Life of Crime: 1984-2020, a new documentary on HBO Max, follows three residents of Newark, New Jersey as they bounce back and forth between petty crime, drug addiction and jail time, interspersed with brief but hopeful bouts of sobriety.
The documentary, as the title suggests, consists of footage filmed over the course of 36 years. As you make it further into the movie, the footage changes from grainy VCR tapes to crisp and clear digital images.
As the type of footage changes, so too does the world depicted in each frame. Haircuts take on entirely different shapes. Pants widen and then shrink again. The three residents—Rob, Freddie and Deliris—grow up, and so do their children.
Much of the documentary’s authority is derived from its lengthy production schedule. There are many films out there—fictional and non-fictional—that capture the many different shades of drug addiction, but hit quite as hard as this one.
Lifelong Battles with Addiction
Of course, Life of Crime did not really take 36 years to make. Though it may look as if director Jon Alpert spent every waking moment with his subjects, he actually shot the film piece by piece, returning to Newark periodically to catch up with the residents.
Most of these visits took place during the late ’80s, as Alpert spent much of the subsequent decade in the Middle East, where he retrieved footage of the Persian Gulf War and interviewed Iraqi leader Saddam Houssein.
Though HBO may market Life of Crime as an original release, the documentary is not exactly new. Recordings from the ’80s and ’90s were previously released as their own features: A Year in the Life of Crime (1989) and Life of Crime 2 (1998).
After numerous people—including Alpert himself—warn Rob and Freddie about the potentially catastrophic consequences of their drug addictions, both men end up dying from an overdose in their 40s.
Only Deliris, the mother of Rob’s children, manages to break with her habits. She stays clean for several years, becoming an activist and helping other recovering addicts. Unfortunately, she too ends up dying from an eventual relapse.
It was Deliris’ inspiring escape from and tragic return to her drug addiction that motivated Alpert to add this final chapter to his Newark saga. Fittingly, the documentary ends with Deliris’ children—whom we met as toddlers—speak at their mother’s funeral.
Life of Crime is an exceptionally difficult watch, both because of the subject matter and the way it’s represented. Alpert, a subscriber of cinéma vérité, tries to convey reality as it is and his camera lens will shy away from nothing.
By the time you’re halfway through the documentary, you’ll have already seen several close-ups of Rob, Freddie and Deliris shooting needles up their arm. Before long, their kids are old enough to realize what’s going on.
The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking
In one particularly unsettling scene, Alpert’s camera watches silently by as one of Rob’s friends beats, threatens and humiliates his girlfriend, who coils and screams in terror whenever he enters the room he’s put her in.
It’s hard to imagine that all this is real. Not because you can’t believe it, but because you don’t want to. Alpert was so successful at documenting the unseen truth of drug addiction that you sometimes wonder whether he should have interfered instead of recorded.
Alpert, far from the detached filmmakers he appears to be, has his motivations. “As unpleasant as it is and as emotionally wrenching as it is,” he told The Guardian last year, “you’ve got to watch this, and you better watch this, because this is what’s happening.”
The director has spent the majority of his career following those that live at the very edge of civilization. His first professional documentary, Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive (1980) chronicled car thieves and homeless people living in the streets of New York.
Though Alpert’s documentaries are referred to as works of art, they also serve important social purposes. Life of Crime, for instance, was born from the desire to share the viewpoint of criminals, to see the world from their perspective and understand the choices they make.
The documentary provides a number of reasons for the residents’ repeated run-ins with the law, and none of them have anything to do with character. Lack of financial support, and especially the terrible power of addiction, emerge as primary culprits.
The Director as Anthropologist
Just as a nature photographer camouflages themselves to observe his subjects without being spotted, so too did Alpert have to figure out how he could film the Newark residents without his presence interrupting their routines or altering their behavior.
Articles online state that Alpert shot some scenes with a handheld camera, while others were captured with cameras hidden in clothing. The residents, notably the flamboyant Rob, do put up a bit of a show for the viewers, but even their hubris can be seen as authentic.
Rather than making himself unseen, Alpert seems to have gone instead for a different tactic: earning the trust of his subjects so that they will tell and show him things that another, less amicable director might have never seen.
A 1980 review of Third Avenue wondered “how much reality” Alpert “dabbled with” to construct documentaries with such poignant commentary. Though Alpers is believed to have staged certain sequences in the past, the most dramatic moments are all too real.
Despite the desire to present reality as is, many of Alpert’s documentaries have a poetic quality to them. Then again, this might just be the very nature of issues such as crime, addiction and poverty.
Life of Crime: 1984-2020 also happens to end on a meaningful but nonetheless true observation about life on the streets of Newark: the fact that, after everything that’s happened, the love Deliris’ children have for their mother has endured.