The making of Brother’s Keeper was a life changing experience for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The two young filmmakers were at the very start of their filmmaking careers when they heard about the death of William Ward.
The third of four brothers and one sister (who is not mentioned in the film), William was found dead at his farm house in Utica, New York one morning. He had been ill for years and police began to suspect that his younger brother Adelbert (known as Delbert) had performed a mercy killing.
The case went to trial and it attracted significant media attention. This was mainly due to the Wards themselves and their lifestyle. The brothers lived in squalor. They kept to themselves and were largely illiterate.
The Wards and their way of life formed a stark contrast with people - media and lawyers included - from the city. Berlinger and Sinofsky soon realised that this was a story that they wanted to tell.
The two filmmakers were not alone. Another documentary team wanted access to the Wards and another director wanted to make a movie biopic. However, after many meetings with the local community - who had risen up to support the Wards - they were finally given permission to make their film.
An Intimate Portrait
Despite having been given the green light to make their documentary, it would take Berlinger and Sinofsky weeks before they even picked up a camera. The pair took their time getting to know the remaining Ward brothers, their family and supporters. They helped out on the farm and immersed themselves in the Ward’s world.
Only when they had gained the brother’s trust did Sinofsky and Berlinger start shooting. By this time, the Wards were comfortable with and almost seemed to enjoy the filmmaker's company. Incredibly, the more they interacted with Sinofsky and Berlinger (and the world outside their farm), the more expressive they became. It is wonderful to watch.
The end result of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s time and patience is a remarkably intimate portrait of a family in crisis. As the documentary explores the differences between rural communities and cities, between affluence and poverty, it builds a case for understanding rather than judgement.
Less interested in the question of Delbert’s guilt or innocence, Brother’s Keeper examines the dangers of stereotypes. While it is hard to connect with the Wards at first, by the end of this powerful documentary we realise - as Sinofsky and Berlinger did - that we have grown to love these three brothers.
True Crime Documentary Recommendations
Brother’s Keeper is part of the filmmaking sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
The Thin Blue Line
West Of Memphis
The Central Park Five
Capturing The Friedmans
Murder On A Sunday Morning
Do you have any true crime documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.