Joe Berlinger

Active - 1992 - 2020  |   Born - Oct 30, 1961 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, United States  |   Genres - Culture & Society, History

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Biography by Jason Buchanan

Since the release of his breakout documentary Brother's Keeper in 1992, storyteller and documentarian Joe Berlinger has been obsessed with scrutinizing the criminal justice system in small-town America and its sometimes frightening treatment of the socially abandoned. From the tragic figure of that film to the questionably murderous teens of the equally compelling Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill, Berlinger's films often focus on those who live on the fringes of what is considered conventional morality and the suffering that it sometimes results in. Born in October of 1961, and initially opting for an advertising career, Berlinger met frequent future film collaborator Bruce Sinofsky when, after being inspired by Titicut Follies, he decided to enter the film industry by taking a job at Maysles Films. Quickly rising to the status of Executive Producer and becoming fascinated with the documentary approach to filmmaking, Berlinger and Sinofsky teamed for a humorous short film concerning the life of New York cabbies, Outrageous Taxi Stories, in 1989. Taxi proved a hit on the festival circuit, and the duo decided to go into business together with the creation of Creative Thinking International shortly thereafter. CTI soon gave way to Gray Matter Productions and that label's first release, the remarkable Brother's Keeper, more than lived up to the promise Taxi had hinted at. A touching and tragic tale of accused murder among the simple-minded brothers of the small Munnsville, NY, farming community, the film proved a valuable lesson for Berlinger in truly getting to know his subject matters. Spending nearly a year with the hermetic brothers and the community that rallied to the accused brothers' defense, Berlinger molded a truly fascinating view of small-town life and the often damning effects of media among those left defenseless by their innocence in the modern age. Shortly after bringing his real-world sensibilities to the small screen with work on television's popular Homicide: Life on the Streets, Berlinger returned to the theme of media influence on perception with the riveting and often disturbing documentary Paradise Lost (1996). On the surface concerning itself with the gruesome murder of three eight-year-old boys in rural Arkansas and their accused murderers -- three local teens whom the general populace had branded as "satanic" -- the film reached far deeper into the mindset of small-town America than any run-of-the-mill documentary. Raising numerous complicated questions regarding the interpretation and reaction to elements of society most people aren't willing to understand and their ultimate categorical dismissal and the ennui that often induces, Paradise Lost propelled Berlinger into the public psyche when it debuted to much acclaim on the HBO pay-cable service in 1996. As with Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost garnered numerous festival awards and showed a filmmaker with formidable storytelling skills. Four years later, after some minor work in television, Berlinger and company would return to the story that compelled viewers with a sequel (a somewhat rare occurrence in the world of documentaries), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). Returning to the haunting case and presenting evidence more horrifying than any work of fiction, Paradise Lost 2 followed the numerous appeals of the supposedly murderous trio that came to be known as the "West Memphis Three" and the harrowing facts that boiled to the surface following the initial trial. Constantly classifying himself as a storyteller in addition to a documentarian, it was no surprise that Berlinger soon began to seek fictional avenues for his film output. Approaching Artisan Entertainment in hopes of securing support for a low-budget noir-tinged thriller, Berlinger walked out of the studio ironically attached to direct the much-anticipated sequel to the indie-horror hit Blair Witch Project, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Though the film would take a more conventional approach to the Blair Witch mythos than its highly original predecessor, Berlinger retained the questions of media-influence and humanized the horrors that had been so supernaturally prevalent in the first film. Though it performed only modestly at the box office, Berlinger continues to find ways to challenge audiences in the very medium he is often so critical of.

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  • Worked in an advertising agency in Frankfurt, Germany, after graduating college.
  • Former apprentice of documentarians Albert and David Maysles.
  • Met his former directing partner Bruce Sinofsky while working with the Maysles brothers.
  • His documentary Brother’s Keeper (1992) was selected by the Film Critics Of The New York Times as one of the best 1,000 movies ever made.
  • Founder, president, director and producer at Third Eye Motion Picture Company.