False Confessions


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

False Confessions
"The strongest scene in this film involves video of the interrogation of a 14-year-old with an expert explaining how psychological traps are being set as they appear."

Would you confess to a crime you hadn't committed? Most people asked this question say no, of course they wouldn't. But when subjected a skilled professional interrogation, almost everybody does. Katrine Philp's documentary explores the phenomenon of the false confession and follows defence attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen as she campaigns to have such techniques outlawed in the US.

To most people, there is nothing more convincing than a confession. It's part of the narratives we've all grown up with. At the end of the episode or the movie, the villain tells all. There's an emotional release. Everybody relaxes; we can all go home. Under enough pressure, sufficiently deprived of sleep, suspects often come to believe that if they make a confession then they can go home, even if they've just told police officers that they killed someone. Then they end up in court and even if they deny what they said previously, even if DNA evidence appears to exonerate them, the confession is what juries believe.

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The strongest scene in this film involves video of the interrogation of a 14-year-old with an expert explaining how psychological traps are being set as they appear. Some of them will be obvious even to untutored viewers, such as the leading questions followed by a demand for a simple, inevitably incriminating yes or no, yet even here it's easy to see how overwhelming the situation is for the young person involved, how confused he is and how much he wants to please in order to get out of trouble - a situation in which it's all too easy to start going along with things when one shouldn't.

Fisher-Byrialsen has spent years working on he case of a woman who was accused of murdering her landlord at a time when drug addiction made it hard for her to understand what was going on. Although the point is not laboured, the choice of stories presented here illustrates the disproportionate number of vulnerable people and people from stigmatised minority groups who are in this situation. One of the most disturbing aspects of this particular case is that it takes years to arrange a retrial, meaning that even after serious doubts are raised about the safety of a conviction, people can be let languishing in prison. There seems to be a serious lack of resources indicating a lack of public interest in helping those who may be inappropriately imprisoned.

The documentary touches on the case of the Central Park Five but otherwise shies away from high profile incidences of convictions being overturned. Much of the focus is on the detail of Fisher-Byrialsen's work, emphasising how much work is involved in this kind of process. This won't necessarily be gripping for viewers but it's important to communicating the realities of the situation. It reflects a thoroughness in Philps' approach that is sometimes detrimental to the film's pacing but enhances its value as a record.

Overall, this is an interesting film which cannot help but generate outrage, though at its core it is more interested in explanations and possible solutions.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2018
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False Confessions packshot
A documentary looking at why and how people confess to crimes they didn't commit.

Director: Katrine Philp

Starring: Jane Fisher-Byrialsen

Year: 2018

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Denmark, US


DOC NYC 2018

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The Central Park Five