New Eric Garner Film Imagines NYPD Officer's Trial (Q&A)

Special Events_American Trial -Courtesy of NYFF - H 2019
Courtesy of NYFF

'American Trial: The Eric Garner Story,' which is getting a world premiere Oct. 12 at the New York Film Festival, uses real lawyers, experts, witnesses and the victim's widow to outline what would have happened if a grand jury had indicted Daniel Pantaleo, a former police officer who was involved in the 2014 arrest that led to Garner's death.

Taking a traditional approach to American Trial: The Eric Garner Story never occurred to first-time filmmaker Roee Messinger. Five years ago, Garner, 43, died after an intensely physical arrest involving multiple NYPD officers. A video of the arrest went viral, and "I can't breathe" — which Garner said nearly a dozen times while being held facedown on a Staten Island sidewalk — became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired in August after it was determined that he violated protocol by using a choke hold on Garner.

Messinger's film, which lands somewhere between documentary and unscripted alternate history, imagines what would have happened if a grand jury had indicted Pantaleo. Except for the officer, who is played by Anthony Altieri, no one in the film is an actor. They're real lawyers, experts, witnesses — and Garner's widow Esaw Snipes. Ahead of its Oct. 12 world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Messinger, 33, discusses American police violence from the perspective of an outsider (he was born in Israel and raised in Mexico City), working with nonactors and the importance of showing the audience what might have happened if Pantaleo was on trial.

What drew you to Eric Garner's story?

Eric Garner was killed on the summer break between my first and second year of film school, and the non-indictment decision came just before the Christmas break of the second year. I don't think I was naive about racial relations in the U.S., but it surprised me and disturbed me in a very profound way. One day I realized that I was living in the city where it happened and it wouldn't be all that difficult to get in touch with the people who would have participated in a trial, if it had gone to trial. That’s how the film was born.

What was your thought process in making the film unscripted?

The traditional way or the obvious way of doing something like this is to just sit down and write a script. I felt if I were to do that, this film would become a movie about what Roee Messinger thinks should have happened, as opposed to what the film is now, which is what objectively could have happened. I think it's very powerful to look at an actual piece of alternative reality and the underlying questions that it raises.

How much instruction did you give the attorneys?

As a director, it's not just working with nonactors, but it's working with nonactors who are much more knowledgeable than you are when it comes to the performance you are expecting them to deliver. I was very clear with them that I wanted them to argue this case like they would [in real life]. They told me what their needs were, we went over the arguments, I said things like, “I think this argument is stronger," or "if you're insisting on this argument try to convince me.”

Do you think that this provided some closure for people who were involved in the situation and who knew Eric?

I'll speak to two people: There's James, a friend of Eric's who was also an eyewitness and testified before the grand jury. I definitely got the feeling that he felt that it was important for people to hear what he had to say because the grand jury transcripts are still sealed. As for Esaw, I think it was very, very cathartic for her. We shot the trial in one day, and it was a very emotional day for her. That's why she appears in some of the scenes, but she's not always in the courtroom. There were moments where she was like, "I need a break, I can't sit here and listen to all of this." It's overwhelming.

You shot that in a day?

Yes. The producer on this film is Alena Svyatova and what she did in that day should be taught as a case study in film school. It was incredible. Everything was clockwork. We had 12 minutes per side per witness. Every wardrobe change was timed and scheduled. And my director of photography, Ari Rothschild, was managing seven cameras, some of which were operated by students. Granted this is my first feature, but I've never seen anything like it.

That also speaks to the amount of work you did before that day.

Yeah, there was definitely a lot of prep. When I first pitched Alena the idea she was like, “Are you crazy?! That'll never work.” The reason why I knew it would work is because, even though it's not scripted, lawyers script trials. They know what questions they're going to ask. They know what answer they're going to get from the witness. Of course it doesn't always work like that, and those are the magical moments in trials when there's a surprise and the attorney gets an answer that they weren't expecting, and then how they react to that. Because lawyers are just actors, right? They're playing for the jury. They're hyping up the drama to tell a story and they prepare. They prepare a lot. You see a little bit of it in the movie in these little office scenes where they talk to the witnesses before the courtroom scene.

How do you think people are going to react to something so different from a traditional courtroom drama?

What I would really love is if I heard that people went out and continued to talk about it. There are a lot of underlying questions that are in the subtext of the film that are not about whether or not Pantaleo was guilty but much more broad because Eric Garner is one of many incidents. Why was there never a trial? Who decides when a cop is prosecuted or not? How much does race still play a factor in the justice system? If the audience comes out from this film asking themselves those questions, that is what I'm hoping for.

Do you have any idea what you're going to do next?

Alena and I are talking about possibly doing more of these trials that never happened because it's a format that can be repeated. Not just in Black Lives Matter-related incidents, but other cases that never went to trial. So that's something that we're considering. And I have a few scripts that I've written over the past couple years that are ready for production.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.