Joe Berlinger: ‘A lot of true crime documentaries are very irresponsible’
Cecil Hotel director on why he considers himself a social justice documentary maker
Joe Berlinger, the campaigning documentarian behind the Paradise Lost sequence and the Oscar-nominated Metallica-in-therapy movie, Some Kind of Monster. Photograph: Jose Haro
There have been many deaths at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. In 1947, Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, was drinking at the hotel bar in the hours before her notoriously unsolved murder.
In the 1980s, serial killer Richard Ramirez, nicknamed the “Night Stalker”, reportedly went on a killing spree while a hotel resident. Another serial killer, Austrian Jack Unterweger, strangled and killed at least three sex workers while checked in at the Cecil.
The fifth series of American Horror Story was inspired by strange occurrences that happened at the Cecil. The same establishment is visible in the background of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name rooftop video. But no event – or murder – at this infamous Skid Row hotel has attracted as much attention as the death of Elisa Lam.
In 2013 the Cecil became the focus for thousands of amateur internet sleuths when surveillance footage featuring Lam went viral. The last footage of the young Canadian student showed her behaving erratically and wildly pushing elevator buttons, as if fleeing some unseen force. The spooky images recently resurfaced on TikTok, creating a new generation of armchair detectives.
The footage has inspired many accounts, but none are as authoritative as a new Netflix docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The four episode arc is the work of Joe Berlinger, the campaigning documentarian behind the Paradise Lost sequence and the Oscar-nominated Metallica-in-therapy movie Some Kind of Monster.
“Past iterations of the story have leaned heavily into the paranormal and supernatural and I knew I did not wanna go there,” says Berlinger. “I wanted to burst that bubble. Going in, we knew the outcome of the case. The information is out there. But we wanted to give the viewer the kind of feeling of what it was like for these internet sleuths during the unfolding of the case.
“For me, what’s interesting about the series is that it allows me to play with the nature of truth. Because we live in this post-truth society. I’ve spent a lot of my time doing wrongful conviction cases and being involved at the criminal justice system where circumstantial evidence has led to tragic results. This case shows how, despite all the evidence, people can be so convinced of their own beliefs.”
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel excavates Elisa Lam’s disappearance alongside the larger societal issues that created a student hostel that doubled as a flophouse for LA’s most impoverished and desperate population. And all a short bus ride away from the Hollywood Hills.
“This series has allowed me to sit lean into place and perception more than I have been able to in the past, when I’m tethered to individual story,” says the filmmaker.
Circumstantial evidence but no real proof is leading people to accuse somebody of something horrendous
“Those issues fascinate me. What is it about Seattle in the 1970s that led to a Ted Bundy? What is it about West Memphis and Arkansas in that particular time that allowed three teenagers to be accused of Satanic ritual murders? What is it about South Boston, for example, that produced a very particular kind of Irish gangster in Whitey Bolger in the Winter Hill gang?”
Over the course of Crime Scene, an internet community forms around Elisa Lam’s Tumblr posts and her final disappearance only to slowly coalesce into a baying mob.
One of their targets is Pablo C. Vergara, a filmmaker, web designer and former death metal artist who performed under the stage name Morbid. When Elisa Lam’s misguided fanbase discovered that Morbid had stayed at the hotel, he became their number one suspect. His YouTube Channel was banned due to their complaints. He was hounded as a murderer and encouraged to kill himself. It didn’t matter that Vergara had checked out of the Cecil a year before Elisa Lam checked in.
“We were lucky that we were able to convince a bunch of people to participate in the show who had never participated in past takes on the story or any media coverage,” says Berlinger.
“The hotel manager, the lead detective in the case, the pathologist all agreed to participate. And most notably Pablo Vegara, because this really affected his life. He was unable to continue his music. And whether you like that music or not, he’s an artist, he deserves to do his thing.
“Once again, circumstantial evidence but no real proof is leading people to accuse somebody of something horrendous. Nobody has ever apologised to Pablo. And it really took a toll on him.”
Listening to Vegara, it’s impossible not to note the chilling overlaps between his persecution and Berlinger’s Paradise Lost trilogy. Those three films follow the three West Memphis teenagers – Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin – who were wrongfully charged and convicted of child murders as part of the Satanic Panic that swept the US during the 1980s. There was no physical evidence to convict the teens. But reading books by Stephen King and the album art of Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden were taken into account.
“Paradise Lost was one of the defining moments in my life. When I saw Damien Echols chained up and being led away to death row, I realised we were witnessing the biggest miscarriage of justice we could ever imagine and here we were sitting on footage that could tell that story. It led to my understanding of the power of documentary and the personal gratification that we actually helped people get out of prison.”
Berlinger has been at the vanguard of the crime documentary genre’s switch in focus away from the perpetrator and toward the victim. The shift was evident in his work decades before news outlets began to consider the ethics of naming of (and obsessing over) the killer in mass shooting incidents.
Berlinger’s Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, unfolds from the perspective of Bundy’s unsuspecting girlfriend Liz. Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders shifts away from Truman Capote’s famous account of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith and toward the murdered family’s surviving friends.
I think now with streaming, there’s an appetite for documentary content. We’re in a new golden age
“I consider myself a social justice documentary maker,” says Berlinger. “A lot of people call me this true crime pioneer. I like the pioneer part of that phrase. But with true crime, I have mixed feelings about the words. Of course, I am in the world of true crime, but a lot of true crime documentaries are very irresponsible and for me there has to be some larger social justice mission or some larger societal comment to justify taking on a true crime story.
“For the people that these things happen to, it’s not just another story to binge on television. It’s real life and the worst and most tragic event that has happened in their lives. So when I take on a story, I feel that I have to be a good steward of that story.”
Berlinger began his film career as an apprentice to the groundbreaking Grey Gardens directors Albert and David Maysles. His remarkable 1992 debut, Brother’s Keeper, concerned Delbert Ward, an uneducated elderly man who was charged with second-degree murder following the death of his brother. It was the first of many miscarriages of justice that Berlinger would address in his work.
“I worked for the Maysles brothers for the first five years of my career so I feel tethered to that tradition,” says Berliger. “Because of synch sound, the1960s allowed the documentary to go out into the world and follow an unfolding story that was as fat and compelling as any narrative film. And by the time I came to make Brother’s Keeper, there was Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, a documentary that used dramatic recreations in a groundbreaking way.
“And Michael Moore putting the filmmaker on camera. So people were expanding the definition of what a documentary could be. And redefining documentary by using the narrative tools of scripted filmmaking.
“When Brother’s Keeper came out it was criticised for having a fancy opening sequence and an original music score. People said you can’t have an original music score in a documentary because then you’re manipulating how the audience feels. But I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of the great vérité filmmakers of the ’60s. Pennebaker. The Maysles. Fred Wiseman. And I think now with streaming, there’s an appetite for documentary content. We’re in a new golden age.”
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is on Netflix from February 10th