Docs

Viewpoint: Crafting true crime content that makes a difference

Anna Hall (pictured) is the founder of Leeds-based indie Candour Productions. As a director and executive producer, she has been nominated for multiple BAFTA awards and won multiple Women in Film ...
May 19, 2022

Anna Hall (pictured) is the founder of Leeds-based indie Candour Productions. As a director and executive producer, she has been nominated for multiple BAFTA awards and won multiple Women in Film & Television awards, as well as an RTS Journalism award. Here, she discusses balancing the booming demand for true-crime content with the moral and ethical considerations needed to honor those who have been victimized.

I’ve spent much of my career making films about violence against women and children. Lots of people ask me how I keep going; in fact, that’s probably the most-asked question of my career.

I’ve made films about the grooming and sexual exploitation of young teenage girls; people forced into marriage and so called “honor-based” violence; domestic abuse and coercive control; intra-familial sexual abuse; and, more recently, historic sexual abuse and rape. It’s a long and horrible list, I know, and every time I get a film out, I seriously have to draw breath and ask myself if it’s all too much. I guess I’ve always justified my work in the past because I hope it has made a difference, even if it reached just one person sitting at home on their sofa.

But now there’s a new dilemma facing me and hundreds of other directors like me. The true-crime box set [limited series] has come along, and we all binge. From Making a Murderer to The Staircase to The Jinx to Tinder Swindler, we love it. We look forward to the next big hit. And I am as guilty of that as anyone.

But there is a question at the heart of our addiction that we all have to ask ourselves. Why are we making it? For money? Of course. For entertainment? Of course. The sweet spot is in finding that fascinating, twisty-turny story, brilliantly and creatively told. Just about every channel we talk to at the moment wants “stranger than fiction” or “complex layers” in their crime stories.

But I do worry. I worry for me as a director. Am I losing my core beliefs regarding why I am making these films? Can I produce a film that I think has meaning and value? I admit, my greatest fear is the word “gratuitous.”

These days, I get asked by commissioning editors to cut documentary like drama. I don’t mind doing that — in fact, I love it. But with true crime, I always have to think about that balance. It’s got to be factually accurate (my favorite phrase), but I know that in order to “cut through” I’ve got to constantly find ways to engage a drama-hungry audience. It’s an audience that is seeking twists and turns in a story, that loves suspense, pacing and the thrill of the reveal. Gone are the days when the pre-title tells you it all. But the “gratuitous” demon in my head lurks everywhere I turn — am I turning this horrific story into a box set to be binged on a Saturday night? Why am I making this film or series?

Candour’s latest series is a three-parter for Sky Docs that certainly falls under the genre of true crime. In Libby: Are You Home Yet?, the possibilities for veering into gratuitousness live with me every moment of every day. But I know I’ve got a really unique opportunity to tell the story of the murder of 21-year-old Libby Squire with more forensic detail than ever before.

Every minute detail of the police investigation has been given to us exclusively. We’ve interviewed Libby’s family and her friends – those who knew her from toddler Libby to 21-year-old Libby — those who were with her the night she wandered off into a dark and very cold January night, drunk and most certainly hypothermic. We’ve interviewed the people who saw her that night, the people who tried to stop her, and the people who were previous victims of one deeply disturbed and sexually deviant man. None of these people have told their stories before.

So why would I want to do this? To tell the story of how the police caught this man in forensic detail? Sure. To try and capture Libby’s kindness and love for the people around her (I’ve never known anyone who genuinely had so many best friends)? Sure. To look at how we respond now to these crimes in an age of instant judgement, victim-blaming and the cacophony of voices on social media? Sure.

I’ve got a long list of what I’d like to achieve in this series, but it’s all what commissioners here in the UK would call “worthy” stuff. I want to encourage people to report so-called “low-level” sexual offences: the guy masturbating on the bus or the tube (did I report that when it happened to me? No, I didn’t); the voyeur. We have a 1970s view of the “flasher,” and no one reports because they think the police won’t take it seriously. Yet just about every woman I’ve talked to says it’s happened to her. And the people who did report those crimes in this case were the people who provided the information that led to Pavel Relowicz’s arrest.

I want us to think about what would it take to stop the Pavel Relowiczes and the Wayne Couzenses [the killer of Sarah Everard], both of whom escalated their offending until ending up in rape and murder. What if we’d caught them when their offending was still “low-level”?

So yes, I’ve got a list. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. But I am also challenging myself to make a series which is full of suspense and intrigue and is more like a drama than a doc, but which ultimately aims to do justice to Libby, her family and her story. Libby was murdered. Ripped from her family. She was 21. And I guess the day I stop caring about Libby and her family is definitely the day I have succumbed to the demon of gratuitousness, and I will know it’s time to stop.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.

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