When did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?
Probably as a girl living in suburban Los Angeles, reading Nancy Drew mysteries. I just always had a bunch of questions, and I was keen to hear from the underdog. As an adult, I found my way into doing investigative reports for television – but I would watch a story that I had been preparing for three months get cut down to three minutes at the last second because there was a high-speed car chase or something. It’s a tough work environment. Even though I worked on longer-form pieces, I would still get calls at three o’clock in the morning telling me that I needed to get on a plane in a few hours. I would be like, “Ah! What are you doing to me? I’ve got a life!” Then I started reporting on abuse in the Catholic Church for CBS News, and I used that as a jumping off point to make my documentary Deliver Us From Evil, which then got nominated for an Oscar. Thankfully, I’ve never had to go back to the daily grind of a newsroom since then!
The case of Hae Min Lee’s murder has been pored over by millions of Serial fans; what are you hoping that people will take away from The Case Against Adnan Syed?
A lot of the issues in this case are related to the American justice system, which is heavily flawed. What’s really interesting about this story are the interracial dynamics and how people are working for and against each other in a community that’s known for being such a melting pot. I believe that racial bias played into this case to a tremendous degree. In a world of Brexit and Donald Trump, it’s more important than ever to be connected to stories like this and get off the “white privilege horse”. I also love that it’s one of the first times that I’ve seen the life of a Muslim-American family documented in this way. Otherwise, I would love for Serial fans to have a better sense of who Hae Min Lee was and how the rest of her community was affected by her death.
How did you prepare to get into the mindset of Hae? And what made you include an animation of her in the documentary?
Firstly, I read her journal – many, many times. It starts right before she goes to prom with Adnan and ends the night she disappeared. So, it gave me a really accurate portrait of her life at that period of time. Shortly afterward, I watched Marielle Heller’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, which I thought was so great at conveying the teenage experience. So, I got in touch with the Icelandic animator Sara Gunnarsdottir and asked her to bring Hai to life in a way that felt authentic – to portray her as a beautiful young girl rather than simply as a victim. It’s a risky choice because I’ve never seen that done before in a documentary. I had a number of people audition to voice Hae in the film – but the narration ended up being done by my junior editor after Hae’s friend Aisha heard her speaking and said that she should do it.
What are some of the issues that you found with the case against Adnan during filming?
A lot of the time, prosecutors use an adult mentality to win cases – even when those cases involve teenagers. One of the first criminology studies I read while preparing for the documentary was about murder statistics. This scenario – in which a high school boyfriend is scorned and murders his ex-girlfriend when she begins seeing someone else – is highly unusual. When it does happen, there are usually lots of other indications that one would notice, like violence at school and heavy drug use. When you go back and look at how that case was presented, it’s such an adult narrative – the honour killing and so on. The people involved in the Serial case were just a bunch of teenagers. In fact, when you meet the students who were at Woodlawn High School when Hae disappeared, a lot of them are still stuck in the high school experience. The experience kind of traumatised them – and arrested their development.
How do you stay hopeful while working on such intense material in a particularly dark historical moment?
Well, in terms of what we’re looking at in the documentary, Adnan will get out of prison one day. He will. Something will break in this case. There are so many things that come out in the last episodes of The Case Against Adnan Syed. People will be surprised. Otherwise, I find that getting off my phone really helps. You can either start your day reading Trump’s tweets or writing in your journal and doing some meditation. Plus, I go to yoga whenever I can. I’ve been practicing for ten years. There’s a lot of darkness in the world – and in this story especially. You have to find a way to let go of other people’s negative energy when you’re working on a documentary like this, but sometimes I find that hard to do. I also have a cavapoo. I conceived of getting a puppy the night that Trump got elected and actually went through with it a month later. He’s my post-Trump baby. It’s great.
The Case Against Adnan Syed will be available on Now TV from April 1.