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SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere: ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter’

Michelle Carter, ' Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,' directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, Michelle Carter, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, HBO

Michelle Carter, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,’ directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere (courtesy of HBO and the film)

The documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a provocative and compelling look at a case which stunned New England. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, presented in the Spotlight Section, the filmmaker examines two different perspectives of the case against Michelle Carter who the court found culpable in the death of her friend/boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Carr features the prosecutions arguments, replete with video clips taken from the courtroom. Also, the filmmaker features the arguments presented by the defense in the courtroom. She does some follow-up interviews of the witnesses on both sides.

The eighteen-year-old, Conrad Roy III, was found in his pick up truck asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at his own hand. He had purchased a generator which trapped the carbon monoxide from his car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, he and Michelle Carter left 60,000 text messages of their relationship, feelings for one another, their mental states, fantasies about being like Romeo and Juliet and more.

However, as the texts made clear, Roy III was in pain and wanted to commit suicide. He was being treated for depression and he was on the medication Prozac which has been tied to suicide deaths. Whether as a friend, help-meet, or as a self-serving, dastardly and willful individual looking for attention as the prosecution painted her, some of Michelle Carter’s final text messages encouraged him to finish his goal to end his life. What was never recorded was the final phone conversation they had together. Whether this was up until the moments of his death is unclear. Only the text messages remain as evidence.

In the first segment, Carr presents an outline of the backstory of the texting relationship between Carter and Conrad Roy III who only saw each other face to face around 5-6 times, but in teenspeak were “talking” which meant they were close. Indeed, Michelle Carter referred to him as her boyfriend. In the first segment Carr includes many of their texts, out of order in following the prosecution’s case to hone in on various arguments. They often texted that they loved each other. Carr culled through the approximately 60,000 texts between the two individuals. She uses their texts and sound effects on a black screen for full effect in both segments of the HBO presentation.

Carr uses video clips from the public hearings during the case. She interviews Conrad Roy III’s family members. There was difficulty between his parents who were divorced and were with other individuals. Clearly, Conrad Roy III didn’t have an idyllic home life, however, the extent to which this contributed to his pain and wanting to commit suicide was only alluded to by Carr briefly in the film. Michelle Carter’s family life was not covered, but her parents are together and supporting her throughout the ordeal and civil lawsuit by Conrad Roy III’s family.

Interestingly, there was no jury trial, but three judges decided the case. Since the media had garnered such an outcry spiking controversy against her, the Defense decided no jury trial was in her best interests. In Part II of the series which is an HBO Showcase and scheduled to air some time in the summer, the documentarian presents the Defense’s perspective why Michelle Carter should not be held accountable for Conrad Roy III’s suicide..

Conrad Roy III, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere

Conrad Roy III, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere (courtesy of the film, HBO)

Michelle Carter never gave voice to her own feelings testifying before the judges in court. Nor was she interviewed for the film. Her testimony, the missing piece of the puzzle, may never be revealed now that she is serving her prison sentence after she lost her appeal.

Carr chronicles the events mirroring each perspective. The film is structured precisely to allow the audience to decide where they land, in support of Michelle Carter or in favor of the prosecution. I found both arguments riveting, but the situation is extremely complex and the film does not evidence the complexity. One must “see” between the lines.

The femme fatale image of Carter whipped up by a media hungry for clicks and viewers tragically skewed the case beyond a proper examination of the mental background related to both Conrade Roy III and Carter. Carr includes the Defense testimony of the doctor who discusses Conrad Roy III’s mental state. Also this witness ties in the effects of Prozac which in some individuals create suicidal tendencies. However, in this area, the film and perhaps the defense’s medical strategy doesn’t go far enough.

Michelle Carter, Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Kroll, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, HBO, Erin Lee Carr

Michelle Carter and her Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Kroll, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, directed by Erin Lee Carr (courtesy of the film, HBO)

I know of at least three individuals who were on Prozac who either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide; these were adults. Conrad Roy III was 18-years-old and it is unclear the extent to which this drug exacerbated his pain on his young mind.

Nevertheless, the focal point of the prosecution’s argument became Michelle Carter’s encouragement of Conrad Roy III in the last hour and one–half of his life to choose death, not life. The Defense strategy used a freedom of speech argument saying Michelle Carter’s speech was protected, and couldn’t be used against her, even though it was morally reprehensible to encourage someone else to commit suicide.

The judges ruled against Carter using as evidence her texts of encouragement. She urged Conrad Roy III to get back into the truck and finish what he set out to do as the carbon monoxide was filling up the cabin. Because she did not encourage him against killing himself, she was given the sentence she received. The Defense could disprove the prosecution’s faulty logic, however, there was no answer for what the judges deemed in their opinions indefensible, which was her encouragement to suicide.

