LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been dead for more than 18 years, but the murders and dismemberments of the 17 boys and men he killed, and sometimes ate, still haunt the living.
Documentary “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” which opens in limited release in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, focuses on the lives of three people - Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, Police Detective Patrick Kennedy and Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass - whose lives were indelibly changed.
Milwaukee-based filmmaker Chris James Thompson, 30, talked to Reuters about making the film. Dahmer was beaten to death by another inmate in prison in 1994, while serving 15 life terms.
Q: Do you have a personal connection to the Dahmer case?
A: I grew up in Madison which is an hour outside of Milwaukee. When I was 10, my parents divorced, which was right around the time that Dahmer (was in the news). I used to take the bus back and forth (between the two cities) and I remember people talking about it in Milwaukee very different than they talked about it in Madison.
Q: How so?
A: In Milwaukee, they talked about it like it was a flood or a disaster. It was a horrific event that affected many people around you. In Madison, people talked about it with a little bit of excitement, like it was entertainment. That stuck with me. It interested me how proximity works in something like this where the whole world is watching.
Being from Milwaukee, I thought it was important to give the people that actually lived the case an opportunity to tell their side. I wanted to tell a story of how (the Dahmer case) affected these people, and the ripple effect of what this guy did to the community.
Q: What did you discover?
A: Those that lived that disaster continue to live it. Our attention may go elsewhere, but they don’t get to escape and move on. With Pat, it contributed to the problems he was having with his wife and they got divorced. Pam told me that not a week goes by that she doesn’t think about this. Imagine being a neighbor to someone who is killing and eating people 40 feet away from where you sleep!
Q: Did it affect you as you were making the documentary?
A: The hardest part was being a year or two into (the shooting process) and realizing that I had set myself up to be focusing on a such a dark subject matter for so many hours in a day. I started to think, ‘Why am I doing this? I should stop. I’m perpetuating a really miserable story that affected a lot of people in a negative way.’
Q: What kept you going?
A: When Pat, Pam and Dr. Jentzen shared the stories of what they had to live with - and still live with - I realized they can’t just walk away. I owed it to them because they confided in me and trusted me and shared with me on my promise that I was telling their story in a broader perspective. To give up on that would be letting them down.
Q: Did you speak to Dahmer’s family?
A: I got an email from a family member of his that lives in Australia. She wrote: ‘Is there anything I can do to get you to stop making this movie?’ She was worried that we were going to go on a continued smear campaign of his mom and dad as being the reasons Dahmer did what he did. I explained how we were telling the story through the perspective of these three people whose lives were changed because of it. Then she became receptive and wished us luck.
Q: What was the budget of the film?
A: I’ll tell you this: the median salary in Milwaukee is about $33,000. I spent every disposable dollar I could get my hands on for four years. I funded it myself with no outside funding. I owe an enormous thank-you to the film-making community of Milwaukee who helped me do everything from shooting to editing to producing to lighting for free.
Q: Is it true you are donating 100 percent of the profits from this film to charity?
A: Yes. Any money I’ll make I’m donating to a non-profit called Milwaukee Community Service Crops (which provides at-risk youth with tools necessary to be contributing members of the community.)
Q: Have you seen any profits?
A: No. The movie is still in the red. That’s the sad part of the independent film-making ... But you never know. Digital is sort of the Wild West of avenues for moviegoers to see films. In 5, 10 or 20 years my film could get into the black. It would be especially sweet to be able to write (the Milwaukee charity) a check and maybe see some small positive thing come out of such a negative story.
Reporting by Zorianna Kit; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Vicki Allen