The Heresy of Hearsay
More than any Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock movie, directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman's film Cropsey exemplifies the docuganda--a movie disguised as a documentary that is so slanted that it's almost impossible for the audience to draw objective conclusions about its events. When watching a documentary, one puts a certain amount of trust in the filmmakers: Their job is to present a real-life story that educates and entertains. Docugandas take that trust and distort it through entertaining manipulation, leaving the audience to believe that what they're watching is real, even if the story is as fabricated as Avatar.
At the outset, one might think the movie is about what it says it is. Brancaccio and Zeman interview residents of Staten Island, New York, about a bogeyman called Cropsey that many people on the East Coast grew up fearing. In the 1980s, the island's looming Willowbrook Mental Institution was closed down thanks in large part to an expose by Geraldo Rivera. A film crew made public the filthy conditions and lack of care that had plagued the institution for decades. But after the doors were shuttered--we're told--a number of patients and former employees simply took to the surrounding woods, or returned to the abandoned Willowbrook grounds as living ghosts.
One of these was former orderly and sex offender Andre Rand. In 1987, he was convicted of kidnapping a local girl with Down Syndrome named Jennifer Schweiger, who had been found buried in a shallow grave. The authorities could never pin the murder on Rand, but Staten Island residents "knew" he was the killer.
After nearly two decades in prison, Rand was brought to trial again for the 1981 disappearance of 7-year-old Holly Ann Hughes. By this time, the community was certain that Rand had been responsible for murdering every kid who'd disappeared on the island in the 70s and 80s, despite a lack of any supporting evidence. Further hurting his credibility was the fact that he denied the press any interviews and never made public statements (he also looked a lot like George Romero, but I find that a cause for celebration; not suspicion).
While making their film, Brancaccio and Zeman receive several letters from Rand poking holes in the prosecution's argument and maintaining his innocence. This is a first, and a big deal for the filmmakers, who set out to interview Rand in prison--but he turns them away at the last minute for no apparent reason. In the end, Rand receives another kidnapping conviction, making him next eligible for parole at age 93. The fine, law-abiding citizens of Staten Island are happy with the conviction, but wish to God that Rand would just tell everyone where he buried the other bodies.
The filmmakers have two big problems. First, unlike the far superior, similarly themed documentary Paradise Lost, no cameras were allowed inside the courtroom. Zeman is reduced to interviewing former cops at their homes or getting lawyers' opinions on the street; we never hear eyewitness testimony. It's only described to us. What we do get is lots of authoritative-sounding speculation from people who worked these cases twenty-five or more years ago, whose suppositions and prejudices are just as desperate-sounding as the unfortunate parents who lost their children and want justice. For good measure, Brancaccio and Zeman toss in an occult angle that never goes anywhere.
Related to that, the few facts we're presented with don't add up. Apparently, Holly Ann Hughes was abducted at 9:30pm, after her mother sent her to a convenience store to buy soap. Let me repeat that: A mother sent her seven-year-old daughter to the convenience store at 9:30pm to buy soap. Remember, this happened in an area that had seen kidnappings before and was home to a shuttered mental institution whose inmates were believed to be loose in the woods.
The second problem is that Rand was never charged with murder; only two kidnappings. Yes, one of the bodies turned up, but there's controversy surrounding that, too: Some believe Rand was framed. It feels as though Brancaccio and Zeman had bet all their chips on a "guilty" verdict (for murder) as the perfect bow for their serial killer/urban legend documentary. I say this because, from the very beginning of the movie, we're assaulted with ominous music, artificially aged crime scene photographs, and somber narration that leads us to believe we're watching a tragic horror story about a deranged monster.
The presentation is so slanted that it doesn't matter if the courts convict Rand of murder because we've already been conditioned to accept every action on his part to be suspicious and evil. It would be one thing for the filmmakers to let this play out in a straightforward, honest fashion, but Cropsey wants so badly to be a gripping crime drama/horror movie that it goes out of its way to make sure no one in the audience asks the questions that the people on-camera should have asked, too. The whole "urban legend" conceit feels like an afterthought meant to dress up what is essentially the biggest non-story in Staten Island's history.
Further evidence of this lay in the order in which the kidnappings are presented to us. We begin with the most sensational of them, the dead Down Syndrome girl, and then "Tarantino" our way back in time to the other kids, whose disappearances are, perhaps, less sensational. I wondered where the public outcry and crusading search teams were for the other kids. If there's a legitimate reason we couldn't see the cases in chronological order, it's never explained. I guess that kind of questioning has no place in a documentary.
At the end of the movie, I had no doubt that Andre Rand is a weird, troubled guy who probably functions best away from polite society. But I didn't find the filmmakers' characters to be all that great, either. Weighing child murder and propaganda is an apples-and-oranges argument, but let's not pretend that anyone involved in this production has clean hands.
Note: The beautifully gruesome slasher film The Burning also takes place in the woods of New York and features a serial killer named Cropsy (the spelling difference is intentional). Unlike Andre Rand, though, I saw evidence of that guy's crimes.