'Depp v. Heard' docuseries: A chronologically curated collage of the trial’s ‘most shocking moments’

A three-part documentary series on the trial recently dropped on Netflix

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By Yasser Usman

Published: Thu 24 Aug 2023, 7:26 PM

A three-part documentary series, Depp v. Heard, recently dropped on Netflix examining what has been described as the world's ‘first trial by TikTok’. The infamous defamation case between Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard was watched and analysed globally. Audiences worldwide had even dissected Johnny and Amber's looks and expressions during the on-camera trial, which was trending on TikTok and Twitter. Since everyone loves ‘factual entertainment’, this trial was bound to come back on screens. But really, what’s the core focus of the documentary series and more importantly, what does it accomplish?

The three-part series is a chronologically curated collage of the two week long trial: the courtroom scenes, video and audio evidence, past interviews, news stories, and an array of ‘user-generated content’ (YouTube and TikTok clips). These elements are garnished with ongoing insights from fans, legal experts, and podcast hosts. Surprisingly, like the regular documentary format, there is no narrator weaving all these elements together. Perhaps, the omission of a narrator is aimed to create the illusion of ‘impartiality.' But is the series really ‘neutral’?

If you remember, during the trial the judge allowed cameras in the courtroom. It resulted in realtime trolling, public getting divided and narrative building. The Internet, and social media, were not just observers but assumed the role of proverbial ‘judge, jury and executioner’. So, is the documentary succeeding in addressing the role of the Internet?

I felt that similar to the trial, here too, the viewers are simply taking pleasure in the sensational details all over again. It is merely repackaging the trial, juxtaposing the accounts of Depp and Heard one after the other, leaving room for ‘viewers to judge’, which is exactly what transpired during the trial. It was a distressing and gruesome display that had unfolded across social media, salivating viewers. The odds seemed tilting towards the powerful, with #JusticeForJohnnyDepp amassing 20 billion views during the trial, while #JusticeForAmberHeard had only 77.5 million views. Depp v. Heard consistently highlights this clear disparity on social media and skepticism towards Heard's allegations. The verdict had a broader impact and was also seen as a setback for #MeToo movement that could discourage women from speaking out against powerful men.

Episode 1 of Depp V. Heard titled ‘Truth on Trial’ opens with a reminder that this was “one of the first high-profile defamation cases post-Me Too to be heard in court.” Episode 2 (‘Breaking the Internet’) and 3 (‘The Viral Verdict’) delve into the details including unseen footage and exes trading insults. It also has shocking moments of Johnny claiming Amber soiled their bed post-split, with images of feces on the sheets. It also covers the sliced fingertip and the airplane fight incidents. In one of the most unsettling moments, Heard speaks about Depp allegedly using a glass bottle for a disturbing act. Every episode flows in a similar format reiterating the same points, with insults getting nastier. Viewers might perceive these elements as 'startling' or ‘shocking’, yet simplifying intricate legal arguments spanning across several days into basic soundbites and montages of public opinion fall short of presenting an impartial view of the overall situation. Ironically, the most popular posts about this documentary series on the Internet are still talking about the ‘most shocking moments from the Depp v. Heard documentary’. Hence, the focus remains on sensationalism.

Interestingly, the director of the series Emma Cooper said in an interview recently, “People on Twitter have assumed that I’m doing some kind of feminist pro-Amber polemic. Well, I’m not, am I?” Emma claimed that the documentary series is aimed to address misinformation on the Internet.

The only point where Depp v. Heard succeeds majorly is in conveying the toxic power of social media and the Internet. It reiterates the might of social media that influenced public opinion during the trial, largely favouring Depp. It also brings up a critical question about whether a jury can remain impartial in a trial with such intense public scrutiny.

The mood in Depp v. Heard reminds us of the ‘first reaction’ clips of audiences coming out of a movie theatre that often float around the Internet. Such clips are usually posted as a public review of the movie and are focused on the binary of whether the movie is good or bad. They offer excitement but nothing in terms of nuance. Depp v. Heard also feels like those viewers’ reviews. It leans too much on public opinion. Despite coming after almost a year of the trial, it gives the impression of being a ‘news report of the day’ kind of coverage. It is an important event in pop culture and a serious documentary could have examined the case with a deeper perspective, a layered take on the issue of domestic violence and the impact on the #MeToo movement. This series, perhaps, doesn’t address the bigger issue in its ambition to remain ‘neutral’. Yes, it engages and entertains, if that is your definition of entertainment.


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