Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantasia Day 7 - The Feast of the Assumption: BTK and the Otero Family Murders

For whatever reason, I ended up with two documentaries tonight, both in da Sève (though not a true double-bill, as I had a slot in between where I could get some dinner). It worked out really well as both movies deal with individuals who are trying to recover from profound psychological damage. It made for a nice thematic pairing and some good points of comparison. Both were also really moving.

I don't know if this is something specific to da Sève, but for both movies held there last night, I could have shown up 20 minutes before the screening time and still been pretty far up in the line, yet both movies were almost sold out.

In the line-up, I noticed these amazing tatoos on the calves of the woman in front of me. She caught me surreptitiously trying to take a picture of them and we ended up having a good conversation. She and her mother came up together from Boston for the week. They are both big movie geeks, the mother leaning towards science fiction and the daughter towards horror. I thought that was pretty cool. She writes for an online literature review called Open Letters Monthly and will be doing something on Fantasia, though it won't be out until later. So check back on the link above, which is tagged to her name.

Pretty beautiful tatoos, eh? She also had a more complex one on her arm with an equally skilled illustration of Jean-Luc Godard. Now that's being a movie lover!

The Feast of the Assumption is the story of Charlie Otero, a guy who came home at the age of 15 to find his mother, father, brother and sister tortured and murdered. They started filming the documentary in 2004, when the BTK murders (there were others as well and the killer had sent taunting letters to the police) had not yet been solved. I guess their initial goal was to see how the survivors of such an event were getting on, but about 6 months into the filming, the BTK killer got caught. Despite this excitement, and several other narrative turns, the film remains focused on Charlie Otero and how he handles what happened to him.

Like, Mark Hogancamp, Charlie is a really sympathetic fellow. He's one of those hard-working working class Americans who has hung out on the wild side of things and has a charming, tough frankness about him. His whole story is just so sad and he is such a likable guy that you are feeling pangs in the heart right from the beginning. It's fascinating to see how someone lives with that kind of pain. He's very aware of how the murders affected him (as is another character who is even more damaged; he was 5 when his mother was murdered in front of him!). You really get the feeling of how much of a burden it would be to have those memories in your mind, to have had your nice, loving family just ripped away from you in the most horrible way.

And holy fuck was the killer a sicko. In the absence of any real info, Charlie comes up with various theories as to what actually happened (the retired investigator on the case concedes that Charlie may have some valid ideas, but this is before the killer gets arrested). When the guy is caught, he turns out to be a local church deacon and petty bureaucrat who had jobs working for a security firm and as an animal control officer. Though he is the proverbial "banal" killer, you can see how with his moustache, uniform and badge that he could be quite intimidating. It's no coincidence that so often these kind of people find a safe place in the ranks of the church or bureaucracy.

I did have some criticisms of the documentary itself. In the first half, they seemed to get really wild with the camera, doing all kinds of annoying and unnecessary zooms and pans into a television screen of a broadcast about the BTK murders. Fortunately, when the story picked up, they toned that down somewhat. They also left out some crucial info about how Rader was actually caught. It wouldn't have been such a flaw except that they spent the first ten minutes setting up how the investigation was dead. (And the way he was caught is really interesting, both psychologically, as perhaps he may have wanted to get caught and tactically, as when he was corresponding with the cops, he asked them if they could trace the source of a floppy disk. They said no and he sent them an old 1.44 MB floppy with a letter on it. They found his first name and the name of his church on the metadata on the disk. And then they searched him on Google! I love that.)

It was a fascinating story and really moving, but I kind of felt like I was watching a television documentary, where some of the narrative, especially at the end, seemed constructed to produce a satisfying narrative. Marwencol seemed more focused and left the situation much more open-ended, giving me a richer, more authentic feeling and thus succeeding more as a documentary. Still, Feast was really fascinating and moving. It was inspiring to see a guy like Charlie Otero taking the shitty hand life dealt him (and kept on dealing him) and just keeping on and trying his best to move forward.

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