ANALYSIS: When two paths cross

Reporter reviews Michael Dunn trial documentary

BY NINA METZ
CHICAGO TRIBUNE / TNS

Watching “3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets” is something of a Rorschach test, sussing out your feelings on “stand your ground” laws, racial bias and the fear that even a minor disagreement with a stranger might end with a gun barrel pointed in your direction.

151113_front03The documentary – which premieres Nov. 23 on HBO – follows the trial of Michael Dunn, a Florida man who shot into a carful of teenagers in 2012 after a disagreement over loud rap music coming from their vehicle, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis in the process. (The film actually covers two trials; the first ended in a mistrial on the most serious charge Dunn was facing.)

A threat?
Dunn maintained all along that the teens threatened him and aimed a shotgun in his direction (though no weapon was ever found by police). According to Dunn, he genuinely believed his life was in danger.

The teenagers tell a different story, of a man who pulled up next to them in a gas station parking lot and whom they regarded as a nuisance until he pulled out a handgun and started shooting. That Dunn is White and the teenagers Black is the undercurrent running through this tragedy.

From the courtroom
According to filmmaker Marc Singer, who corresponded with me by email:
“We sought permission to film in the courtroom from the judge a few months before the trial. I was allowed to stand at the back and film, and we also took a feed from two closed-captioned TV cameras in the courtroom. We then mixed those three feeds to provide footage for the media, so they could report daily.”

Singer retained the footage from all three cameras, which he then used for the film itself.

Jordan Davis’ father, Ron, teaches Jordan how to wear a tie in this undated photo. Michael Dunn shot 17-year-old Jordan to death in Jacksonville during a dispute about loud music.(FILE PHOTO)
Jordan Davis’ father, Ron, teaches Jordan how to wear a tie in this undated photo. Michael Dunn shot 17-year-old Jordan to death in Jacksonville during a dispute about loud music.
(FILE PHOTO)

Singer’s presence makes a difference. This isn’t just a static feed we’re looking at. You can sense a filmmaker’s instincts at work: Occasionally his camera will stray to the bailiffs posted around the room, and their micro-expressions are telling.

These are details that do not usually surface in courtroom footage, but they are precisely what gives the movie its texture and complexity and humanity.

‘Very revealing’
“I was focused on the witness stand, the judge and the cutaways,” Singer said. “Even though it felt restrictive to be filming for two weeks in a room with no natural light, I began to seek out the slightest moments of drama via the body language of the people in the room. I think, all in all, they are very revealing and the court scenes feel very cinematic.”

Here’s where the inkblot test comes in: When the surviving teens and Jordan’s girlfriend take the stand, they shed no tears, betray no emotion. When Dunn takes the stand, he can barely keep it together. So, how do you interpret that?

If you’re inclined to side with Dunn, maybe the prosecution’s witnesses come off as emotionless, indifferent and detached (thugs, in Dunn’s estimation), whereas Dunn is still so clearly traumatized by the whole thing.

If you see Dunn’s actions as murder (which a Florida jury ultimately did), those teenagers on the stand seem downright stoic in the face of tragedy while Dunn sheds his crocodile tears – swallowing his sobs over the misplaced belief that he, not Jordan Davis, is the true victim in this case.

Dunn is so weepy that he can’t even get through the first few minutes of questioning from his own attorney without choking up when asked simply to offer up the name of his dog.

Personally I fall into the latter camp, but the beauty of the film is that it leaves room for both interpretations. That’s dancing on a razor’s edge, an outcome few documentaries actually achieve.

Speaking via phone
Dunn’s fiancee’s testimony (she is also a puddle of tears on the stand) ultimately compels the jury – I won’t spoil it here. Both she and Dunn declined to be interviewed for the film, but Singer was able to access Dunn’s phone calls from prison, which reveal, as Singer put it, “the extent to which Dunn perceives himself as a victim and that his life and the lives of his family have been irreversibly damaged.”

Here’s one exception: “This will be behind us before we know it,” Dunn tells his fiancee. And then: “I can’t shake the notion that I’m like the rape girl they’re blaming because I was wearing skimpy clothes. I’m the victim that’s being blamed. I was attacked, and I refuse to be a victim.”

Singer said he thinks the phone calls are “more revealing than any face-to-face interview we might have had.”

‘Competing narratives’
It’s worth noting that the movie is not a balanced piece of journalism (nor should it be; it’s never fair to hold documentaries to that standard), but there really is something about the way Singer allows you see how a jury might buy into Dunn’s defense.

“Conceptually I was considering that what happens in a trial is really the telling of two stories, one by the prosecution and one by the defense,” Singer said. “And whilst we are reminded by the seal in the courtroom that ‘In God We Trust,’ sitting there filming the trial, it felt more like, ‘He who tells the best story wins.’ Essentially the trial is a war of competing narratives about one moment in time where people’s paths crossed and lives were irreversibly changed.”

Singer said he “wanted to make a film that was very tight, that was just about this one trial, that didn’t tell the audience what to think but rather allow them to feel as a jury would – i.e., to be able to reach their own conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the killer.”

A jury in Florida found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. After the verdict is read, the judge lays into Dunn: “There’s nothing wrong with retreating or deescalating a situation.”

Amen to that.

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