'Making A Murderer' Is A Huge Step Forward For Female Documentarians
Just when it seems like Making A Murderer has hit full cultural saturation, a new wave of interest in the Netflix original documentary series crashes over the internet. The release of the 10-episode study of the second major trial for Wisconsin man Steven Avery was perfectly timed to take advantage of the public's raging passion for anthologized true crime. But the filmmakers behind the phenomenon didn't rush their product. Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi worked for 10 years to capture and frame Avery's story, and with the overwhelming success of Making A Murderer comes a coup for female documentarians.
Demos and Ricciardi began exploring the idea of documenting this trial when they read an article about Steven Avery and the Manitowoc County murder of Teresa Halbach in a 2005 edition of The New York Times. "We basically rented a car and borrowed a camera and went out for a week to kind of see, 'is there a story here?'" Demos told IndieWire. At the time, both women were still enrolled in film school. Once the documentary was ready to be shopped around for distribution, Demos and Ricciardi took extra steps to show that they had what it takes to be serious directors. They realized that their options could be limited due to their age and gender, so the filmmakers set out to prove "that we could tell the story," Demos told Indiewire. Said the filmmaker, "We had an outline for the series, we had a treatment for the series, we had our footage, we actually cut three episodes." This isn't the kind of preparedness required for Ken Burns to sell a documentary, for example, but the diligence of Demos and Ricciardi paid off when Netflix came on board.
More crucially, both women had the trust of Steven Avery and the cooperation of his family for the entire process. Making A Murderer lives and dies on its access to not only the courtroom where Avery and nephew Brendan Dassey's cases are being tried, but also to the home of Avery's parents and to the convict himself through many recorded phone calls. Demos and Ricciardi told The New York Times that they reached out first with letters to the family explaining the project and their interest. The amount of groundwork, trust building, and patience that characterizes a series like Making A Murderer is incredible to consider, and the commitment to the long haul may be one of the many reasons why female filmmakers tend to be better represented in the documentary category than in any other genre. Demos told The Daily Beast that she and her partner had to accept that their work probably wouldn't result in a definitive judgment on Steven Avery's guilt. “If you’re so committed to finding the truth and finding the answer, it’s very hard to be comfortable with ambiguity and you’ll often settle, just for some finality.”
A streaming documentary series like Making A Murderer is part of a still-new distribution apparatus, so there aren't many similar releases to compare it to. But Demos and Ricciardi can be considered part of a still unbalanced but definitely more welcoming legacy of women in feature documentary. In October 2015, Fortune reported on a USC study on the gender gap in filmmaking, which found that 37% of documentary directors were women, compared with 28% representation in narrative film. Neither number is where it should be, of course, but exhaustive work like Making A Murderer (and the tenacity of its then-unproven filmmakers) should inspire women entering the field and industry confidence in those women.