Amy Berg listened to the podcast Serial like a lot of people but when she was done with it, she had an unsettling feeling. As a filmmaker, she felt there was more to the story of Adnan Syed and set out to make a documentary. She also wanted to pay respect to Hae Min Lee, the young woman at the Center of the story.
In The Case Against Adnan Syed, Berg highlights in the HBO Documentary Series why Adnan Syed’s case is still very important.
The documentary raises so many questions about the justice system and race and all of that. But, going back, what do you remember about the case and where did you come in thinking there was much more to the story that needed to be told?
I was very fresh on the case because I’d just listened to the podcast and was left with the unsettling feeling, I think that we all felt of not knowing why Jay Wilds’ story kept changing and why the system operated in this way.
Most of all, I wanted to know more about him and Hae Min Lee and I feel she got lost in the “trying to solve the crime.” I wanted to know more and to pay respect to this young woman that everyone spoke so highly of.
As a filmmaker, it was something that I was very interested in seeing. I wanted to go down to Baltimore and get more of a sense of the story visually.
Where do you begin for the best insight into her?
Hae’s journal was part of the trial, and you heard excerpts of that in the podcast. I had had access to the whole journal that began right before prom and ended the night before she went missing. I felt so much for her with the highs and lows of being High School student, falling in love, falling out of love and having trouble with your family. Trying to juggle being a friend, a student and a daughter. I felt the pressures of her life as the first English speaking immigrant in her family and she had so much responsibility at home. She was trying to juggle everything along with her dreams. I dove into that and worked with Sara Gunnarsdóttir who did the animations for Diary of a Teenage Girl, and we created these scenes and storylines for Hae based on the journals that would hopefully bring her to life in some way.
When you’re dealing with true crime, in terms of objectivity, how do you manage to keep that balance?
As a filmmaker, as a human, as a mother, I guess I can’t understand why the justice system likes to rest on this idea of the finality of a judgment from twenty years ago when there is a substantial amount of evidence that warrants a new trial. That’s the hard thing to stomach. That’s always the case in these types of stories. I was documenting this story for three and a half years and there was a lot of progress in the justice system. There were a few big wins. The Court of Appeals ruled for a new trial and I thought there would be some closure in this case. I thought there would be an opportunity for justice.
I think in episode four you see he’s offered a deal and his DNA tests and all the things that come out, you’re expecting a different ending. It is heartbreaking to witness.
What point did you find racism and religion the center point for the narrative?
In the bail hearing, they refer to his Pakistani roots, and that’s jaw-dropping. That should not ever be done. When I saw that and saw they changed his age from 17 to 18 and saw he wasn’t out on bail, it felt like there was racial profiling going on in the case. I interviewed one of the detectives on the case extensively and he talked about the issues they had within communities where English was the second language. He talked about how they were trying to juggle the street fighting that was going on at the time and all these different elements that play as this case was unfolding. It feels like there was tunnel vision detective work being done for sure.
You chose this as your first series, what was it about this case that made you want to take it on as a series?
It was my first series and when we were editing West of Memphis, I remember Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh and I were discussing the possibility of making that into a series because there were so many interesting sub-stories. This felt right for that type of storytelling. It was a unanimous decision between Working Title and HBO and four seemed like the magic number for this story. It seemed to be just right for that.
What was the biggest surprise while making this documentary?
It came out in the podcast, but you got a sense that there wasn’t a lot of corroboration for the facts that were presented in the trial and when you start digging into that and you discover that Hae used a pager every day and there were no pager records. There were security cameras at Best Buy and no one pulled that evidence. I think the most shocking thing was when Adnan’s mom revealed she had leukemia on camera. That’s when you really see the toll that this case has taken.
What was their reaction once they saw the whole series and you want to see the whole series?
For them, watching it is watching their life. They’ve been very gracious and supportive. At the end of the day, they just want their son to be exonerated. He didn’t take the deal that was offered to him because he won’t admit what he didn’t do. His family is still fighting, but their strength is beginning to wane.
What did Adnan say to you?
He’s been pretty consistently optimistic in the time that I’ve been speaking to him, but the optimism is gone. He’s really down, and there’s no other way to say it. Whatever battle he takes on, it’s going to take years.
The biggest shock should be that the prosecutor doesn’t want to provide clarity, closure or peace for everyone who is interested in the case. Over 5 million people care about this case and the fact that he doesn’t want it to allow it to come out in the system, that’s where the outrage should be. I think the absence of prosecutors willing to retry cases is a big problem in the justice system here.