Exhibit A’s Director on Breaking Down Junk Science in Netflix’s New Series
In this docuseries, the subject is fairness rather than murder.Photo Courtesy of Netflix TV Features Exhibit A
In many ways, Exhibit A is the opposite of what a true crime show has come to mean. In Netflix’s new documentary series, blood and gore is minimal, if it exists at all. The cases it rehashes aren’t cold. In the episode I saw, no one even got hurt during the crime—the episode looked at armed robberies, but the gun never went off. There was no new evidence to introduce, new witnesses to find, or new theories to speculate about. And for director Kelly Loudenberg, fairness became more of her subject than murder.
In the four episodes of Exhibit A’s first season, Loudenberg examines the forensic science that helped close a case. The series looks at blood spatter, video evidence, touch DNA, cadaver dogs, and how each of those shaped the case, influencing what happened to the people suspected of committing the crime. “I think often when you have something called science, you take it at face value, but it’s not,” Loudenberg said when we spoke over the phone. “I think the next round of waves of exonerations will be from, and have been from, junk science. It’s the leading cause of wrongful conviction. I think we just have to be now aware that this happens a lot.” (As such, a man featured in the series is going to get a retrial.)
Instead of presenting a new theory about a crime that occurred, Exhibit A takes a critical look at what the people involved in the crime think they know. Loudenberg shows how the evidence, forensic science, witnesses, suspects, and lawyers each tell their own story of what happened, and then allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Instead of shaping a new narrative, she lays bare the one that exists.
In doing so, Loudenberg gently pokes at the flaws in the system, and teaches the steps of critical thinking it takes to see evidence more clearly. And in a world where narrative stories aren’t always trusted—and video can be manipulated to bend the truth—that may be the most important lesson to learn.
Paste: How did you decide to look at those aspects of forensics?
Kelly Loudenberg: We really worked from the most interesting cases and characters outward. It was part of identifying what the problematic sciences were. But also within that, we had to find a way to tell a compelling story. It was kind of the chicken or the egg, trying to figure out, “Okay, well this science really needs a spotlight, but we’re not finding a case that we could really expand on at the moment”—also given the time constraints we were working in. There was a fifth episode on bite mark science that was a pilot and was the most important one, and I don’t know if I should talk about it, but there was just some political reason that it was pulled at Netflix. I think that would’ve given a more comprehensive view of what I was trying to do.
Paste: What do you think it illustrated better?
Loudenberg: Bite marks were my entry into this. It’s the most egregious example—I mean, aside from maybe microscopic hair analysis. That was just the science that I saw that was just so obviously unscientific and shouldn’t be allowed in the courtrooms. There was such a nationwide effort to get it banned from being used. Because it was on its way out but still existing, I thought it would be a good example of how it can go wrong. It was a kind of macrocosm that could represent the other sciences. As we continued looking at all the different sciences, it was just narrowing it down to the most interesting cases and the most interesting characters and trying to create a diverse tableau. I just wanted to try to show how it affected people in different geographies, of different backgrounds and races and genders and socioeconomics. Trying to pick from that, within four episodes, it’s a little hard. But we were going for that. So those are the sciences that could easily be included.
Paste: I really liked that the episode I saw was a case that wasn’t super sensationalized. No one had died, no one got hurt, and it was like this could have happened to anyone. Is that something that you thought about?
Loudenberg: Definitely. That was super important in that case. It’s not like I’m a true crime filmmaker that loves murder and blood and guts and goriness. I don’t like that stuff. It makes me really uncomfortable. I actually like that there was nobody hurt here. I mean, George Powell is hurt because he’s been in prison for over 10 years. No one was killed. In the DNA case there was somebody badly injured and blinded in one eye for life. So it was a horrendous crime, but the victim is still alive. It didn’t need to be these cliché, sensational, murder cases. That’s not how the real world works, anyway. A lot of people are convicted on bad science and it’s handwriting, it’s for fraudulent checks. You know what I mean? It’s not always bloody murder, like you’d see in Dexter.
Paste: One thing I’m really interested in with this series is how you get people to question stuff they think they know, while using a medium that people don’t always trust. You’re using video to tell people not to trust video. How do you portray yourself as trustworthy?
Loudenberg: That was definitely something we, as filmmakers, thought about a lot while we were making it. It was probably the most meta episode. Filmmaking is subjective no matter what. Especially when you’re using the medium of storytelling. I tried to make that a question more than something I was going to try to answer. So, I think if people were asking that question, I think that’s important. I try to present all different sides to this, looking at the same piece of information and seeing different things. That was what boggled my mind about it. I try to be fair. But I think we all have to concede that we’re telling a story. It’s still a version of that story. I try to present as many different sides as I can.
