidence against Brooks included the eyewitness testimony of the victim’s 6-year-old sister; she was interviewed by a consultant working with the police whose daytime job was hosting a local children’s TV show under the name “Uncle Bunky.” The sister also told Uncle Bunky that Brooks escaped in an airplane.
In 1992 Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Four months after Brooks’s conviction, another 3-year-old Black girl in the same neighborhood was abducted, sexually assaulted, and tossed into a creek. Her body was also covered with what were identified as human bite marks. It couldn’t have been Brooks because he was already in prison, but Dr. West found a match with the mother’s boyfriend, Kennedy Brewer, who was also Black.
In 1995, Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death.
Years later Brewer heard about the Innocence Project. He sent in a letter, one of the thousands received there, and in 2001 he was lucky enough to be chosen. While investigating Brewer, the Project team learned about Brooks, and began to uncover a national, systemic use of a junk science — compounded in these two cases by racial prejudice — that has sent many innocent people to prison or death row.
As suspenseful and dramatic as any TV or movie police procedural, these episodes in “The Innocence Files” are essential viewing for anyone who believes in justice for all.
“The Innocence Files” can be streamed on Netflix, starting April 15.
The video image bounces about as the cameraman tries to keep up with Robert Fisk, a foreign correspondent who is rushing through the streets of Abadan, Iran, heading for the front line of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980. They come under fire and flee through the city, which seems to expand into a labyrinth of endless ruins. But the scene has switched to a different city with similar ruins, from Abadan to Homs, Syria. Nearly 40 years have passed, and Fisk is still on the front lines in the Middle East, covering wars that never end.
So begins Chang Yung’s “This Is Not a Movie” (2019), a profile of Fisk who, ironically given the film’s title, first decided to become a foreign correspondent after watching a movie, Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), no less, and saw in the exploits of its journalist hero as he foils Nazi spies and wins the love of a beautiful woman the kind of life he wanted.
Now Fisk is regarded as the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain. His career began in the 1970s, in Belfast, where he saw his first corpses and since then he interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, covered the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp by Falangist militia in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion in 1982, and was nearly beaten to death by enraged Afghan survivors of a US bombing while covering the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Yung catches up with him as he traces an invoice for the mortars he found in a bombed-out ISIS hide-out in Aleppo to the Bosnian factory that produced them to find out if they had gotten there via Saudi Arabia. As they drive to the factory Fisk blithely warns Yung that arms traffickers are among the most dangerous people to investigate because the billions of dollars to be made are worth much more than the life of a journalist.
It’s a suspenseful scene, worthy of a spy thriller, but for Fisk it’s just another deadline. After more than four decades of tracking down the truth and identifying the guilty, there is no end in sight. “It doesn’t matter how much we blame the bad guys,” he says. “I don’t think it has much of an effect.”
“This Is Not a Movie” is available for streaming at MUBI beginning on April 18.
On the water
The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has eclipsed other humanitarian crises, such as the plight of millions of displaced people uprooted by wars and other disasters. Two documentaries offer poetic reminders of the ordeal these victims of conflict and catastrophe continue to endure.
Yorgos Zois’s wordless and eloquent short, “8th Continent” (2017), opens with the image of a single life jacket, bright orange and minute, floating in the Mediterranean. A boat comes by and picks it up. By the end of the film the lifejackets have accumulated into a mountain of thousands — each a symbol of the life it failed to preserve — piled up on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Another island, Lampedusa, located between Libya and Sicily, is the subject of director Gianfranco Rosi’s subtle and devastating feature documentary “Fire at Sea” (2016). Refugees rescued by the Italian navy and coast guard are brought ashore to a holding camp in scenes of high drama, pathos, and tragedy. But with a few exceptions — such as the island doctor who cares for the refugees and at times seems overwhelmed — the inhabitants show little curiosity about the situation, not unlike the West in general.
“8th Continent” and “Fire at Sea” are available for streaming in the program “Short + Feature: Human Tides” on the Criterion Channel.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.