Joe Berlinger might not be among the first class of great American documentary filmmakers you’d think of, but his importance to the form cannot be overstated. With a surprisingly deep and broad career that has spanned nearly twenty five years [and counting], Berlinger’s films have made a direct social impact, helping free the unjustly prosecuted and giving voice to a poor community against incredible corporate opposition. Most of his films are also giant undertakings, spanning years of research and dedicated journalism or spanning the globe. Like many of the best documentarians, Berlinger sometimes plays an active role in his films [sometimes on a metatextual level] and his personality is deeply entrenched within them.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is perhaps the quintessential Berlinger film for its observational style and subject even if it is far from his most important work—certainly, the stakes of rich men feuding are relatively low when compared to the rest of his filmography. But in an alternate universe, Some Kind of Monster could have been a slight rise-back-to-artistic-prominence story if not for the filmmaker. His eye is perfect to capture Metallica’s downward spiral; his journalistic integrity isn’t afraid to show the subjects at their worst.

Aside from his feature film work, Berlinger is an important producer of television documentaries and series. Most of his television work was like many of his films: deep profiles of impressive and important subjects. His credits include rock doc series FanClub [episodes on Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, and Metallica], Oprah’s Master Class [Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou, and Condoleeza Rice], and a major creative force behind Sundance TV’s Iconoclasts [directing 22 episodes including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar + Chuck D, Charlize Theron + Jane Goodall, and Desmond Tutu + Richard Branson]. In 2014, Berlinger created the series The System with Joe Berlinger, where he took deep looks into the justice system with episodes dedicated to false confessions, eyewitness identification, parole, and more.

It cannot go unsaid that many of Joe Berlinger’s films best films and television work were co-directed by the late Bruce Sinofsky. I won’t pretend to know the responsibilities of each filmmaker, but given the large productions of their documentaries, many spanning years with what has to be hundreds of hours of footage, their partnership was probably as important functionally as it was artistically. Together, they produced and directed the landmark Paradise Lost trilogy, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and their debut documentary Brother’s Keeper. Sinofsky died in 2015.

Brother's Keeper [1992]

Berlinger & Sinofsky’s first film, Brother’s Keeper, is the exploration of a terrible crime in the rural area outside Syracuse, New York. William Ward, a poor and uneducated farmer, was found dead in his home one morning in 1990. The police quickly suspected William’s younger brother Delbert, perhaps as a mercy killing. Throughout the course of the film, similar to the upcoming Paradise Lost films, Berlinger & Sinofsky thoroughly cover the criminal trial from every applicable angle. Delbert and his two remaining brothers become the major focus, with an insight into their simple lives, opposed by the prosecuting attorneys and media from the city. This divide is made greater as strange evidence which paints the brothers in, for lack of a better term, an unusual way comes to light. For two young filmmakers working on their first film, there is an incredible lack of bias when presenting the Wards—it would have been incredibly easy to cover them as “the other,” strange, dumb, and unsympathetic. The fact that they chose to explore these people in the first place is commendable. They are even-handed throughout, never judging Delbert for his inability to properly communicate or defend himself. Stylistically, Brother’s Keeper is very raw, showing its low budget with low-grade camera and sound [making Delbert’s incredibly thick accent even more difficult to understand]. The court footage and the surrounding social interest is as compelling as anything else in the genre, however, with all the hallmarks and turns of great true crime documentary storytelling.

Paradise Lost trilogy [1996-2011]

The most beloved and important work from Berlinger & Sinofsky, Paradise Lost, stands as the godfather of our current love affair with true crime documentaries. Even if the duo never made another film than 1996's Paradise Lost, their cinematic legacy would have been set forever—something like a documentary version of Charles Laughton. A gargantuan achievement spanning three films and fifteen years, the series covers the entire West Memphis Three saga, from their arrest, through their long and contentious trial, and their eventual release. Like The Thin Blue Line, the series is often considered a shining light on bad police investigation that would be a major factor in freeing Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin.