Paste: How do you cope with telling sides? If you’re looking at different sides of things, one of them could just be false. Do you still show that or do you decide not to include it? Or has there been any instances of that?
Loudenberg: We’re just trying to show a rounded three dimensional view on this. In the episode you saw, Elsie P, who was the hotel desk clerk or manager, she knew George in a different way. She had a different context and perspective on that, and she saw him in the video on the nightly newscast and she thought it was him. I think that’s valid. But if you really look at all the camera angles and you really get down to it, there’s no way it could’ve been him because this person was much shorter. There seems to be a line somewhere. I don’t know where the line is. It’s hard because there’s always a flip side, and you could keep going forever.
Paste: I have a question about how you talk to and relate to your subjects. For instance, when you’re talking to the hotel manager, are you trying to convince her? Are you trying to say, “Look, this isn’t what happened,” or are you just there to listen?
Loudenberg: I think it depends. It’s probing a little bit. Asking them to be reflective. I think I’m more interested in at first trying to see what her memory of that is. Because often these people haven’t thought about this in a while and I’m getting a very fresh memory. But then, they may not know things. They may not know some of the things that have happened since, or they might not know that there were certain Brady violations. If I introduce that information, it changes how they remember, but I first want to gather what their memory was before giving anything new. It’s a little bit of push and pull.
I’m also interested in character, too, and Elsie is just an amazing character. She had a big impact on that case, but she’s not a bad person. I was just interested in that some people’s eyes, she was the villain. I don’t know if she knows how much of an impact she had on the jury. Then you talk to her, and she’s just a working class lady, running her own business, trying to make ends meet.
Paste: How do you think this kind of critical thinking applies outside of the courtroom and the justice system? Do you think about how it applies to doctored videos, or reading the internet, or how you talk to people?
Loudenberg: It definitely has changed. Even doing this series has changed me in a way that just made me more open minded. We always think we’re open minded until we start talking to people. I was looking at how people actually look at the world differently. They actually have completely different viewpoints based on how they grew up, based on the information that they gather through life and they collect. I think it just made me want to be more kind toward people who think differently than me and it made me want to listen more. It made me see the common thread through all of us, that we’re not that different when we start talking to each other. I don’t know. Trying to cut through the bullshit a little bit. I try to bring that into other parts of my life and try to be kinder toward people and be a little bit more open and patient. Right now we’re in a time where I feel like it’s kind of hard to do. It’s such a divisive time.
Paste: Does that affect how you do your filmmaking?
Loudenberg: I think that trying to divide people under these camps, like bad person, good person, is maybe not as interesting for me as it is knowing how nuanced the stories are and knowing that there’s more complexity there and there’s a gray area to explore. I think that’s what I’m interested in, and I don’t want to just paint people in this light as one way or the other. I think I’m always interested in the gray area because I just see that that’s true in people. It’s not all there, black and white. Sometimes that’s the message we get, but I think there’s more to it. You know in these true crimes, it’s either the police are the good guys or the police are the bad guys. And that’s not true, often times. I had the pleasure of talking to some police officers and trying to understand how they do their investigations. Some people are nicer than others. But I guess I began to try to empathize in some cases and just know that there’s more to it than what I was seeing.
Paste: I feel like sometimes it is hard to show that empathy to the police if you know that they did something that you don’t agree with or if they’re corrupt, especially when you’re looking at the people who are in jail who maybe shouldn’t be. How can you not be angry then at the person who made this decision or the system that put them there?
Loudenberg: It’s hard. There were a lot of times when I was very upset by this, and I think there are people responsible. When I was doing the interviews and reaching out to these people, I had to find a middle ground in myself in order to be fair in the interview. But sometimes those other feelings overcame that. I tried to be in the interview, fair. Even if I had to do some pep talking before that. Because the thing I understood about police officers is they see bad people all the time, and they’re seeing people who actually did these crimes. There are a lot of guilty people out there and people that do horrendous things to each other. That is how their world view is shaped—through guilty people. So, when an innocent person comes along, they’re not really seeing things in that framework. They’re kind of blinded by that. And they’ve seen all these horrible crime scene photos. For me, I hate looking at that stuff. But if you were to have to look at that all the time, how would that change your view on humanity?
Paste: I think you do a good job with treating all your interview subjects fairly. As a filmmaker, how do you not frame someone within the scene as a villain? How do you visually make that fair?
Loudenberg: It was a very small crew, and we had to deal with the places we were given. So we were often just trying to find the most cinematic frame in the space we had. It’s not like we’re given a ton of money. We’re shooting this out in the location without scouting ahead of time. We would never want to manipulate somebody’s interview frame visually. To me, that’s wrong. We tried to keep all the frames looking the same, definitely within each episode, but across the whole series, too. I just would never want to use our interview frame to make someone look like a villain. We want to start with a blank slate and be fair.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.