This weekend, I watched Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1992 documentary film Brother’s Keeper. The film chronicles the trail of Adelbert “Del” Ward for the supposed murder of his brother, William “Bill” Ward. Del and Bill, along with their two other brothers, Lyman and Roscoe, lived in a clustered and dilapidated shack on the farm where they were born in the town of Munnsville, NY. The film provides a stunning example of the way in which perceptions of regional identity can have very real effects on peoples’ lives through perceptions of otherness and criminality. The clips where Berlinger and Sinofsky film network television crews interviewing local residents are also enlightening in this respect. In response to this negative aspect of regional identity, the film also showcases how regional identity can be used to rally local forces against a perceived wrong committed by an outside force. Additionally, the local residents often show themselves to be much more perceptive about the case, as well as liberal-minded and socially progressive, than the representatives of the urban center.
Though the narrative of the film itself draws too harsh a line of distinction between the urban prosecution and the rural defense, the actual circumstances of the film’s production speak otherwise. Berlinger and Sinofsky, by the end of the film, have developed a close relationship with the Ward brothers. Roscoe even names two beloved pet turkeys after the filmmakers. As such, the filmmakers, who are identified with the metropolis by several interviewees, effectively cross the rural/urban binary, and in doing so open up a new space of creativity and communication. In this new interconnectivity, Berlinger and Sinofsky’s film is as much a part of the regional response to the urban intrusion as the rallying together of the Munnsville locals.
Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger and Sinofsky, 1992)
Read more about the film here.