From down on the farm to 'Brother's Keeper'

March 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It begins with a couple of New York City guys named Bruce and Joe who wanted to make a movie. They'd studied film. They'd worked as editors. They'd worked in advertising. They'd done everything they had to do.

What no film school could have taught them, however, turned out to be the key: They were going to have to muck out the barn.

One day Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger were reading the New York Times when they came across an amazing tale out of the American Gothic tradition: in an upstate farm community, a 51-year-old bachelor dairy farmer named Delbert Ward was about to be indicted for murdering his brother, Bill, 64. Both men slept in the same bed -- with two other brothers.

"We were looking for a story," recalls Bruce, "to play like a present-tense feature. It had to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And we thought, this is it."

Was it ever.

Now six months into its release (and playing at the Charles) "Brother's Keeper" has lit an almost incendiary track through film festivals. Among the awards: Best Documentary form the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Boston Society of Film Critics. Nationally, critics have been rapturous in their praise.

But the beginnings were so humble.When they got to Munnville, N.Y. (population 499), they not only found a media colony in residence, but also representatives from six other production companies who were waving checks under the noses of the Ward boys, as the brothers were called.

"I guess the defense lawyer was afraid that if they took those checks, it would look like the Ward boys had sold out or gone Hollywood," said Sinofsky. "And, I think, he liked us. That was it; he just liked us so. We told him we wanted to tell the whole story, from both sides."

No one could ever have accused Sinofsky and Berlinger of representing "Hollywood." They were more of the hey-kids-let's-make-a-movie set. Along with cameraman Doug Cooper, the two initially financed the movie on their credit cards. All the 16-millimeter camera equipment was rented. For lighting, recalled Sinofsky, "We really only had a bag of light bulbs. That was it. But somehow maybe that helped. We were so low-key and mobile we weren't like the huge network teams."

But there was a test to be passed first.

"When we got to the farm, we decided to leave the cameras in the car for a while and just get to know the brothers. In fact, we left the cameras in the car for four weekends. But pretty soon they asked us to help out with the chores, and there we were, mucking out the barn. But the barn was the best place to be. The barn was cleaner than the house."

The three-man team drove the five hours upstate every other weekend for seven or eight months, and finally spent the last three weeks there during the trial.

During this time, not only did the Ward boys come to accept the filmmakers but so did the townspeople. Sinofsky, Berlinger and Cooper were allowed extraordinary license to move into people's houses and talk to them.

"We learned that the town . . . seemed to be stuck in time: it still had the values of the '30s and '40s. Once you met people and formed relationships . . . they were as polite and trusting and open with you as you could imagine. And we saw it as a chance to give rural America a clear voice. We hope that audience stereotypes about 'rubes' and 'hicks' will be broken for all time by their level of eloquence and insight."

Late in the production, with their credit cards stretched to the limit (they were up to $100,000) they took the film to Public Television's "American Playhouse" and received a grant to finish and go into post-production. "Brothers' Keeper" will be shown on the network in March 1994.

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