Obviously, Conrad Roy III had doubts the last hour of his life whether to kill himself or not. Interestingly, he sought out Michelle Carter precisely for what she gave him: support in his endeavor. He did not call his parents, his sister, or go on youtube where he would have been discouraged. His parents notified? He would have been put in the Psych Ward. His will to choose one who would support him kill himself is clear: indeed, in that he holds the ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice of texting her, of phoning her and not someone who would stand in the way and prevent his wishes.

However, in that the judges obviated and ignored his obvious, willful selection and damned her. Her texts were used as the weapon to kill him, not his own will, determination, previous texts, treatment for depression, known wishes to commit suicide and the youtube video he posted about “social anxiety.” The evident misogyny in not looking at Conrad’s ultimate selection of Michelle Carter to get what he needed in the last moments of his life is apparent. It was his choice; the responsibility was his, and he took her down with him.

Michelle Carter, "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere

Michelle Carter, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, Erin Lee Carr, SXSW 2019 World Documentary Premiere (courtesy of HBO, the film)

Indeed, the judges and prosecution believed that Michelle Carter should have “gone on record” inspiring Conrad Roy III toward life, though clearly the fact that Conrad Roy III purchased the generator and sat in the pick-up and eventually stayed in the cabin to inhale enough of the poison to kill himself, ultimately revealed that his will was toward death, as heinous as that may seem. The tragic irony is that the text messages “appear” to reveal what happened. However, not even Michelle Carter knew what was going on in the final moments with Conrad Roy III. She only responded to what he told her. Only he knew what he did, for only he was present. Thus, though her Defense didn’t enforce this argument, Carter was swept up in what is largely circumstantial evidence.

Following the judges’ logic, examine the instance of a jumper at the top of a building who is cursed at and screamed at with encouraging phrases to jump by the crowd below. If he jumps, all in the crowd should be held responsible for his death. They are not. Ultimately, the choice whether to jump or not is in the mind/will of the jumper.

The filmmaker by the very nature of her selection process cannot be objective, though she tries. She includes some trial clips over others and interviews of Conrad Roy III’s parents and Michelle Carter’s friends over others. She also interviews the reporters who covered the case.

However, in presenting the clips, to my mind questions are raised about the adequacy of the defense and the adequacy of the testimony of the mental health professionals in the cross examination of the prosecution’s medical professional. There should have been more health professionals testifying about Conrad Roy III’s mental health, the side effects of Prozac, and Michelle Carter’s mental health, etc.

In attempting to organize the series into two parts and “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” the approach is a quick and dirty way to further sensationalize this tragedy and “involve” folks in the “harmless” game of having an “opinion” about Michelle Carter. To actually dig deeper and approach the subjects from another angle would have been more profound and elucidating. The question remains. Where is Michelle Carter’s viewpoint, opinion and testimony in all of this?

Michelle Carter, 'I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,' SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, Erin Lee Carr

Michelle Carter, ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter,’ SXSW 2019 Documentary World Premiere, directed by Erin Lee Carr (courtesy of the film, HBO)

Though this isn’t a focal point, the film does raise additional questions philosophically as to whether it is “right” to assist someone else in their wish to commit suicide to escape extreme mental anguish. If the person appears to aver, should one encourage them in support, or take the opportunity to help them stop their plans, knowing they will try again, perhaps until they succeed? Indeed, teen rates of suicide are increasing as suicide rates overall are increasing in our nation, and especially for those veterans who have PTSD. What is the law’s stance regarding suicide? Did Michelle Carter know? Or is this a matter of human rights and one’s autonomous decision?

Suicide is a slippery slope. Taking into consideration the ages of these individuals (Conrad Roy III was of age), Michelle Carter at the time was younger, the teen mind set, the teen subculture, the lack of communication with parents and siblings of both families, the effects of Prozac, many variables need to be examined to understand better what may have happened. However, Conrad Roy III enacted all of the steps he needed to kill himself, even elected to use carbon monoxide and not a gun or pills. Michelle Carter a supportive friend/girlfriend reacted to what he told her with her texts. But no one was present except Conrad Roy III.

Carr’s work is intriguing in relaying teen social constructs that are current. She focuses on raising the specter of suicide that haunts our culture. The clips of Roy speaking on social media are particularly gut-wrenching. Did his parents see these? Now, more than ever, parents need take note and make sure lines of communication are always open with their children. If this had been the case, would Conrad Roy III have taken the ultimate path he choose for himself?.

The organization of the documentary is sufficient for what the filmmaker’s intended purpose may be, to “have the audience decide.” Another approach might have yielded much more information. The documentary will air in the summer on HBO.

