Making ‘Amanda Knox’: Tabloids, Trump, and the ‘Commodification of Tragedy’
Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn were two young filmmakers with comedy shorts under their belts when an introduction landed them an audience with accused murderess Amanda Knox, who’d been freed after spending four years in an Italian prison for a grisly murder the world was convinced she’d committed.
The 20-year-old Seattle, Washington, college student had landed in the center of an international scandal in 2007, found guilty by an Italian court of killing her British flatmate, Meredith Kercher, with the help of her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and another man, Rudy Guede. By 2011 Knox had been exonerated and returned home but her trials, both legal and personal, were far from over.
Their pitch to Knox was simple, McGinn told The Daily Beast at the Toronto Film Festival, where the documentary Amanda Knox premiered ahead of a September 30 Netflix debut. “We said, ‘We want to listen. We want to get your side of the story, and we’re not in this to make something sensationalist. We want to tell the real story.’”
McGinn and Blackhurst spent the next five years traveling across the Atlantic, chasing interviews with Knox and the other primary players whose names had been splashed across news headlines and tabloid pages throughout one of the most sensational criminal cases Italy had ever seen. But solving the brutal crime was never their intention.
Instead, the directors sought to analyze how the Meredith Kercher case became the Amanda Knox case, they say, thanks to a crusading local prosecutor, headline-hungry media that saw gold in a narrative of an angel-faced coed gone bad and a sex game gone wrong, and the Italian antithesis to Occam’s razor.
“We met this man who told us about this Italian concept of dietrologia,” explained Blackhurst, who with McGinn traveled to Perugia on research missions and interview shoots to gather material for their feature-length documentary. “The logic that a simple answer is never the answer. We learned all these things that, to us, informs why events unfolded the way they did. And I don’t think most people were talking about that or trying to understand their system or the culture.”
Amanda Knox is fascinating for its intimate access to Knox in particular, who sits against a mottled gray backdrop and gazes directly into the camera, addressing her judgmental public, and tells her side of the story with surprising grace and self-awareness.
But the film is far more concerned with outlining how Knox became the focus of the Meredith Kercher cast to begin with. The filmmakers put much of the onus on tabloid reporters like Nick Pisa, who covered the case breathlessly on the ground for The Daily Mail. Beyond excoriating the press for jumping on the more salacious details and unsubstantiated theories that swirled during the Knox and Sollecito trial, McGinn and Blackhurst finger our eternally thirsty 24-hour news cycle for fueling an artificial demand for more, more, more.
“I like to think of the movie as a sort of companion piece to Spotlight,” said McGinn, who is also an executive producer of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, “in that Spotlight is a story about these amazing Boston Globe reporters who have a scoop and are told by their editor, ‘Sit on it until you have a full story.’ And this is like the flip side of that. What happens if you need a story every six hours?”
Amanda Knox “is not a piece of advocacy,” he added. “It’s a story about human beings and how this kind of thing can take over entire news networks.”
Adding texture to the human fabric of their doc post-mortem are interviews with Sollecito, the soft-spoken Italian boyfriend Knox had known but a week when the lovers were arrested for the gruesome sexual assault and murder of Kercher, a pretty brunette British exchange student who was discovered dead inside the apartment she shared with Knox and two other women.
The directors convinced Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor who led the charge in Perugia, Italy, to sit for their cameras and retell how he and his investigators collared Knox, Sollecito, and Guede—the Ivory Coast native also charged, tried separately, and convicted of Kercher’s killing. Even Guede, who is still behind bars serving a 16-year sentence for the crime, is represented in Amanda Knox by way of his attorney, Walter Biscotti.
The filmmakers acknowledge that each of their subjects had reason to be personally motivated to talk to them for the film. After mulling it over for a few years Knox finally sat for an interview—and shared some of the provocative observations about how differently her critics and supporters see her.
“I think Amanda talked to us at that time because she was facing a legal decision and she was ultimately reconvicted right after that,” said Blackhurst. Sollecito agreed around the same time, also facing a second conviction, and after building his trust over coffee, Mignini granted his interview after an appeals court definitively acquitted the pair in 2015.
“Each of them felt like they had something on the line. They had something that they wanted to say that nobody had heard or had bothered to look at,” added Blackhurst. “Again, people were looking at them as headlines and good loglines but nobody was trying to get to who they were, and they all felt like the versions of them that had been presented to mainstream audiences weren’t entirely accurate. And they just wanted to talk.”
Diving into the Italian legal system for access to trial materials, Blackhurst and McGinn unearthed pieces of the puzzle they say most of the media covering the case at the time ignored or were uninterested in: A Skype call recorded with a panicked Guede while he was on the run in Germany before his arrest; photographs that suggest a more complete portrait of Knox’s emotional state than the selective shots frequently used to point out her lack of remorse; and vibrant home video of Kercher that Knox filmed on her digital camera in 2007.
“It was so easy for people to lose track of the fact that there were people at the heart of this story,” explained Blackhurst. “We wanted, as filmmakers, to make portraits of these people who were who they were in their own words and were multidimensional—like them or not, believe them or not, these are individuals. We’re all flawed. We wanted to show empathy for the human condition and the human experience.”
Conspicuously absent from the film are members of Kercher’s family, who are only seen in archival press conference footage and in one interview with Kercher’s grieving mother, Arline. The Amanda Knox directors say they reached out multiple times, in 2015 and 2016, to invite the Kerchers to participate in the film, but never got a reply. They also sent a copy of the finished film to the family through their Italian representative, but have received no word on whether or not they watched it.
“What we decided was that it was, of course, not only so important to include them in the film because of the loss of their daughter, but what we found looking at the material we managed to find was that the moments like that piece or archive, and the press conferences, were really able to ground the movie in how they must have been feeling at all those critical junctures,” Blackhurst told me.
“Not only was Meredith not the focal point of the way people were talking about this story, but people obviously made Meredith’s death in this case about Amanda,” he said. “There needs to be a constant reminder that this became entertainment, and not a question of the search for truth or for clarity and what happened that evening at that house.”
He added that they’d also reached out to Patrick Lumumba, the owner of a local bar who employed Knox part-time, and whom Knox at one point falsely implicated in the Kercher murder. She later said she’d been forced to name Lumumba during an abusive police interrogation, an experience she recounts in the film.
“We did talk directly with Patrick Lumumba, twice,” said Blackhurst, who says Lumumba was reached via telephone by an Italian translator. “He is studying in Warsaw and was unable to come to Perugia where we were conducting the Italian interviews.”
He describes the interviews conducted for the film as lengthy, open conversations that lasted several hours at a time. “Nobody gave us any conditions, nobody asked us to not talk about anything in particular.”
As we talked over coffee, McGinn came up with a name for the real culprit he and Blackhurst hold responsible for the Amanda Knox case: “The amorphous blobification of the news,” meaning the monster that was birthed when freelance tabloid reporters descended upon Perugia, controlling the news narrative that other media amplified out, and becoming sources themselves.
That “amorphous blobification” extends to the way news is covered today as a constant content cycle of infotainment, they argue. Both Blackhurst and McGinn smile at the thought of the Donald Trump reference they slid into the film, in which the now-GOP Presidential candidate calls for a boycott of Italy over the Amanda Knox verdict. “There was this kind of ether where all these pundits were making these rather grandiose statements,” said McGinn, shaking his head.
“What we’re hoping is that at the end of this film people want to have some larger conversation about the commodification of tragedy, the balance between entertainment and information, and what that says about us that we’re interested in those things,” added Blackhurst. “It’s easy to see, especially right now in our presidential cycle, that things are based on what people feel, and not on what is.”