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Every Picture Tells a Story: Jeremiah Zagar Revisits 'The Trials of Pamela Smart'

By Michael Galinsky

As documentary filmmakers, we use images to help us tell stories. We chop up things that people say to "help them" say it more clearly, often masking the sound cuts by sticking them underneath some nice archival footage. Archival footage has been used in documentaries almost as long as there have been documentaries.

But storytelling has evolved. In the last couple of years I have seen a wave of documentaries that use archival footage in order to comment on its meaning as much as its use in service of the story. In Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, about the New Hampshire woman whose televised murder trial and conviction in the early 1990s ushered in a decade of media-stoked courtroom sensations, archival footage is as much a character in the film as Smart or her accusers. Her trial was the first ever to be aired on live TV, and it inspired a raft of books and films, so Pamela Smart-related footage is in abundance.

We talked with director Jeremiah Zagar about the story, the process and these issues.


Pamela Smart entering the courtroom, 1991. Courtesy of Public Record 

Documentary: How did you come to tell this story, and what did you know about it before you went down the rabbit hole?

Jeremiah Zagar: I knew nothing. Lori Cheatle, the producer, had seen my film In a Dream. At the time, I was working as an editor, cutting a lot of trailers. She asked me to cut the fundraising trailer [for Captivated], and in the process I saw the archive she had amassed, and it was incredible. I fell in love with the material, and she asked me to direct and from there the rabbit hole opened up. Lori brought me on and started raising money for shooting initial interviews. Then HBO, Lisa Heller and Sheila Nevins came on board, along with Passion Pictures and Sky Atlantic, and four years later, here we are.

I was reading all these Janet Malcolm books at the time and the ethos of the movie became "Janet Malcolm Meets 12 Angry Men." Janet is a journalist, and in her work she examines the relationship of journalists to the accused and to the trial. She also examines the relationship of each player to the trial process: how trials are constructed, and how trials are a mirror to our storytelling process. Thinking about the Pamela Smart case in this way really started to interest me.

D: The film seems to be as much about media, memory and culture as it is about Pamela Smart. How did you weave these threads together?

JZ: There had been a million Pamela Smart movies before this, so we had to look at this differently.

When I began the film, my friend [the late photojournalist] Tim Hetherington said, "You need to look where everybody's not looking." And no one was looking at the lookers. Often the people watching are so much more interesting than those being watched. The phenomenon that is our justice system is in many ways much more interesting than this case. In this instance it's a he said/she said situation. There's no way to prove what really happened, and the whole thing aired live on TV. It's in the ether, something we are all complicit in—the reason Pam Smart is spending so much time in prison is due to this process of media-watching, media-buying and media-creation.

As we began to do the interviews, our editor, Keiko Deguchi, and I began to cut the footage together. We don't do the normal doc process of shoot and then edit. We shoot a little, then edit a little, then shoot a little. We build the structure as we edit. The edit informed the interviews, and vice versa. Therefore the questions we asked began to be dictated by what we knew the movie would become.


Pamela Smart today. Courtesy of HBO 

D: It was a matter of both timing and perspective—and how we almost had to wait 20 years to be able to understand what took place.

I think right now we're a little outside the bubble of that time frame. It's becoming clear to people that the sentence was insane. At the time, society had turned Pam into a disease. It was a great way to demonize her, to say that her degenerate moral fiber might affect the children. It was good way to put someone away forever. It's important to ask, "How did this happen?"

I think that the tapes that the juror recorded in the trial were essential in terms of giving us perspective. I'm not a true crime person, but every time I would put on the trial tape, I could feel myself leaning in. I wanted to know more because trials are innately fascinating. They are structured as stories. Why is that? Rather than re-tell the story of this trial, the goal became to examine the idea of storytelling in a trial. In order to do that, we had to retrace the trial.

D: In terms of aesthetics, can you talk about your approach to working with the archival and the more recent interviews?

JZ: As an editor trying to figure out why stories work and how we communicate, I'm interested in devices of storytelling, and tropes and patterns. I became fascinated with true crime and why people consume it at such a high rate.

Archival often lays flat on the screen, and it doesn't feel part of an integrated cinematic environment. We wanted to put the audience in the position of watching as if they were there. So we put every piece of archival on a TV and with Naiti Gámez, our DP, we shot in a locations where people might have been watching it at the time. On top of that, Gabriel Sedgwick, one of our producers, found a guy who had created a transparent screen for projection in storefronts. We built this screen and we'd bring it where we went to do interviews. We would show our subject the archival footage projected in front of his face, so that we could see their reaction to it. I did something similar to this when I made a film about my father, In a Dream. We couldn't see the footage, but seeing my father's reactions made the film.

In this case, you get to see the footage and the reaction. That's important in terms of what we were trying to raise questions about: Who were these people, and how they were changed by viewing this media?


An interviewee with footage. Courtesy of Public Record 

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart airs August 18 on HBO.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.