Streaming giant Netflix has cemented its position as a leading documentary platform in 2017, releases nearly 30 original documentaries docu-series. One of the most recent docu-series to hit the Netflix site is The Confession Tapes. The Confession Tapes is a seven-episode documentary series about murders throughout the United States that resulted in convictions based on taped confessions. These confessions are usually secured by investigators after grueling interrogations of the suspects, and are often coupled with little to no physical evidence to support the suspect’s guilt. Each episode has a similar structure: a murder happens, chaos within the town ensues, the easiest/first suspects are apprehended and then interrogated for hours until they break and confess to the crime. The Confession Tapes is another crime-related documentary series being produced and released with a modern, yet eerily retro “Forensic Files” feeling.
The Confession Tapes is an objectively intriguing series that covers not only violent crimes, but also wide-ranging topics related to our criminal justice system, poverty and racial bias. Each episode provides a look into a different part of the country, and thus different types of people and different types of social struggles within those groups. However, the series covers these topics in the least creative and most overused methods of filmmaking available to filmmakers. Each episode feels like a Dateline story that got spruced up with a nice 4K Sony camera and some edgy color correcting. The lack of creativity in the cinematography leaves the viewer bored with not only the imagery, but also the stories themselves. These stories have the potential to be incredibly impactful and gripping, but the lack of passion in the filmmaking leaves the audience member feeling bored and disinterested. This can be detrimental to the viewers, especially if they have biases about the overused, dull aspects of crime-focused documentaries.
The series can, however, be admired for its incredible access to the people within the stories and archival images of the families of the victims and the various crime scenes. The producers do not shy away from the sometimes-brutal honesty of violence within our communities. The images are striking and sometimes jarring, but necessary to the story. The use of archival images also provides the viewer with a personal connection to the victims. Each episode is full of memories of the murdered, and how their families have been affected. No doubt, the emotional aspects of these stories can leave viewers in tears—and glancing over their shoulders when the sun goes down. Another plus to acknowledge about this series are the landscapes of each town in which the series shoots. They are beautiful, and some of the stationary images are striking. But, after a while the shots of building signs, train tracks, drone shots of forests, and archival images become tediously monotonous.
There is immense potential for creative storytelling in true-crime documentaries, especially in today’s documentary film industry. Documentaries that break the stereotypical molds can finally achieve wide-ranging success. For example, The Witness and Strong Island are two documentaries on Netflix that tackle crime using creative perspectives and unique storytelling. The brother of a woman who was killed in New York while 38 people looked on and did nothing plays investigator in and narrates The Witness. Strong Island is similar in that the brother of the victim, filmaker Yance Ford, also narrates the film about his sibling who was murdered. Both of these films accomplish exceptional methods of storytelling through their beautiful, poetic, meditative cinematography and remarkable, first-person narrations. If The Confession Tapes had the intimacy of those films combined with the already important stories about the American justice system, the series would be incredibly poignant and wonderful.
True crime documentaries are an incredibly popular aspect of documentary filmmaking. So popular, in fact, satirical films such as American Vandal are made and instantly become widespread hits. It’s understandable if the filmmakers behind The Confession Tapes wanted the series to be simplistic stylistically so the viewer can focus on the stories, but at some point those stories become lost amongst the mundane storytelling. The use of the camera in the series can sometimes be graceful and beautiful, but the structure and linear organization of these images are things that we’ve seen time and time again over the last few decades. And, with the technological and creative possibilities in today’s film industry, it’s up to documentary filmmakers of all genres to make films that entice the audience while staying true to the story.