Perhaps the most interesting detail throughout is how the films themselves became a major part of the series. The release of Paradise Lost in 1996 piqued the interest of many sympathizers, including the prominent pop culture figures who would long rally for the West Memphis Three. Both Paradise Lost: Revelations [2000] and Paradise Lost: Purgatory [2011] directly reference the original film’s influence through interviews and news footage. No matter what Berlinger and Sinofsky thought of the crime upon making Paradise Lost, there is no way they could have realized the machine of publicity and cultural impact they would make—they inevitably became an active cog in the films, usually a flaw in documentaries that stand for impartiality.

Watching the three Paradise Lost films together really show the directors’ growth as filmmakers, for better and worse. Paradise Lost is an incredibly raw film, shot on grainy film that has a grimy aesthetic. In comparison, the third entry of the series is much more polished, stylistically much more in line with the tone of the of the film—the West Memphis Three, now all grown up, have a more mature understanding of the world.

Related to Some Kind of Monster, the trilogy is the first link between the filmmakers and the metal band, as it prominently and famously features Metallica’s music. Given the nature of the trial, with the three boys being ostracized and picked out because of the “devil worship” music they listened to, the politically motivated band were among the earliest vocal supporters for the West Memphis Three. Hearing Metallica’s heavy yet sorrowful guitar riffs over the grainy footage has a natural fit and incredible effect.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 [2000]

Joe Berlinger’s only foray into narrative feature filmmaking was an unfortunate one: the ill-fated sequel to lightning-in-a-bottle horror film The Blair Witch Project. The opening of the sequel really doubles-down on the whole true documentary premise that was scammed in the first film’s advertising—we open with supposed citizens of the real Burkittsville, Maryland gushing about the popularity of the film and how it has changed their lives. Opening text notes that the film is made of re-enactments from real transcripts from the town following the release of The Blair Witch Project. Regardless of the ultimate quality of Book of Shadows, Joe Berlinger is a close-to-perfect out of the box choice on paper. With three documentaries under his belt, he showed to be adept at capturing the zeitgeist of gritty crime stories with a heavy metal sensibility. When Book of Shadows actively tries to be more than an obvious cash grab horror follow-up, it almost works—and, oh, that lasts about 5 minutes. The problem, though, is you can only fool an audience once, and another fake documentary Blair Witch story would have been resoundly rejected anyway. Upon my first watch I was hoping the shrewd choice of Berlinger as director would bring a little more life than its reputation, but nah, this was a total misfire and better forgotten among the documentarians work.

Crude [2009]

Crude follows the incredible story of the 2006 legal battle between oil company Chevron and citizens of a small community in Ecuador. After millions of gallons of oil had been spilled and seeped into the rivers over more than 20 years, the health of citizens was severely compromised—given the poverty throughout the community, citizens relied on the river water to drink and wash. With infinite resources and widespread political corruption in Ecuador, Chevron’s activity had no real oversight or accountability. This narrative perspective is interesting for Berlinger, both similar to his previous films and slightly different. He again investigates a complicated struggle with extraordinary sympathy, but toward victims of crime instead of the wrongly accused. Crude is a powerful story about a powerless group of people standing up for their livelihood against impossible opposition. Unfortunately, the film stumbles through the conclusion, mostly because there was no resolution at the time the film was completed [and also because of a strange intersection with Sting and The Police]. When Berlinger is in Ecuador, however, he tells the stories of those most affected by the pollution beautifully, with his journalistic sensibility and strive for justice.

