‘Amanda Knox’ Puts Its Subject on the Stand

The true-crime documentary serves as another kind of retrial.
Amanda Knox Documentary
By  · Published on October 4th, 2016

It is never okay to review the human subject of a documentary. But many film critics do that instead of, or as part of, reviewing the documentary. And that’s not to say the typical viewer can’t or doesn’t look at a real-life character and judge them. Even film critics may do that privately. There’s just no place for it in a film review, which should be focused on the craft of the film. That said, this is not a review of the documentary Amanda Knox.

This is also not a review of the person Amanda Knox. It is an acknowledgment that for much of the Netflix film’s audience, judging the woman, who was accused and convicted and then acquitted of the murder of her roommate while studying in Italy in 2007, is the whole point. The film is another retrial, this one public and effecting no official consequences whether her millions of new judges believe her to be innocent or guilty.

By appearing in the film, front and center telling her story directly to the camera, she’s putting herself on the stand in a manner that in an actual trial defendants are discouraged from doing. This doesn’t appear to be an interview with her by the directors (Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn) so much as it seems primarily a personal statement intended to set her side straight, though we can assume it comes out of a process of examination.

We also may assume that the directors are, in this analogy, her defense attorneys. While the documentary does leave the story somewhat ambiguous at the end – the case is unsolved, after all – it also presents evidence that can be seen by the viewer as proof that Knox was not involved in the murder, just as the same evidence set her and then-boyfriend and fellow defendant Raffaele Sollecito free.

Aside from making a convincing argument for their innocence through simple diagrams and discussion of forensics, the film doesn’t do its subjects much service. None of them. But particularly Knox. For someone who was already publicly and legally judged on her personality through media representation and her own behavior and testimony at her trials, it’s a wonder what benefit she expected in participating.

I joked on social media that because she pronounces the title of the movie Amelie in a strange way that she must be guilty. That’s the sort of thing viewers are doing all over, though, and many of them with more seriousness. I’ve seen people turned off by her just for constantly using the phrase “make love.” None of our thoughts on her character is fair determination of her guilt, but it’s human nature to think this way.

Like any documentary, there is much editing involved, and regardless of any favor meant to go towards her, the choppiness of her statement is problematic. There are even points where it sounds like she’s cut off mid-sentence when the film features just her audio. There are also many shots of Knox staring blankly, silently forward, looking cold and robotic. But a robot that’s been broken down. We’re seeing a woman who’s been through a lot.

This isn’t a new or isolated matter for this film. Any documentary where a person can represent a defendant position is going to be unfavorable to that side. Many defensive parties decline to appear, as if to plead the Fifth Amendment, but documentaries treat that silence as incriminating. Yet when someone does appear, like for example a man acting as the face of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in another new Netflix doc, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, he is negatively portrayed – rightfully, maybe, but still.

Subjects who are centrally the stars of their own documentaries are even more fascinating, and we are seeing more and more of them. This year’s Author: The JT Leroy Story revolves around Laura Albert telling of how she basically Catfished the literary world with her JT Leroy alter ego, and of course she remains an unreliable narrator. Some subjects, like The Imposter’s Frederic Bourdin, seem to regret doing their films later.

The most similar to Amanda Knox is Errol Morris’s 2010 film Tabloid (it almost feels like a remake at times), whose main subject, Joyce McKinney, has been judged and laughed at. She has scolded audiences in person at screenings and sued Morris for portraying her negatively, though she also appears to love the attention all the same. We can think what we want of her, believe she’s crazy, but it’s not our place to truly diagnose or judge her.

Same goes for Knox, whose story is more serious than these other examples since there was a murder, as well as the wrongful imprisonment of multiple persons for many years. Unlike Tabloid, it doesn’t play the case or those involved as a wild tale with outrageous characters. It’s rather disapproving of the tabloid nature of much of Knox’s media coverage, and Daily Mail contributor Nick Pisa is even being labeled by many as the film’s villain.

The documentary does a poor job of really covering and addressing how much the media and public focused on her expressions and behavior, including an infamous courtroom wink and a heavily scrutinized moment of crime-scene affection between her and Sollecito. It recognizes it without having anything to say about it, and then it allows for a doubling down by showing certain pieces of it and by having Knox testify once again.

From The Thin Blue Line to The Jinx: Errol Morris’s True Crime Prototype

Everyone in a documentary can be said to be performing in some manner or other, even more so than they do in real life offscreen. Talking before the camera, Knox is not sworn to tell the truth, and she’s also presumably not coached by anyone to be a certain way. She surely wasn’t encouraged to show any extra grief for her dead roommate, Meredith Kercher. She appears as she wants to be seen, conclusively.

Nothing about Knox’s testimony in the documentary is self-incriminating, but there will still be people who think her personality, as read by them as unlikable, ties her to the crime in some way. She probably doesn’t care what people think of her, whether people find her likable or not. So why bother with the documentary? Perhaps just for the personal closure. The thing is, in using a film for that purpose, it’s also and more for our personal indulgence.

Amanda Knox is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.