Wrongful convictions and false confessions – these two documentaries inspire a demand for criminal justice reform.

Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.
Published date: October 20, 2018

Leslie on Fire / False Confessions

(Leslie Brinner / Falske tilståelser)

Stefan Berg /Katrine Philp

Sweden,2018,82 minutes /Denmark, Germany 2018 ,93 min

Scandinavian feature documentaries are searching outside of their own territories when looking for a topic, protagonist and setting. Besides giving the Best Nordic Documentary award to the well-deserving The Deminer by Hogir Hirori and the audience award to The Distant Barking of Dogs by Simon Lereng Wilmont, only a few of the films that were nominated at the Nordic Panorama this year were shot in a Nordic country. Therefore, it was all the more pleasing to see that the opening film, Leslie on Fire by Stefan Berg, brought us a little closer to the local grounds of Malmö. False Confessions by Katrine Philp, which won the audience award at this year’s CPH:DOX, was also nominated.

Ghetto hero

Stefan Berg’s Leslie on Fire gives us a peek into the poverty and crime-stricken area of Sofielund, a highly segregated area of Malmö, where we meet the 14-year-old Leslie Tay. Although the protagonist is very likeable and speaks openly about his emotions, it seems as if Stefan Berg couldn’t pin down the theme of his film, hence it is missing some depth.

The young Leslie is a dreamer. He talks and walks like a gangster and wants to be a rock star. When his mother leaves Sweden to return to Ghana, Leslie has to move in with his violent father, whom he doesn’t really know but still fears. He gets into trouble with the school and the law. Leslie’s best friend is sent back to Iran for bad behaviour. Things don’t look promising.

Then the movie takes a sudden leap into the future: 13 years later and Leslie Tay is one of the most promising up-and-coming talents from the rhythm and blues scene in Sweden. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t give us the missing link here, it would’ve been interesting to at least get a glimpse of the inner journey the main character has undergone.

The greatest asset this film has are the black-and-white video recordings of Leslie as a youngster. They introduce us to the milieu of the youth gangs. The video material from the early 2000s is an interesting contrast to the present day situation: Leslie as a thug versus Leslie as a hard working artist; Leslie as an abandoned youth versus Leslie greeted by a horde of fans.

Although Leslie collects awards as a producer and songwriter for other musicians, he continuously postpones the release of his own – long awaited – debut album. This is presented as his greatest challenge: It’s clear that Leslie will not release anything before he’s confident that the crowd will love him. In other words, he’s being strategic.

We follow Leslie through his writing process and feel a bit baffled by how this inarticulate youth grew up to become a sensitive poet. However it seems as if he leads a lonely life as ­we never see him do anything but work. Even when he’s granted the award for the best-dressed man in Sweden – which could be seen as a metaphor for his step up on the social ladder – we don’t get the impression that Leslie feels at home on the red carpet. «I often think of Sofielund,» he states. But where are the people from his past?

The film provides some form of closure when Leslie decides to make his music video in Ghana. Once again we are back in his mother’s home, only this time it’s not a social housing project in Sweden but a mansion in Ghana. We are reminded again that Leslie has many identities, and we can only be amazed by the contrasts. The person who appeared at first as a hard and crude child proved to be a deeply hurt and vulnerable man.

The System

Ever since Netflix launched the documentary series Making a Murderer in 2015, the topic of false confessions has engaged many viewers. Our hair stood on end as we watched the police interrogate 16-year-old Brendan Dassey: The police promised this borderline, mentally challenged young boy that they would let him go home if he confessed to having raped and murdered a woman whom he claimed to never have met. Dassey was interrogated on four occasions during a 48-hour period. His parents were not informed, and he was not given any legal counsel. He caved under the pressure from the police, signed a coerced confession, and ended up with life-imprisonment. We were horrified by the terrible police work and considered this to be a one-of-a-kind tragedy.

False Confessions by Katrine Philp reveals that these tragedies happen regularly: There are systematic methods and tactics used by US police forces that can make anyone confess to anything. In other words, the high number of false confessions are not a result of separate coincidences, which is the impression one could get by watching yet another true-crime Netflix doc series The Confession Tapes (2017).

The leading character in False Confessions, the Danish-born defence attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen in New York, takes us on a journey, visiting four of her past cases of coerced confessions where the convicted ended up being released, and one pending case, which she is preparing to take to court. The process is long, as she states in the beginning of the movie. Once the police have obtained a confession they stop looking at other evidence in the case. The lawyer has to hire a private detective and investigate the case all over again, searching for new evidence that she or he could bring to court. That is why it is so difficult to get a retrial once a false confession has been given.

«There are systematic methods and tactics used by US police forces that can make anyone confess to anything.»

Another obstacle is that once the police have recorded a confession the jury are less likely to acknowledge any hard evidence provided in court that could question that confession. What is withheld from the jury and the judge though, are the methods that were used by the police in order to achieve those confessions. Often the confessions are so detailed that the jury find it hard to imagine them to be anything but genuine. However, what the jury doesn’t know is that it is common practice in law enforcement to feed the suspects details from the crime scene prior to the forced confession.

The Reid Technique

All of the methods mentioned above are listed in The Reid Technique manual, which is widely used in police training programs. It is a teaching manual that gives a detailed description of interrogation techniques: how a suspect should be kept in a small room; how the police officer should stand above the suspect in order to get that final confession. It even recommends that the police lie to the suspect – to claim that they have DNA or other hard evidence tying the suspect to the crime. The psychology professor Saul Kassin explains that «when you lie to people about the facts, you can alter their perception, their memory and just about every aspect of their cognitive understanding.» Some suspects sign the confession after several hours of interrogation thinking that the DNA will prove their innocence. However, the police – once they have obtained a confession – will neglect to gather any further DNA or other evidence.

The cinemascope camera and the alluring film music, composed by Jonas Colstrup, make a strong and seductive introduction to the movie. Therefore, it feels a little disappointing that it turns out to be a documentary – we don’t have that star protagonist with whom we can identify. The lawyer seems a bit too cold and we don’t get close to her on a personal level, nor do we have a chance to get close to the victims in the case studies. This is a drawback as False Confessions would otherwise have been a wonderful film.

Nevertheless, both of these movies are important: They have generated a global dialogue about wrongful convictions, false confessions and the need for criminal justice reform. Considering that the American supreme court recently dismissed Brendan Dassey’s appeal for a retrial, it seems as if we have to make some more fuss before justice is served.


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