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BROTHER'S KEEPER

U.S.A.

1991

Producers / Directors / Editors: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
Production Co.: American Playhouse Theatrical Films / Creative Thinking International Ltd / Hand-To-Mouth
Cinematography: Douglas Cooper
Sound: Mike Karas & Bruce Sinofsky
Music: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason

Delbert Ward
Lyman Ward
Roscoe Ward
Harry Thurston
John Teeple
Ralph Cognetti
117 minutes
16 mm
Colour
English (several varieties)
GA Certificate
 
 
Here's one for the Truth Really Is Stranger Than Fiction file. Joe Berlinger's weirdly absorbing documentary, Brother's Keeper, is a morally ticklish and very bizarre slice of Americana about a 1990 murder case. However, The Thin Blue Line this is not. Notions of guilt and innocence are almost secondary to the fascinating scenario that unfolds in the cloistered farming community of Munnsville, New York state.
The Ward boys are four toothless, whiskery old brothers - illiterate, semi-retarded farmers who've lived their whole lives together in a squalid house into which few locals have ever ventured. When Brother Bill is found dead in the bed he has always shared with Brother Delbert, Delbert signs a confession saying that the eldest brother has been ailing and that he suffocated him in his sleep as a mercy killing. The 'Boys' (the youngest is 59, the oldest 71) become the local cause celebre as the community rallies round for an Us versus Them Big City Lawyers tussle.
Simple, painfully shy and often incomprehensible, these strange, scared men are like deer trapped in the headlights of the modern criminal justice system. One brother is reduced to a speechless, quivering wreck on the witness stand. Delbert's supporters become even more protective when the prosecutors start talking about incest and a possible lovers' quarrel during sex - all of which sounds somewhat surreal against the timelessly picturesque backdrop of rural America, but, even at two hours, it's hard to take your eyes off of it.
- Russell Smith, Dallas Morning News, 29/4/92
 
To create such a tender and enthralling documentary as Brother's Keeper, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were fortunate in having as subjects the Ward brothers. Barely socialized, barely literate, the Wards are exotic, yet not totally unfamiliar. Their condition may change somewhat over the course of the year in which Brother's Keeper was filmed, but the amelioration is slight: Delbert begins combing his hair sometimes, cropping his stained beard, and wearing cleaner clothes. The film-makers may have been lucky but they had the wits to know it. The four reclusive elderly brothers appear to have been each other's keepers for some time: living in almost nightmarish squalor - among their cats, debris, empty cans and bottles, crusted stove, and clock stopped at 5:30 - they seem each other's sole friends, lovers, support, and hope. All worldly relations, including boss and employee, have been kept in the family. (We learn next to nothing about parents or childhoods.) Together they work a dairy farm in central New York State, never stirring from the property except for the occasional ride into town (Munnsville, pop. 499) on their tractor. Roscoe raises chickens and turkeys in an abandoned school bus ("I like to hear 'em holler"). Their barn-home has no toilet, minimal electricity, and no working door. They get inside by squeezing and wedging behind a broken panel...
Munnsville neighbours barely knew these 'boys', regarding them from afar as odd ducks and harmless loners. The local code, articulated from time to time in the movie, is "It's nobody's damned business." But all this distance collapses in 1990. The code gets sorely tested when Bill, 64, dies in his bed and the police arrest Delbert, 59, the brother who shared his filthy mattress. A medical examiner uncovers evidence that might indicate suffocation. After 20 days in jail, Delbert signs a confession. Another brother, Lyman, signs a statement saying that Delbert told him about killing Bill. Initially the police call the death a mercy killing (Bill had complaints) but later theorize that it may have been a "sex-gone-bad murder." Suddenly, the Wards require outside help. Answering yes to the brother's keeper question, Munnsville rallies around Delbert - first supplying his $10,000 bail, then hiring a private investigator and a sharpie Syracuse lawyer. The Wards may be outcasts, as a police investigator observes, but they're their outcasts. Though some residents think Delbert wouldn't hurt a fly - and could never have suffocated the much stronger Bill - others think that he may well have done it, but, to put it bluntly, so what. Others question whether either Delbert of Lyman are competent. "He waived his rights?" chuckles a neighbour. "That might have been somebody he was waving to on the street..."
A flyer for the film calls the Wards "four eccentric, dairy farming brothers," which is a bit like calling their digs "untidy." Eccentrics are people we know. The Wards are not. But if ethnographic films are based on difference, they also construct bridges, stimulate empathy. It's impossible to watch Brother's Keeper without watching oneself watching, taking a critical stance toward sophistication. The Wards' exposure and our voyeurism put us on edge, making us protective of them and hypersensitive to the mediation. When the subjects are this 'authentic', every false move, however small, is magnified. For example, when a terrified Lyman Ward starts trembling uncontrollably on the witness stand, exposed before the law, his vulnerability is agonizing. It takes time for us to recover...
- Georgia Brown, The Village Voice, 15/9/92
 
Four reclusive, decrepit brothers live an isolated, squalid life in rural upstate New York until one morning Brother Bill is found dead and bewildered Brother Delbert becomes the focus of a murder inquiry. The story filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger stumbled across had all the makings of a strong documentary: the innocent at the mercy of a criminal justice system he cannot comprehend; the sudden rallying of support from a community that had hitherto shunned the family; murder, a hint of incest - but commitment and intelligence helped to transform the merely interesting into the extraordinary. It is hard to imagine a better film being made from the raw material. Brother's Keeper begins by asking the obvious questions (what actually happened? what was Delbert's role?) but progresses to the much deeper issues of euthanasia, socialisation and the nature of truth.
While the audience does not wish to see Delbert punished for his brother's death (the question of murder is never entirely resolved) one becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the simplified portrait of Delbert that the defence must present in order to earn an aquittal. That picture, of a simple yokel mentally incapable of planning a murder, is one we ourselves were encouraged to share at the outset, but as the movie progresses and the brothers seem to mature before our eyes we realise that this media blitz may constitute the first period of socialisation the family had ever undergone. By the time of the trial we can no longer see Delbert as a helpless hopeless case. When the interviewer remarks how much Delbert and Roscoe have changed they wryly observe that the filmmakers have themselves changed in that time.
The vision of rural America presented by Brother's Keeper is just as complex. In their support of the Ward brothers are the people of Munnsville motivated by an altruistic 'community spirit', or by a secretive distrust of the 'meddling city-folk'? Would they react differently if their neighbour was being charged with wife-beating or child abuse? In the film's darker moments some of the Boys' neighbours shrewdly hint at plausible motives for the 'murder'. Ultimately the motives of everyone, from the inscrutable Ward clan to our superior selves, are called into question.
The directors' task was far from easy. As interview subjects the Ward brothers are reluctant, to say the least, and many of the locals are equally wary. The most striking exception to this caution and reticence is the medical examiner who appears at Delbert's trial. The appearance of this preening, self-regarding individual is not to be missed. Never have I seen a man spell his name with such relish (the slyly contrived edit to the judge's 'reaction' is a low blow, though one richly deserved). The man is quite insane, of course.
- A. L.