'The Jinx' finale, Robert Durst and documentaries as judge and jury

'The Jinx' is the latest film to aim to revive old criminal cases or bring new light to old debates

Robert Durst said he did it: “Killed them all, of course.”

But he didn’t tell the police. Instead, the subject of HBO’s six-part documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" said it to himself. The New York real estate scion sat for more than 20 hours of interviews with "The Jinx" director Andrew Jarecki, speaking bluntly about his past. In the final episode, which aired Sunday, Jarecki confronts Durst with what seems to be incriminating evidence; Durst denies guilt and leaves to use the bathroom, appearing not to notice that his microphone is still recording as he mutters, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

At other moments he says: “There it is, you’re caught," and, "What a disaster.”

Timeline: The twists and turns of Robert Durst

Authorities arrested Durst, 71, on Saturday in New Orleans after reviewing evidence that detectives said links him to the 2000 slaying of Los Angeles writer Susan Berman. One law enforcement source, who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, told The Times that the documentary had played a role. On Sunday a New Orleans judge ordered Durst held without bail and set a hearing for Monday morning.

"The Jinx" is the latest in the tradition of documentary series and films that aim to revive old criminal cases or bring new light to old public policy debates.

“The Grim Sleeper,” released in December, centered on the killings of black women in South Los Angeles. “Blackfish,” a story about killer whales performing at SeaWorld, was picked up by CNN after it premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. HBO was also home to “Paradise Lost,” which irrevocably changed the fate of the West Memphis Three, the men who were convicted as teenagers in 1993 for the murders of three boys.

Documentary films on niche or obscure subjects are now able to find mass audiences on a growing number of platforms including cable TV, streaming services such as Netflix and video on demand. And as those projects make their media waves, some filmmakers find themselves not only  documentarians but also participants in their own stories.

“There’s a long tradition of media being a separate, though sometimes cooperating, component to a criminal investigation,” said Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “I think it’s an important tradition. It’s sort of ironic -- the freedom that journalists or filmmakers have to talk to witnesses and others is greater than what law enforcement has.”

For documentary filmmakers, particularly those behind advocacy movies, making news can be part of the point.

“We are incredibly dogged and fierce about trying to understand a story as best we can," Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of "Blackfish," said in a phone interview. Not giving up easily is in a documentary filmmaker's genetic makeup. You have this fire in your belly and you know that there are answers you have to seek." 

"The Cove" director Louie Psihoyos, whose Oscar-winning film was about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, echoed that sentiment.

“Documentary filmmakers don't think of the audience as butts in seats," she said by email. "They're minds and hearts in seats and if you can change them, you really can change the world. Jarecki's doc falls into a long tradition of docs that try to right wrongs in the world.”

Psihoyos listed other examples of "docs raising the bar," including “The Thin Blue Line,” Errol Morris' groundbreaking 1988 film about a man sentenced to life in prison for a killing he didn't commit; “SuperSize Me,” director Morgan Spurlock's examination of the fast-food industry; and “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Davis Guggenheim-directed film on former Vice President Al Gore's climate change argument.

Just before Part 6 of the "The Jinx" aired, HBO issued a statement that said Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling's “thorough research and dogged reporting reignited interest in Robert Durst's story with the public and law enforcement."

But as of Sunday, the extent of the filmmakers' involvement in the investigation wasn't clear. Did they turn over their materials to investigators? And if so, when? At what point do filmmakers documenting a story potentially become part of the story? In this era of advocacy documentary filmmaking, are the ethical rules changing?

“There’s always a line, and when there’s a line there’s always a danger that it’s going to be blurred,” Sesno said. “It’s important that media organizations understand their responsibilities, limitations and the moral and ethical constraints under which they operate.”

Joe Berlinger, who faced criticism for some of his choices as the Oscar-nominated co-director of "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," about the West Memphis Three case, said these are questions that are only getting bigger.

"On the one hand I think it’s amazing that Durst has been arrested and Jarecki is moving the needle through this investigatory series," he said. "Documentarians don’t often feel the direct impact of their work."

The larger issue, he said, is the blurring lines between entertainment and investigation, the "murky moral gray zone" of what’s good for ratings or ticket sales versus objective reporting.

"Selective withholding of information for the right dramatic moment, stylized re-creations of painful events for the participants, putting ourselves on camera as the crusading, investigative reporter -- all of these things chip away at the sanctity of the journalism," he said.

Staff writers Mark Olsen, Amy Kaufman, Jack Leonard, Richard Winton and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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