Under African Skies [2012]

Berlinger returned to the music scene with Under African Skies, which chronicles the making of and cultural importance of Paul Simon’s Graceland. In the mid-1980s, at the height of apartheid, Simon traveled to South Africa after becoming enthralled by music from the country. Because of the intense political strife, with competing factions trying to control art and influence from outside parties, Simon became a controversial figure at the time. In the film’s second half, once the Graceland album has been released, Under African Skies finally gets into an interesting question that should have been explored more closely. After the initial praise for Graceland, Simon was met with criticism for his appropriation of South African music. A complicated issue, one side could argue that the music was a collaboration and that Simon was giving these musicians an opportunity to be stars on a world stage; the other side could just as easily argue that Simon was exploiting this culture, one which he doesn’t have the right to use. The talking heads interviewed all side with the first argument, which is expected, though one music journalist described how he has come around on Simon’s relationship to the music as time has gone by. Ultimately, though, much of Under African Skies is a light puff piece, full of music and commentary from Simon, the South African musicians, and other important cultural figures. It is Berlinger’s most polished film up to this point, and frankly doesn’t show off the filmmaker’s vision or style. Paul Simon fans will no doubt appreciate the story behind the music, but there isn’t enough exploration of the unique political situation to have more appeal.

Hank: 5 Years from the Brink [2013]

Through the words of former Secretary of Treasury, Hank: 5 Years from the Brink chronicles the tumultuous mortgage crisis and the step-by-step thoughts behind bailing out the banks. One of the most thorough explorations of these events, the film is equal parts a profile of Henry Paulson. Hank does a lot to humanize the man behind the bailouts while using his extraordinary personal knowledge to walk through the crisis step by step. With its feature-length interview structure, however, the film isn’t quite in Berlinger’s wheelhouse—if you didn’t know otherwise, Hank might be a doc made by Alex Gibney [for the financial subject] or Errol Morris [for the interview techniques]. Like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and the upcoming I Am Not Your Guru, Berlinger again shows his interest in complex public figures, but this greatly conflicts with his loose and observational structures. There also isn’t much of a heart in Hank, which is unusual for Berlinger. Despite the emotionally charged topic, this is almost wholly an intellectual, theoretical film. That said, it does do a lot to remove the potential scapegoating the American public may have felt toward Henry Paulson, which is no minor feat.

Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger [2014]

Returning to the world of crime, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is an intricately complex look at the life, trials, and legacy of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger. Most known for his films about defenseless kids who were bullied by the justice system, a profile of Whitey Bulger is basically the complete opposite—a powerful criminal who the justice system catered to, protected. Stylistically, Whitey is a much more conventionally made documentary than the Paradise Lost films or Brother’s Keeper, but its mix of profile and investigation is intriguing. The Bulger story has so many incredible twists and turns, which makes for an incredibly entertaining experience if you can get past the awful nature of the subject. It is a crime story on an incomparable level depicting the life of an incomparable personality. If you are unaware of Bulger’s story, Whitey is both a perfect introduction and an exhaustive study. You probably won’t see where the film is going but you can trust Berlinger to shepherd you through practically all of the side plots of Whitey’s complex story. And if your only exposure to Whitey Bulger is the Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass [a fairly dull dramatization with a few thematic flourishes but without the depth of Whitey], Berlinger’s doc is a must-see supplement.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru [2016]

Of all his films, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is the clear companion to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Both films follow charismatic people working at the top of their perspective fields. Both films also allow us to see these popular figures away from how we typically see them in the public eye, revealing the people behind the music or motivational speeches. I Am Not Your Guru takes place at one of Tony Robbins’s “Date with Destiny” seminars, a multiple day event where thousands of people come together to face their trauma and life issues. The film is structured around his usually intense one-on-one interactions in front of the audience surrounded by follow-ups and Robbins speaking about himself and his work. We watch Robbins break down his clients in different ways, sometimes with humor, sometimes with blunt honesty. Whereas Some Kind of Monster never feels like an advertisement for the band [they often come across incredibly negatively], I Am Not Your Guru straddles that line—at the very least, Berlinger unquestionably buys into the program. It is easy to be skeptical about the quality of this treatment for victims of rape, abuse, and self-loathing who also happened to pay an exorbitant amount of money to attend. Perhaps what I Am Not Your Guru does best, as a counter to this thinking, it completely shows the passion and the dedication of its subject. Overall, this is among the most positive and hopeful of Berlinger’s films, even despite some very raw personal moments, all because of Robbins.