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Brother's Keeper

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This much is certain: On June 5, 1990, William Ward, 64 and in poor health, went to sleep on the grungy mattress he shared with his 59-year-old brother, Delbert, and in the morning he was dead. This much is unknown: Did Bill die in his sleep of natural causes, or was he suffocated by Delbert — and, if so, was the motive mercy killing or rough sex gone bad? Or did the state police and prosecutors in rural Madison County, N.Y., manipulate evidence and coerce a ”confession” from the barely literate, childlike farmer (they later defended their claim that he understood his rights because he watched Hunter on TV)?

In Brother’s Keeper, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky turn an unflinching camera on Delbert and his surviving older brothers, Roscoe and Lyman, the other members of the gray- whiskered, hygienically challenged trio. From the first shots of their no- heat, no-running-water shack (so filthy that the only thing keeping your jaw from dropping is the fear you’ll catch something from the screen), to permanently panicked Lyman ”pert near dying” on the witness stand, you can’t tear your eyes away.

Nor can you help but like these ”simple boys” and the neighbors who fund Delbert’s bail and defense — not necessarily because they all believe he’s innocent (as the jury finally found him) but because the brothers belong to Munnsville (pop. 499), not to the big-city interlopers, who are also interviewed. Often shot in extreme close-up, faces that were distractingly Brobdingnagian in the theater are much more effective on video (and fast- forward is a godsend during the excruciating pig-slaughtering scene).

Brother’s Keeper is so good, in fact, that — like Roger & Me, The Thin Blue Line, and Paris Is Burning before it — the film wasn’t nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. Now there‘s a crime. A