Three years ago, when Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) set out to document the case of Adnan Syed — the teen convicted of killing Hae Min Lee in 1999 and made famous through podcast’s first breakout hit, “Serial” — she intended to follow Syed’s new trial. But while new testimony and discredited evidence in 2016 helped the man earn a new day in court, the state of Maryland never granted him one. In fact, today, the Maryland Court of Appeals denied the new trial.
Reality forced the four-part HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed” in a new direction — one in which the filmmaker took the case into her own hands by hiring private investigators and by reaching out to new allies uncovered via social media following the 2014 release of “Serial.”
“I really don’t think there will ever be a trial,” Berg says. “We dug deep to see why and what might have happened, and why the state is still fighting the justice process. Those were big challenges because when you’re making a documentary you try to follow a certain schedule and it was kind of impossible because of all the delays that were imposed by this case.”
Throughout the four parts, Berg remains largely behind the camera, allowing the voices of those who were impacted most — family, friends and certain investigators — to be the focus. In the first installment Berg also gives voice to someone who was largely forgotten in “Serial” — the victim herself, Hae Min Lee. Berg does so through a series of animations, interviews with those who remember her and in the reading of the high school student’s journals.
“In true crime usually the first voice that gets lost is the victim. ‘Serial’ was such an extraordinary podcast because it really did feel like a behind-the-scenes look documenting the challenges of trying to get information, which is why we were also on the edge of our seat,” Berg says. “In visualizing the story and picking up where ‘Serial’ left off, the first thing I wanted to do was bring Hae to life. She was a young woman who had so much promise and hope, and everything was taken away from her and her friends with no explanation.”
As a result the subject of the film, Syed, is relegated to supporting character status (cameras were not allowed in prison, nor in the courtroom), and Berg relied instead on a variety of mostly female voices for the narrative. That includes Syed’s mother; family friend and advocate Rabia Chaudry; Syed’s potential alibi Asia McClain; an ex-girlfriend of controversial witness Jay Wilds; and a family representative of the Lees, who offers a rare glimpse into how the Korean community in Baltimore reacted to this devastating murder.
“It’s always easier to jump to conclusions when you don’t really see a person or listen to their stories, which is why documentary filmmaking is so important,” Berg says. “Asia McClain didn’t want to speak with us for so long, and I couldn’t understand her motives until I sat down and spoke with her and understood she didn’t feel like she had any control over her narrative. Everyone was hating on her online when she just wanted to talk about what she remembered. So, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about people when you don’t see them directly.”
Given Syed’s ongoing fight for his second day in court, it’s unclear where Berg’s tale wraps or what conclusions it draws, but the director promises “a few interesting revelations” in the last chapter. As for determining her subject’s guilt or innocence, Berg isn’t able to chalk a clear line, but she reiterates the ultimate goal is to see this story back in front of a jury.
“I would love to see a trial happen for everybody’s sake, that would be the best results. But just in light of the fact that Jay’s story has changed so many times and the State keeps appealing every decision, it seems unlikely. So I guess it will once again be another instance of why are prosecutors not seeking justice? Why are they continuing to fight for an old conviction when there is so much doubt?” she says.
“I can’t say whether Adnan is guilty or innocent but what I can say is that I don’t see any evidence that convicts him of this crime after spending all these years on it. There is no physical evidence that convinces me that he was 100% there.”
“The Case Against Adnan Syed” premieres Sunday, Mar. 10 on HBO.