By Abby Fenton
American Murder: The Family Next Door details the infamous 2018 Watts murders. What is special about this documentary is the way in which it’s told. Plenty of documentaries have been made about these murders, but none have been so focused on showing the perspective of the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Past documentaries have garnered criticism for sensationalising the notorious murders, or the personalities and backgrounds of the perpetrators. For example, documentaries that concentrate on the supposed charm of Ted Bundy and the gruesome details of the murders, instead of focusing on the victims. This is not a mistake that this brilliant documentary makes.
The documentary is entirely made of existing videos from the case, whether it’s Shanann’s Facebook videos or texts, police interrogation tapes or existing media coverage. This documentary allows Shanann to tell her own life story. As a viewer I got to hear her tone of voice as she expressed her pride in her accomplishments, her distress at moments of difficulty as well as her joy at becoming pregnant for a third time.
As the case was incredibly well known in the United States, making national news, the documentary doesn’t waste time providing all the details; instead, it revolves around issues that Shanann was writing about in text messages or talking to friends about. Conversations in which she expresses her confusion over Chris’ withdrawal from their relationship and how to resolve this. Issues like Chris’ affair aren’t focused on until later in the documentary because this was not information that Shannan was privy to, but suspected. This allows the documentary to always be cemented in Shannan’s perspective.
With so many recent cases demonstrating the particular problem of events being distorted by the perpetrator and their legal teams to undermine the voice of the deceased victim, it is pleasing to see this documentary working to counteract this problem. Cases familiar to people in the UK where this has occurred are the Grace Millane and Libby Squire murder cases, particularly where non-consensual acts are falsely claimed to be consensual. We see this attempted by Chris Watts, Shanann’s husband, who attempts to blame Shanann for the murders of their daughters, which is shown to be completely false.
Despite this, Shanann’s family, to whom she was very close with, were hounded by social media trolls. By showing us the personality of Shanann and her close relationships with her friends and family, the documentary helps to provoke the discourse around victim-blaming and why female violence occurs. This act of femicide is presented unequivocally as a result of Chris’ callous selfishness, with Chris “throwing away his family like garbage”. Whilst the documentary does not excuse Chris’ horrific behaviour, it also shows the wider issues of societal indifference towards the desires, wishes and humanity of women and girls in general.
The editing of the documentary is expertly done, with selected clips of the court room showing the prosecutors constantly referring to the victims by their names. This continually reminds us that the humanity that could have been lost in legal jargon, is not. When speaking to the judge the prosecutor lists the charges that Watts is accused of but always refers to the victims’ names, whether it be Shannan, her two daughters Bella and Celeste or her unborn son Nico. They even make sure to refer to Shannan’s unborn baby by the name that she had decided on and intended to give him, which further demonstrates their respect for them.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this documentary, the ending frame of Shanann, Bella and Celeste with the voiceover of Shanann expressing just how much she loves them, never fails to make me cry and is a testament to how well documentary allows us to empathise and understand the desires and experiences of others.
Illustration: Verity Laycock
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