The debate about the ethics of true crime-based shows has been renewed with the recently released Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix. The series, co-created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, fictionalises the criminal adventures of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of killing 17 boys and men between 1978 and 1991.

The Netflix series has been criticised for sensationalising an already gruesome subject, exploiting the feelings of the victims’ families, and humanising Dahmer, who is played by Evan Peters.

Some documentaries, films and podcasts have been inspired by headline-grabbing cold cases. In the fictional film Zodiac and the podcast Serial, the creators double up as detectives, taking apart police investigations and using the benefit of hindsight to examine leads that might have otherwise been missed.

It worked in the case of Serial, whose first season argued that Adnan Masud Syed was wrongly convicted in the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Following the discovery of new evidence, Syed’s conviction was overturned in September.

Detective work is at heart of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. The acclaimed 1988 documentary innovatively borrows techniques from fiction filmmaking to suggest that a man in prison for a murder might actually be innocent.

The man in question is Randall Dale Adams, convicted in 1976 of killing a police officer in Dallas, Texas. Adams’s plea that the actual killer was David Ray Harris, whose car he was sharing at the time of the murder, went unheeded.

The 101-minute film is being streamed on AMC, which is available in India through Amazon Prime Video.

A seemingly straightforward true crime documentary is enlivened by stylised re-enactments of the crime and the subsequent interrogation. These moments, which would not be out of place in a neo-noir film, are vividly shot and set to a score by Phillip Glass. The sequences support Morris’s central argument that the case against Adams was itself a piece of fiction.

Interviews with Adams and Harris, eye-witnesses and the police investigators point to a miscarriage of justice. Through the device of a whodunit, and with some help from elements commonly found in fiction, Morris skilfully leverages the power of the investigative documentary to unravel the truth. Sensationalism is unnecessary. Curiosity, rigour and empathy do the trick.

The Thin Blue Line (1988).

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