Brother’s Keeper

With every passing year, I find myself more and more awestruck by art forms that reveal secret truths about the human condition—those aspects that we all recognize yet never convey in “acceptable” everyday conversation.

I think this is why I am drawn to Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger‘s cinema verite style documentary film, “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) which treats the trial in 1990 of Delbert Ward, a severely mentally disabled man accused of killing his brother William. In fact, all four of the Ward brothers–Delbert, Lyman, Roscoe, and William– were mentally disabled.  They ran a small dairy-farm in Munnsville, New York, and lived in a small dilapidated farm-house without running water or electricity, and filled from floor to ceiling with trash, broken appliances, and other debris.   In seeing the farm for the first time, as the filmmakers recalled, they thought of it as “Deliverance North,” a moniker that captures the stereotypes of rural life that would come to shape the case.

While the film addresses the issues of mental competency and culpability and the failures of our justice system, this does not seem to be its primary purpose.  Rather, it seeks to locate what the filmmakers referred to in an interview as “truth with a lower-case ‘t'”, not the truth of Delbert’s guilt or innocence, but certain truths about the human condition.

In intimate shots within the home of the brothers and on their property, Sinofsky and Berlinger help us to draw near to people whose experiences are remote from our own yet appear nonetheless as strangely familiar. For example, when asked by the filmmakers if he knows the difference between the truth and a lie, Delbert replies, “Maybe, maybe not,”   a phrase that captures a man who exists outside of our legal and ethical frames much as we are all, at one time or another,  out of step with societal mandates and expectations.

But perhaps one of the most meaningful bits of dialogue for me is Delbert’s response to the filmmakers inquiry about what is he thinking about–“a penny for your thoughts” as I’ve heard people ask from time to time.  “Not thinking, just looking,” is Delbert’s reply, which perfectly articulates the welcome respite from our over-articulated lives that this film affords us.

This film is resonating with me in a different way this spring than it has in the past– for fairly obvious reasons.  The slowness of the film’s pace and its almost complete lack of drive appeal to me simply in their defiance of our expectation of being entertained, of being treated to a narrative arc that we seldom sense in real life.   This sense of a shift in our priorities and expectations is palpable.    Brother’s Keeper offers us something rather precious and rare–access into the privileged space of someone else’s life.  

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One Response to Brother’s Keeper

  1. Brett says:

    I just watched this documentary. What an amazing look into these brother’s lives…it was heart wrenching for me to think that he probably did do a mercy killing for his brother, and the fact that he had to deal with the haunting memories of trying to do right by his brother. Maybe they discussed it and never really thought much about some big city prosecutor and national media pouring into their simple lives. They probably didnt know anything existed outside their shack, never mind Munnsville. Even if he did do it, Im glad he died a free man. We may not understand their life and the rules they followed, but they sure couldnt fathom ours. Great article!

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