Hot Docs Fest: Provocateur Joe Berlinger Kicks Up Debate With Whitey Bulger Doc

The Oscar-nominated director raises questions about the convicted gangster as an FBI informant before Johnny Deep, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck make their own true-crime movies.

TORONTO – Documentary provocateur Joe Berlinger came to Hot Docs film festival this week not to bury James "Whitey" Bulger, but to strip away the myth surrounding the convicted gangster as a mob rat.

The Oscar-nominated director, in Toronto for fest screenings of Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger -- which bowed in Sundance -- in his film questions the received wisdom about Bulger as an FBI informant, a claim central to the gangster's recent trial.

And Berlinger is stirring controversy in Toronto as Hollywood readies two movies about the notorious Boston mobster for production.

One is the Johnny Depp-starring project to be directed by Scott Cooper, and the other is from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

"There's nothing I can do about other myth-making machines. All I can do is put my work out there and hope people see it and it sparks a conversation," Berlinger told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday.

The director adds he's not out to defend Bulger, whom Berlinger sees as a "brutal, vicious" killer found guilty of 11 murders in the 1970s and 1980s before being sentenced to life in prison.

Berlinger, instead, holds that the jury in Bulger's recent trial should have been able to hear about his relationship with the FBI, which underpinned a defense disallowed in court alleging the government granted the ex-mobster immunity for his crimes.

"For me, this was the opportunity to separate the man from the myth, and to understand who he was and how he operated," he said.

And to do that, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger presents evidence that went unheard during his recent trial, and which sheds light on Bulger's informant status and immunity claims.

The 83 year-old former crime boss, who was on the lam for 16 years before being arrested in 2011, has held the public's interest for decades due to a steady stream of tabloid coverage and books on the market claiming he worked with the FBI to rat out rival mobsters in Boston in exchange for protection.

Berlinger insists he cannot say Bulger was not an FBI informant.

"I don't know, but there's a lot of troubling questions. And these are questions that should have been more fully explored, both by the Boston media and at trial," he added.

Berlinger's film includes Bulger claiming, via a phone call to his defense attorney taped on camera, that he was paying federal agents for protection from prosecution by the government, not acting as an FBI informant.

"We're paying, we're not saying. We're buying, we're not selling," Bulger is heard insisting in the film.

Berlinger was barred from talking directly to Bulger for his film, so instead the ex-mobster is heard talking to his lawyer, likely knowing his words would be captured on camera.

The Emmy-winning director may yet influence Hollywood's narrative about Bulger as Berlinger has been in contact with Depp, and sent him a requested copy of his documentary.

"I hope in some small way it has an impact on how he intends to shade his performance," he insisted.

At the same time, Depp's film is based on Dick Lehr's book, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, which focuses on FBI corruption and Bulger's informant ties.

Berlinger argued Bulger already showed he knew the strings to pull to remain beyond the law in Boston for 25 years.

Now the debate over whether Bulger and the FBI were partners in crime, soon to be played out at the local multiplex with Hollywood movies, turns to whether the Boston mobster can successfully manipulate public opinion about if he ratted out rivals for FBI protection, a likely barrier to his entering the criminal Hall of Fame before his death.

"The handful of journalists that covered the trials, who wrote the books that are about to become movies, all stood up and accused me of intellectual honesty for bringing up the fact that he might not have been an informant," Berlinger said, recalling the Sundance reception to his film.

"To me, it's intellectually dishonest not to try and report on the defense claims," he added, ever the provocateur.

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger will get a U.S. theatrical, VOD and home entertainment release in June via Magnolia Pictures, ahead of the RadicalMedia doc airing on CNN.

VSC will release the picture in Canada in July.

The Hot Docs film festival continues to May 4.