Documentary Filmmaker Amy Berg: Witness to Injustice

Eight years ago today, Janis: Little Girl Blue released to U.S. theaters. The documentary follows the life of acclaimed singer-songwriter and rock star Janis Joplin. Through archival footage mixed with powerful narration by Cat Powers (a contemporary woman rocker), the director takes her viewers on a journey into the legend of one of the most celebrated rock and roll icons. In her review of the film, FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner called Janis: Little Girl Blue a “masterful story of a young girl whose passion drove her to enormous success … and her untimely death.” Today, we celebrate the achievements of the director of that story — Amy Berg.

Amy was born in Los Angeles, California on October 13, 1970. Always interested in storytelling, she got her start as a researcher and writer. Amy’s writing has appeared in publications across the world, including The Jewish Journal and The National Organization for Women. In the world of entertainment, she developed episodes which would go on to be televised on 20/20 and Good Morning America. Amy also worked as an investigator for CNN; her documentary investigations won her two Emmy awards.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006)—Amy’s first film—was nominated for an Academy Award.

In 2006, Amy broke into the world of documentary film with the phenomenal debut, Deliver Us From Evil. Delicately yet seriously handling such a tough subject matter, the documentary offers viewers an unfiltered look into sexual abuse cases within the Catholic church. For her film, Amy decided to look into one subject alone: Father Oliver O’Grady, a man who admitted to having abused twenty-five children during his time as a priest. Amy’s documentary combines court transcripts, testimony of survivors, opinions by psychologists, and even an interview of Oliver O’Grady himself. Amy’s harsh documentary peels back the blinds of not one case of sexual abuse, but an epidemic whichas Amy proves in her filmthe church itself knew all about. Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Academy Award and won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. 

West of Memphis (2012) won awards at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2012, Amy’s next feature-length documentary premiered. West of Memphis follows the story of the West Memphis Three, three teenage boys wrongly convicted of murder in a small town. The documentary won awards at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2014, Amy unveiled her next documentary, An Open Secret. Returning to the subject of child sexual abuse, Amy sets this story closer to home, in the Hollywood hills. In An Open Secret, Amy gives a voice to child actors preyed upon by film executives, directors, and other adults in positions of power within the film industry. One victim, Todd Bridges, appeared on popular series such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. He also had recurring roles on sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and Everybody Hates Chris. In the documentary, Todd speaks solemnly about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his publicist at only eleven years of age. Both his and other interviewee’s testimonies shed light on just how fiercely children in the film industry need to be protected. In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Brigid Presecky wrote, “Each of Berg’s interviews exemplifies bravery and activism…From the first frame to the last, An Open Secret is engaging and thought-provoking.”

That same year, Amy directed the feature film, Every Secret Thing. The crime drama tells the story of a detective, played by Elizabeth Banks, searching fervently to find a lost child. In addition to Elizabeth, the film boasts the talent of actresses Dakota Fanning and Diane Lane in a truly woman-driven story.

Amy seeks to show viewers the bigger picture—how it takes many accomplices to get away with such heinous crimes.

In 2015, Amy’s next documentary, both written and directed by her, premiered at Sundance. Prophet’s Prey seeks to understand the life of Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and man convicted of multiple counts of child sexual abuse. The film goes further than Jeffs alone, as Amy once again returns to the theme of systematic sexual predation. Like in her previous films on the subject, she seeks to show viewers the bigger picture—how it takes many accomplices to get away with such heinous crimes. In her review of the film, Jan added that “like most of Berg’s projects, she succeeds in her goals of exposing this criminal and the underrepresented group of people he abused.”

Just last year, Amy’s newest project, Phoenix Rising, premiered at Sundance. The series documents actress Evan Rachel Wood’s allegations of domestic violence against musician Marilyn Manson. The documentary takes its name from The Phoenix Act, a bill ratified into law in California which extends the statute of limitations for convicting sexual violence from four to ten years. Evan Rachel Wood herself introduced the act alongside her nonprofit organization of fellow survivors, as well as testified to her own story in front of the California Senate. The bill was passed unanimously.

Amy Berg is not only a documentarian, but a witness to the injustices of the world.

The entirety of Amy Berg’s filmography is connected by a thread of injustice. Amy does not set out to make entertaining films, but uncomfortable ones. She is compelled to tell the stories that are often overlooked or forcibly silenced—of those who so often do not have the tools to tell their story themselves. Amy Berg is not only a documentarian, but a witness to the injustices of the world. She speaks to the audience through her camera, repeating time and again, “Do not look away. See it, really look. Now do something about it.”

© Reese Alexander (11/27/23) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Brigid Presecky’s review of Janis: Little Girl Blue here.

Read Jan’s review of Every Secret Thing here.

Read Brigid’s review of An Open Secret here.

Read Brigid’s review of Prophet’s Prey here.

Visit Amy’s Wikipedia page here.

Read Julia Lasker’s article on Cat Powers here.

Janis: Little Girl Blue is now featured in PBS’s prestigious American Masters series.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Phot0: Photo of ‘60s Rock icon Janis Joplin as seen in Amy Berg’s documentary film JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015). Photo Credit: Disarming Films / Jigsaw Productions / Album / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2GYHM8Y

Bottom Photo: Director Amy Berg at a screening for her documentary film JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015) in Los Angeles, California on December 5, 2015. Photo Credit: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: FAYH2M

Tags: Amy Berg, An Open Secret, Brigid Presecky, Cat Powers, CNN, Dakota Fanning, Deliver Us From Evil, Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Evan Rachel Wood, Every Secret Thing, Jan Lisa Huttner, Janis Joplin, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Julia Lasker, Phoenix Rising, Prophet's Prey, The Jewish Journal, The National Organization for Women, West of Memphis

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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