Alison J. Armstrong is a Canadian documentary filmmaker whose most recent work, The Guy With The Knife, rips open a 35-year old Texas murder case, an alleged gay bashing gone wrong, to expose a flawed justice system and an unlikely friendship involving the 17-year old accused of the crime and the seasoned con man whose manipulation of the media secured the teen’s harsh 45-year prison sentence. A masterstroke of investigative filmmaking, her riveting film also presents a real-life story of redemption, forgiveness and vindictiveness filmed over eight years. The complexity of the characters, the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, and the close examination of crime and punishment puts the film in league with Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky whose own work is shaped by a fascination for the paradoxical relationship between good and evil. Guided by a search for truth, it is a remarkable achievement. The Guy With The Knife screened recently at the Toronto Independent Film Festival before a sold-out crowd with Armstrong, a CBC freelance radio producer, in attendance. The film is screening tonight at a special event in Houston, and, at the end of October, it will be screened in Berlin. Curiosity about the film has been building since its debut last year in Texas, where all the events, past and present, unfold and the majority of protagonists still live. Armstrong’s startling revelation that Jon Buice, the accused in question, may himself have been a victim, locked away for decades on the basis of mass hysteria and falsified evidence, has since prompted a decisive reexamination of his case and drawn an admission by the Texas LGBTQ community that it had been wrong in labelling what he did a hate crime. Gay activists have since fought hard for Buice’s release, one of the ironies uncovered by a film that has gone on to reap many awards for best documentary at film festivals across the U.S. In an interview that took place following the September 12 screening in Toronto, Armstrong said her film should also resonate with Canadians. The theme of fairness in judicial proceedings is universal. “For Canadians I hope the film is a cautionary tale about what can happen when the justice system becomes politicized to the extent it is in the United States. Canadian judges, remember, are not elected. They are appointed. There’s always the potential for interference.” Here’s more of that conversation:
dk: What is your film about? This might seem a simplistic question but really it is about so much – a false accusation of gay bashing, an excessive 45-year prison sentence administered to a teenage boy, an accuser who himself served time, befriending the person he locked away, a vigilante who gives justice a bad name. How do you see it?
aa: The Guy With The Knife is ultimately a film about redemption in the context of a punitive justice system unduly influenced by a media bent on sensationalism and buttressed by an unforgiving fundamentalist Protestantism. The heart of the film is the story of a friendship between two men who begin as bitter enemies and end up helping to redeem each other.