What would you do if your child was suddenly stolen and murder on their way to school or while playing outside? Imagine the heartache, pain, and confusion. Between 1979-1981, at least twenty-three children and six adults were murdered in Atlanta. A majority-black, a majority male. With even more children missing, the media just didn’t care until forty years later.
HBO documentary series Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children explores what happened including the arrest of Wayne Williams, the man to whom most of the murders are attributed. But did he do it? Or was the media quick to condemn a man to silence the public outcry?
The Koalition spoke to filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Sam Pollard about the complexities of the case, the task of turning these horrific murders into a documentary, whether Williams was wrongfully convicted, and more.“We all thought what we wanted to look for and tell is a story that is much more in a context. We didn’t want to tell a classic murder story,” said Chermayeff.
“Weren’t looking at it as a whodunit. We were looking at it as a really important social-cultural, racially divisive story that was happening in the content of Atlanta and how Atlanta was growing at that time and what was going on in that city and why this particular series of events and horrendous murders along with pressure around that city really brought out so many issues that were building the case itself. We knew it was a very interesting story but a much more interesting context that had not yet been explored.”
“We were really interested in whether or not the right perpetrator or even if there was one perpetrator had the right man been apprehended. We spoke to Wayne [Williams] many times over the course of the year, we would change every day and we both started to feel like we wanted the audience to ride that same rollercoaster that we had. There’s never a clear cut answer, most of the time. In life, there isn’t and there definitely isn’t here.”
Pollard chimed in, “and I think what’s going to be fascinating about the series over the five episodes, is it will bring a bunch of questions about was Wayne guilty or not, if he wasn’t guilty who was involved, was he an accomplice. We sat around our production table many times having the same discussion. Initially, I walked in there with the idea that Wayne probably did kill most of these children but by the time we got to the end of the series, I did a complete 180 cause I’m not sure he didn’t anything. I think it is an amazingly richly complicated story that hasn’t been told at this depth before.”
Exploring not just the heart of Atlanta but neighboring states also impacted by the murders to Williams trials which were filled with enough twists, turns and legal hot messes to warrant a documentary by itself, The Lost Children takes a closer look at each murder, breaking down not only the justice system but how it can be tainted.
Chermayeff explains, “We become fairly obsessed with the story and we begin to breakdown each one of the crimes that are on the so-called list. We really began to look at what happened in each of these cases and are some of them not even necessarily a murder at all which we believed til this time. I think our objective was really in place by not removing that someone in prison is necessarily guilty.”
“There are a lot of things that put a lot of people in prison and certainly a lot of things that put African-Americans in the prison system that have nothing to do with whether they actually committed that crime in question. That was always something in the back of our minds so that objectively of what actually happened here and what were the biases that put Wayne in the cross-hair and trying to stay true to that reality as we tried to gather more evidence. Even if Wayne is guilty of something or absolutely had an unfair trial.”
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children airs Sunday at 7:45PM ET on HBO.
To learn more about how the filmmakers met with Williams and more about the case, listen to our full interview below.