 

 

 

 

 

Johanna Hamilton, An Interview With The ‘1971’ Director

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‘1971’ directed by Johanna Hamilton. Photo taken from the film website.

The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”

Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom  to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.

Johanna Hamilton, director of '1971.' Photo taken from the website.

Johanna Hamilton, director of ‘1971.’ Photo taken from the website.

I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.

The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?

Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.

Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?

There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of '1971.' Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of ‘1971.’ Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?

I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)

I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.

In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?

I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of '1971,' and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of ‘1971,’ and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival 2014.

Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?

Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.

In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.

“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”

It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.

This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.

4th Annual Athena Film Festival Documentary Film, ‘Rebel’

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary.

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary.

The Athena Film Festival 2014, which ran from February 6th to February 9th, offered an amazing array of documentary films. Women are known to direct and helm more documentaries than narrative features. It is clear that their patience, meticulous research skills, and creative brilliance shine in this complex niche, which lends itself to revelation. Documentaries best dive into the underbelly of historical events and enlighten us about men and women whose life stories have hithertofore been obscured, “wiped out,”  or discredited because their content was deemed dangerous or a fiction.

Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter, exemplifies such a documentary; the story of real-life heroine Loreta Velazquez was discounted and nearly eradicated from our history. Was the primary reason because Velazquez was a remarkable woman who transcended the limitations and mores placed upon her sex during the Civil War and afterward? Carter is to be lauded for painstakingly portraying Velazquez’ life on film despite the obstacles she faced to mount the project. Overcoming these issues took time, but Carter engaged her skills, and with her phenomenal effort crafted a jewel. The intensity of the result was well worth it, as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiastic response and their rapt, probing questions during the Q & A. With Rebel, Carter achieves her goal to beautifully relate the story of this courageous and clever woman who is an inspiration for us today..

Rebel directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary Rebel.

Rebel directed by Maria Agui Carter. Photo from the trailer of the documentary Rebel.

Velazquez’s story begins in Cuba where she was educated and raised to be the woman of the house in time when paternalism and patriarchy ruled the lifestyles and actions of the promulgators of culture. Testing the limits of her father’s love and seeing the gross inequities in the treatment of women, Velazquez attempts to equalize her status with males, eschewing the easy “role” of a demure woman. Finding this behavior worrisome, her father sends her to relatives in New Orleans where she eventually continues to throw off her father’s choices of husbands and “women’s duties.” Clandestinely, she marries an American soldier who is sent to the frontier, comes back, and then returns to prepare to fight for the Confederacy.

By this point husband and wife have buried three children and Loreta considers her place to be by his side. He leaves and word comes that he’s been killed. She decides she has nothing to lose and will follow him to fight where he would have fought and kill who he would have killed. She cuts her hair and puts on a confederate uniform. She is alone, but finds comfort having taken his place. And in his place, she learns war, soldiering, and living in hardship with the rough men as well as having her eyes opened to many other things.

The film elucidates more including the risks that Velazquez takes in passing as a Confederate soldier. Carter follows Velazquez with details about her learning curves and discoveries about the rotten elements of war profiteers and currency calculators. From the soldier’s vantage point like never before, Velazquez is able to understand what they are fighting for and the nature of slavery. All of these events, Carter encapsulates with compelling detail and interest. However, this is only the beginning of Velazquez’s adventures. How she ends up fighting for the North and how she ends up as a spy is a fascinating experience. Carter shows that hers is an outer and inner journey. Certainly the nature of the war in the South and all of its ramifications helped to win Velazquez to the other side.

Maria Agui Carter, director of Rebel, the documentary film.

Maria Agui Carter, director of Rebel, the documentary film.

Carter’s film is compelling and engaging. This credible storytelling is at its best in relating Velazquez’s experiences by also highlighting extremely important historical details that shine a probing light on women’s involvement in soldiering during the Civil War. This is an aspect that is not well known. Nevertheless, Velazquez was not alone in picking up the cause and hiding her sex in trousers. The men simply would never have thought it possible; the folkways of feminine identity and behavior simply beggared their imagination to even think it. The women easily were able to dupe the men.

The truth Carter brings to bear in Velazquez’s story enhances our understanding of a time that perhaps is still too uncomfortably close for some to view with perspicacity, wisdom, and integrity. These elements and traits Carter admirably demonstrates in showing us another type of soldier who fought during the bloodletting time to preserve an economic lifestyle perpetuated by the extremist cruelty and degradation. Because her story is so amazing, one hopes that Carter will be able to shepherd the adventures of this courageous, enlightened, and forward thinking woman into a narrative feature film.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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