A Review of the Documentary ‘False Confessions’

What would you do if you were found guilty even though you didn’t do anything wrong? Would you confess something you didn’t do in the first place? How would you convince people around you that you are innocent? Would you actually do that or would you accept the fact that you’re going to spend years in a cell and be labelled for the rest of your life?

Danish film-maker Katrine Philp set out on a journey to find some answers and draw attention to a phenomenon that happens in the USA more often than one probably thinks. Her latest documentary False Confessions, screened at the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival in Malmö, focuses on Jane Fisher-Byrialsen who works on false confessions cases in New York and some other states. With its sometimes graphic images and sometimes dry content, the Danish documentary problematises the interrogation techniques used by police officers in the USA, and it sheds light on how the U.S. justice system can fail innocent individuals.

Jane and Korey in Central Park

The project that started out by director Katrine Philp documenting the life of Danish lawyer Jane Fisher-Byrialsen for a week and later being crowdfunded resulted in an eye-opening 90-min-long film on seeking justice in the seemingly most impossible situations. By presenting a few of Fisher-Byrialsen’s cases, such as Korey Wise’s, viewers can learn about the tireless – and more or less detective – work criminal defence attorneys do to prove that their client is innocent. The bleakness and the determined (woman) lead of Nordic Noirs could be actually detected, however, the stakes are much higher since a real person’s future could change drastically thanks to new pieces of evidence.

Despite jumping between cases involving different accused/convicted individuals, Jane’s monologues and conversations with someone always provide context for the events. The narrative develops as the ongoing defence case of Renay Lynch does, and the previous cases and the interviews with experts add the framework to understand Jane’s motivation, how the system works and what should be done to put an end of this systematic failure in the U.S. justice system.

Jane and Kaitlin

The fans of the acclaimed American podcast Serial and the Netflix show Making a Murderer will surely find Katrine Philp’s False Confession intriguing. It’s definitely not an easy-watch, filmed mainly indoors, but it deals with an important topic in an informative and fascinating way. It belongs to the realm of those documentaries in which the content outweighs the packaging. The sometimes desperate, sometimes hopeful undeniably mundane moments are mostly captured similarly to journalist reports, but with the other material such as the archival and the drone footage as well as the striking and ominous yet completely suitable music, a captivating cinematic experience is created.

‘The other side’, namely the authorities, did not want to participate in the film, explained the producer of the film during the Q&A session, so viewers might perceive False Confessions as one-sided. However, considering its main subject, that should encourage everyone sitting in the audience to raise more questions, acquire more knowledge of the topic, and challenge their views on the justice system. Since the importance of DNA profiling is highlighted in the Danish piece, Matthias Heeder and Monika Hielscher’s documentary Pre-Crime, screened at the Verzio International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival among others, could offer an interesting parallel to it.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.