Paige Fisher/Radical Media/Al Jazeera

Q&A: Joe Berlinger of ‘The System’

The award-winning director takes a hard look at America’s justice system in a new eight-part series

Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger has been a leading voice in the world of nonfiction film and television for 20 years, creating such critically acclaimed documentaries as “Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”

Now Berlinger is bringing his work to Al Jazeera America in a groundbreaking new series, “The System With Joe Berlinger,” which examines the state of America’s criminal justice system.

In an eight-part series, Berlinger guides the audience through a hard look at some of the most pressing issues plaguing the system: flawed forensics, faulty eyewitness testimony, juvenile justice, mandatory minimum sentencing and more.

Al Jazeera America's Dexter Mullins spoke with Berlinger about his latest project and what he thinks people should know about “The System.”

Al Jazeera America: What made you want to do this series about criminal justice with Al Jazeera America?

Joe Berlinger: I’m very interested in criminal justice, so the opportunity to bring what I do in my longform films to television, which is what Al Jazeera wanted me to do, I thought was a very exciting opportunity.

Why are you so interested in criminal justice?

Why am I interested in criminal justice and making sure everyone has a fair shake? I believe that the most basic American value is a belief in our personal liberty, and the criminal justice system has the unique power to take that liberty away. If we’re going to take that liberty away from people, it should be done fairly and justly — that’s in theory what separates America from other justice systems.

Was there a particular case or film that drove your interest in criminal justice?

When we first went down to make “Paradise Lost” in 1993, originally we thought we were going to make a film about guilty teenagers.

We went down into that community and embedded ourselves in West Memphis, Ark., for about nine months prior to the trial, and became convinced that these kids were actually innocent but assumed that everything would work itself out at trial, and surely with the flimsy evidence they had, these kids would not be found guilty at trial.

But lo and behold, they were. And that was kind of my wake-up call.

And just sitting through that process and seeing how the system can be perverted, and how misconduct can happen and how somebody can have their liberty taken away, it was a wake-up call for me and gave me a mission for the kinds of films that I want to make, and I’ve been making those films for a very long time.

How is this show different from other documentaries or shows that try to examine our justice system?

This is not a show that wags a finger and says the criminal justice system is broken and messed up. It’s a show that’s intended to look at the system to see if justice is being served, and to look at potential problems within the system so that they can be corrected.

You’ve spent the last two decades exposing these types of issues as a filmmaker and director. But how does that affect you as an individual? Do you still have faith in the criminal justice system?

I have tremendous faith in the concept of America, and I have tremendous faith in the criminal justice system as it’s intended to be. But I think we are facing monumental problems that need to be addressed. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have privatization of prison, which de-incentivizes rehabilitation. In fact, rehabilitation as a concept seems to be decreasing in importance in the corrections system. We have extreme racial bias in the criminal justice system.

There are all sorts of issues that we need to address, but that doesn’t mean the system doesn’t work — it often does work. What it means is the system can be better. I just view it as my mission in life to shine a light on situations in which the system is not working so that we can have a better system.

Is there any one story out of the series that stands out the most to you?

I think my favorite episode of all of them, because it really captures the complexity and the duality of legal situations, is episode three, which is about mandatory sentencing.

That episode to me kind of perfectly illustrates the complexity, because there is no one answer.

In Florida, Orville Lee Wallard, a normal family man working for SeaWorld, by all accounts a law-abiding citizen, in his mind was shooting a gun in self-defense as a warning shot. Because of Florida’s 10-20-life mandatory sentencing, he’s been put away in prison for 20 years. This has decimated the family financially, and that family probably will never recover from a very stiff mandatory sentencing.

When you just hear that story, it makes you think, “Gee mandatory sentencing is problematic.”

But when we go to Chicago and we highlight Hadiya Pendleton, those parents want — and I would want it too — mandatory sentencing. Their daughter was killed in a case of mistaken gang identity. The shooter would have been incarcerated for a previous crime had there been a mandatory minimum gun law in Chicago.

So of course your sympathies are with those parents, and God forbid, if I were ever in that situation I would be clamoring for mandatory minimums as well. So you can see how the same law has devastated one family and the lack of the law has devastated another.

The cases you pick are very complex, not just for the people who are potentially falsely convicted but also for the families of the victims.

What I think is, hopefully a hallmark of the series is that it is not a black-and-white approach. Issues are much more complex, and we try to show all sides of an issue.

For example, in the flawed forensics case it’s pretty clear that Willy Manning should have the opportunity for a new trial because the case was botched via FBI forensics handling. On the other hand, we don’t shy away from talking about the fact that he was not a good guy prior to his conviction. That doesn’t mean he should be sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

In addition, I think we have a very sympathetic portrayal of the family members of the victims in that episode.

Tiffany Miller’s mother, Pam Cole, she is utterly convinced that the guy is still guilty, and we’re not saying whether he’s guilty or not, we’re saying he needs a new trial, but I think there’s a very sympathetic portrait of family members who have come to believe what the police tell them and what prosecutors tell them.

Have you come out of this project with different opinions of the criminal justice system than you did when you started?

A lot of these issues I’ve been familiar with, but I guess it’s just deepened my resolve that we need to be much more vigilant about solving problems in the justice system because too many lives have been shattered by the misapplication of justice.

You must get very close to the families of both the victims and the convicted. What is it like to try and pull these stories together?

The hardest thing is establishing relationships with people and realizing that you’re just a visitor to their tragedy, and they have to live with these situations, whether they’re a victim of a crime or a victim of injustice.

It’s why we highlight the victim’s family members in the botched forensics episode, and allow them to have their say without judgment. It’s why I feel it’s essential that we be good stewards of the responsibility given to us to tell their story, and I just feel a great sense of responsibility to the truth.

It has a double effect. On one hand it’s very emotionally draining. Sometimes we finish these shoots and you just kind of want to sit in your hotel room and cry over lost lives and shattered lives, sometimes needlessly both on the victims’ side and on the side of people who have been wrongfully convicted. On the other hand, you know, it makes me appreciate my own life and puts everything in perspective.

Is there something you want the audience to get out of these episodes?

The point that I’m trying to make is we have a very high prison population, there’s a very high cost to society for incarceration, there’s a very high cost to society for the lack of emphasis on rehabilitation. And so even if you’re not personally touched by the criminal justice system in a tangible, visible way — you’re a victim or you have a loved one incarcerated — the expense and cost to society is extreme. I think not enough people are engaged in this very fundamental aspect of our society.

Because of that, I think people should be highly aware of what the flaws are in our criminal justice system and how can they be improved.

We see a great deal of you in the series, something you’ve never done before. Why did you decide to go on camera this time?

We decided that in order to make the show kind of fresh and new, that in addition to highlighting the actual cases, we would also make it about a filmmaker’s journey.

I’m someone who has spent 20 years making films, and to make the show about the journey of a filmmaker in uncovering and dealing with a lot of these issues — I think what makes the show kind of fresh and different is, you see me giving my thoughts in the moment to the camera, embracing some of the complexities of the stories. 

You’ve spent your life telling the stories of others — what’s the Joe Berlinger story?

I don’t know if that’s interesting enough to tell yet. Hopefully my children will tell that story.

What’s next for you? Anything you’re working on?

We’re hoping people actually tune in and watch it so we can do a second season. That’s hopefully on the horizon. I’d like to continue this show.

I also have a film about the Whitey Bulger case that’s being released theatrically in June, and that film is about alleged government corruption at the highest level. So it’s in keeping with my desire to shine a light on injustice wherever it exists.

“The System With Joe Berlinger” airs on Al Jazeera America Sundays at 9pm ET/6p PT

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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