Our obsession with true crime often results in victims being overlooked. But in her new documentary series about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, filmmaker Amy Berg does a moving job of showing us who Lee really was.
Here’s the thing about stories about dead women: often, the women hardly appear in them at all. The female victims of male murderers have long been reduced, in news reports and popular culture, to a series of gothic clues – a lock of hair, a scream in the night – while the world pores obsessively over the identity and motive of their killer.
We saw this in the case of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, who were dismissed as prostitutes and are only now having their stories told in earnest. We saw it in the recent resurgence of interest in serial killer Ted Bundy, whose name is known around the world – unlike the names of his victims, of whom there are believed to have been at least 30.
And, to an extent, we saw it in Serial. The smash hit true crime podcast, which launched in 2014 to global acclaim, saw investigative journalist Sarah Koenig unravel the story of the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, who was strangled to death in Baltimore, Maryland, in January 1999. Thirteen months after Lee’s body was found in a shallow grave in a park, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for her murder, following a trial that many believe was riddled with errors, prejudice and oversights. On 10 March 2019, the highest court in Maryland ruled that Syed should not be granted a retrial.
Koenig is an excellent journalist, and Serial was a crisp and masterful examination of an extraordinarily complex case. But the podcast’s primary focus was on the murder investigation and Syed’s ensuing trial – and while listeners came away with some sense of what Lee was like as a person (popular, fun, conflicted about her relationship with her parents), she was not a dominant presence in the series. As the podcast progressed, she took up less and less space, until she seemed like more of an idea of a person than an actual person.
That doesn’t happen in The Case Against Adnan Syed, a new four-part HBO documentary about the investigation into Lee’s murder which airs from 1 April 2019 on Sky and NOW TV. Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg, the series follows in Serial’s footsteps by exploring the circumstances around Lee’s murder and following Syed’s fight for a new trial. Given that the first series of Serial consisted of 12 lengthy episodes and sparked countless articles and two books, it would be easy to assume there was nothing left to say or learn about this story.
But Berg pulls it off. Not only does her documentary drop a massive bombshell about the investigation (although you’ll have to wait until the final episode to find out what it is), the director also succeeds in creating a much richer picture of the people and places involved in the case.
Most striking of all is how Berg manages to make Lee a vivid, lifelike force in the documentary. Lee was an avid diary-keeper, and entries from her journal – performed by a voiceover artist – are peppered throughout the first episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed. She is, quite literally, being given a voice.
On screen, the diary entries are accompanied by Lee’s looping handwriting and animations befitting the words of a teenage girl: blooming roses, sparkling prom dresses, fireworks, breathless doodles of boyfriends. The episode opens with Lee’s words, written on the front inside page of her journal to warn off potential snoops: “This may make you angry, happy, sad or cry.”
The series also contains in-depth interviews with Lee’s closest female friends, her inner circle, her confidantes. They paint a picture of a smart, vivacious young woman struggling to figure out what she owed to her family – and what she wanted for herself. Lee was born in South Korea, and her strict parents were unhappy with her focus on dating. But she was also unsure about how much she even wanted to be absorbed by romance, writing in her diary that she felt she was losing herself in her relationship with Syed. She was dramatic, stubborn, romantic, sneaky, responsible, plagued by guilt, nervous and excited about the future. She loved hockey and her favourite song was K-Ci and JoJo’s All My Life. In other words, she was a real 18-year-old woman, with her whole life ahead of her.
After a screening of the first episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed in London, the documentary’s director explained why it was important to her to place Lee at the forefront of the documentary. “One of the first things I did as I began to script out how the story would be told was spend a lot of time with [Lee’s] journal,” Berg said.
“I spent a lot of time trying to find the right excerpts, and I spoke to many of her friends – her closest friends – to really get a sense of who Hae Min Lee really was,” she continued.
“I wanted to bring her life because oftentimes the victim gets lost in these types of stories.”
Turning a true crime story into entertainment for others to consume is an ethically complicated decision. Berg has done a beautiful job of capturing Lee’s spirit and voice, but the very existence of The Case Against Adnan Syed is likely to upset her relatives, who have repeatedly said they believe justice was done in 2000 when Syed was convicted of murder. By bringing the case back into the spotlight, some will argue that Berg is not honouring Lee’s memory at all, but giving credence to the question mark that hangs over Syed’s imprisonment.
But to me, The Case Against Adnan Syed pulls off something difficult and rare: telling the stories of a female victim and her alleged killer with equal nuance and empathy. In one of the most moving scenes in the first episode, Syed’s brother is seen addressing a meeting at their local mosque.
“Sometimes, who gets lost in all of this is the person who lost her life: Hae Min Lee,” he says. That’s not the case anymore.
The Case Against Adnan Syed will air from 1 April on Sky and NOW TV, with the boxset available to stream in its entirety with NOW TV’s contract-free Entertainment Pass.
Images: HBO/NOW TV, Getty Images