Friday, June 29, 2012

Cropsey (Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman; 2009)

The most famous documentary relating to a wrongful prosecution is The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris' 1988 documentary was responsible for a man being released from death row for a crime that he had been convicted of through a combination of overzealous prosecution and poor police work. It's not only a masterpiece of the documentary film genre, but a strong example of the degree to which the combination of film and journalism can actually do something important. Wrongful convictions, especially those which involve a sentence of either life in prison or death, can force a society to question even it's most basic assumptions of justice.

Cropsey, is a film that journeys into similar territory. It begins with what was a local legend for Staten Island, New York. The legend gives the film it's name. It begins with Willowbrook State School. Willowbrook has a storied history, beyond Staten Island that reaches into the history of the treatment of mental illness and the treatment of the disabled. Beginning in 1965, outcry over the treatment of patients in Willowbrook became a centerpiece of a movement to change the way that people with disabilities and mental illness were treated. Willowbrook State School was held up as the example of what shouldn't have ever been done, and what should never be done again. Footage from inside Willowbrook, even for someone who has spent a lifetime delving into every nook and cranny of the strange world of horror fiction in all of it's incarnations, is among the most disturbing things I've ever seen. It's terrifying, heartbreaking, and really lives up to the fullness of the word nightmarish.

In Staten Island, an urban legend had grown, and children were told to stay away from the old ground of Willowbrook, and the park that surrounded it, especially at night. They'd be told that Cropsey would come to get them. Cropsey was supposed to be either a former patient or orderly of Willowbrook that had returned there and would be waiting for unsuspecting children.

The film makers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman both grew up in Staten Island, and even as they'd grown up in different parts of the borough, and hadn't known each other as children, they'd both been told the story repeatedly. They'd both made the obligatory pilgrimages to Willowbrook, searching for whatever it is children search for in the dark places whose storied histories frighten them. The film begins with that urban legend and then it takes on the real life events that were the basis of that legend.

As the story unfolds, a story of missing children and a community near crazed with grief and fear, it doesn't becomes more and more convoluted and confusing, instead of becoming clearer. Most of it deals with the question of guilt as it relates to the man who was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of many of the children who'd gone missing, and the story veers back and forth from seeming to point to the man as guilty at some points, and at others to suggest he might be innocent and that the actual killer may still be free. The film makers have done exhaustive work finding as many of the witnesses and participants in the searches and the investigation and covering every aspect of the case as possible. A few different theories end up coming to the surface, and being that the case took place during the Eighties, the obligatory Satanic cult theory show is suggested and was apparently even believed to be the main motive by a number of police, despite the fact that it began with a local preacher who claimed to have visions of children being sacrificed on altars. To their credit, the film makers present this as just as much a part of the original case as any other part, because at the time, it would have been, and even in the present day, there are still a number of people who seem to believe it's the real explanation and motive for the kidnappings and murders.

Cropsey really touches on that childhood fear of the stories we're told about monsters hiding in closets or under the bed. It also does a great job of making it perfectly clear just how the disappearances and the murders effected the community. Beyond all of that though, it touches on something incredibly interesting and that is important in a larger context. It touches on the way that facts and legends can start to become intermixed. It also touches on the lengths people will go to in order to create some sense of understanding the truly horrible and tragic aspects of life. The way the stories began to intertwine as facts and suspicions became almost interchangeable presents a picture almost as frightening as the disappearances and murders themselves, given the possibilities inherent in a community turning it's focus away from what it can prove to what it believes.

This is an extremely well made and deeply compassionate documentary that deals with some of the more horrifying aspects of humanity in an empathetic way that isn't demanding judgment, but is just trying as hard as it can to understand as well as it can. The result, really, becomes a film that pulls in many different topics and ideas and through that empathy never seems as if it's sloppy, reaching or ill advised or stepping over the line into sensationalism. It's a great example of how approaching a documentary with the right prospective is more important than the budget it has or just how slickly produced it is. I'd stack this up against any of the documentaries by the industries most recognizable names any day.

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