Take two popular high school seniors, a secret romance, and all the emotions that run deep in a small Baltimore community when one teen is murdered and the other becomes the accused. Such is the backbone of director Amy Berg’s new documentary, The case against Adnan Syed.
Based on a 1999 case covered in the wildly successful podcast Serial, this four-part series continues to investigate the huge gaps in the murder trial of 17-year-old Hae Min Lee, in which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was found guilty.
It takes chutzpah to tackle one of the most high profile murder cases in recent history. After all, millions had tuned in when Serial first aired in 2014 — barely five years ago. What fresh details could a new documentary add to its predecessor’s lengthy investigative work?
Turns out what sets Berg’s project apart is something that gets lost in most true crime shows — the victim’s side of the story. While docuseries like The Ted Bundy Tapes primarily feed viewer’sfascination about charismatic-people-gone-bad, often reducing victims into “a string of names and silent faces”, Berg is determined to changes this.
In an interview with The New York Times, she explains that one of her biggest motivations to create the show was to humanise Lee through it. “The victim often gets lost in true crime storytelling, and I wanted to start and end the story with Hae Min Lee… the objective of this film to begin with was to bring a young woman full of hopes and dreams back to life,” says Berg.
There are obvious challenges to bringing back the victim’s voice. Logistics, for one. In The Case Against Adnan Syed, Berg and her team makes creative use of their access to Lee’s journal. Visuals and doodles are used to illustrate key scenes, and the documentary opens with a voiceover of a paragraph from the late teen’s diary entry.
In this way, TV is perhaps a better medium to restore someone’s life with nuance than a podcast series. When we see Lee right there in the old photos and the faces of loved ones as they speak of her, it’s hard to dismiss her story as yet another “whodunnit”.
By weaving Lee’s voice into the narrative, Berg reminds us that she’s more than a victim in a true crime mystery. Instead of asking her friends to talk about the day of her disappearance, we hear them reminiscing about the small details of their life together: prom, boyfriends, strict parents, lacrosse. The accompanying side by side photos show that what stays unsettled isn’t just Syed’s perceived innocence or guilt, but the emotional aftershock from a life lost.
And here lies a central dilemma in true crime storytelling. While this documentary focuses on Lee just as much as Syed, only Syed has given consent for his story to be told. In this and other similar series (The disappearance of Madeline McCann, Making a Murderer), the victim’s families have chosen not to participate as it digs up old wounds and yanks away any closure they’ve fought hard to keep.
The question is, can storytellers revisit painful territories ethically, and more importantly — is there anything other than viewer’s fascination to be gained?
Here, Berg’s reporting reveals an interesting double-bind. Two decades on, many people whose lives became intertwined with Lee’s case are still desperately seeking closure. Even if it means different — and often contradictory — things. Lee’s close friends want to keep her memory alive by sharing details of their high school lives. Acquaintances and witnesses want to be heard after discovering the misinformation that was fed to them. Some want closure by rectifying the situation, while others are tired of their unsolicited fame and just want to be left alone.
For Syed and his family, closure means an end to the long fight to prove his innocence — something that seems tenuous after the highest court in Maryland overturned the appeal for a retrial this March, days before Berg’s documentary was due to air in the US.
If this was just another episode of a murder mystery, there would be justice brought about by indisputable science and closure for everyone. But in The case against Adnan Syed, Berg shows that beyond the blunt force of a verdict, there is also a chance for remembrance. No matter what new and compelling evidence is unearthed, a young girl was senselessly murdered. And as viewers, we have the duty to remind ourselves that Lee is more than just another name in a true crime synopsis.
Episode two of The Case against Adnan Syed airs on Sunday April 14 on SBS at 9:40PM. Catch up on episode one on SBS On Demand.
Annie Hariharan is a business consultant, pop culture nerd and occasional writer focusing on identity and feminism.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_