3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets

 

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If luck favoured Cosima Spender as she set out to film Palio, the same can be said of Marc Silver at the moment when he chose to make a documentary feature about the trial of Michael Dunn. Selecting this particular case was, nevertheless, obviously a matter of careful consideration. The crime was the killing of an African-American youth, Jordan Davis, at a gas station. This occurred after his behaviour had provoked Dunn, middle-aged and white, into fearing for his life – or so the accused claimed. This had happened in November 2012 in what was regarded as one of the safer areas of Jacksonville, a place that had however become known as the murder capital of Florida. When the trial came up in 2014 it must have been evident to Silver that the case would bring into focus issues around the law of self defence. When that is relevant the onus on the defendant is not as one might expect to prove that the threat actually did justify a violent response but merely that it genuinely seemed to the accused that it did so.

 

Furthermore, even if Dunn’s case was not presented as a racialist killing, recent deaths in America in which blacks had died at the hands of whites virtually guaranteed that this element, rightly or wrongly, would be played up in the media. Consequently, with access to the court hearings being approved (Silver is his own photographer), it was certain that this film reportage would have value. If one still goes on to speak of Silver as being lucky, that is because in the course of the hearing the testimony of one witness quite unexpectedly became crucial: it provides an outstanding moment of drama that would not have been disdained by Agatha Christie in one of her fictions.

  

 Three and a Half Minutes

 

Silver, whose earlier film Who Is Dayani Cristal? was released in 2014, shows here what an adroit filmmaker he has become. The fact that he opens with a short scene in which the victim’s parents talk about choosing the name of Jordan for their son shows an eye and an ear for telling detail and the first third of the film cleverly jumps around to give details about the crime but also to fill in information about those involved. Police footage, TV coverage and radio phone-ins all play a part, together with new interview material featuring not only the parents of Jordan Davis but also the three black friends who were with him in a car at the time of the incident. Other material from outside comes from audios of phone conversations between the accused and his fiancée Rhonda Rouer, but as the film goes on it relies more and more on the day-by-day evidence in the courtroom and this proves compelling .

 

The film is all the more engrossing because as we watch we are ourselves trying to get at the truth. The victim undoubtedly did antagonise with his insistence on playing loud music and by his threatening manner, but is it true or not that Dunn’s actions were prompted by the fact that Davis pointed a shotgun at him?  Nor do we forget that if Dunn genuinely thought that he saw a shotgun but was mistaken that would still seem to give him a valid defence. Under the watchful eye of the impressive Judge Healey, conflicting evidence abounds but eventually leads to the truth emerging. The case is fascinating it its own right, but also on this issue of self defence laws. At the same time it is also yet another illustration of America’s folly in so readily allowing its citizens to acquire and carry guns.                  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

  

Featuring Michael Dunn, Tevin Thompson, Tommie Stornes, Leland Brunson, Rhonda Rouer. 

 

Dir Marc Silver, Pro Minette Nelson and Carolyn Hepburn, Ph Marc Silver, Ed Emiliano Battista and Gideon Gold, Music Todd Boekelheide. 

Participant Media/The Filmmaker Fund/Motto Pictures/LakeHouse Films/Actual films etc.-Dogwoof.
99 mins. USA/UK. 2015 Rel: 2 October 2015. Cert. 15.