The Netflix true crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door utilizes archive footage to tell the story of Shanann Watts, who along with her two children and unborn baby was murdered by her husband Chris Watts. In a recent interview, filmmaker Jenny Popplewell spoke with Netflix producer Alysia Judge about why she felt compelled to tell Shanann’s story.
“The very first time I came across this footage, I wasn’t actually looking at it as a documentary maker, I was just intrigued,” she said. “I’m a parent… I was just really moved, I felt completely connected to her.”
Once Popplewell began to research Shanann’s case more, she discovered that there was a wealth of material online, including home videos, social media posts, bodycam footage, and court recordings. She used this as the basis for the archive-only film.
“I’d never seen this quantity of media for one story before that included the victim,” she said. “It is heartbreaking to go through this footage, but at the same time you kind of feel like it’s your responsibility to make sure that her voice is heard loud and clear throughout the film, because I think she’s been pushed into the backseat in her own narrative.”
Popplewell added that she intentionally avoided telling the story through the lens of Chris Watts, choosing to keep the focus on Shanann throughout the film, citing the trend in reporting to center the male perpetrators of violence against women. “I don’t talk about what school he went to, or what he achieved in his life, like you would in a traditional doc. Instead, I’m interested in telling her story. So it’s her heartache, her achievements,” she said. “We were trying to see Chris through Shanann’s eyes.”
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“I think it opens important discussion,” she says of the film. “Everyone seems to be watching her right now, and she’s the voice for victims that don’t always get heard. She’s not the first woman to be blamed for her own death, and I think that’s what should come out of the film; we should open a debate about that.”
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