LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Television has various strategies for blunting its own sharp sight, most of which were on show in Murder Squad (ITV). There's the daub of fog or cubist smear which hovers over a face you mustn't see - either because it belongs to a victim or a suspect whose guilt has not yet been resolved into a public focus. Then there's the strict discipline of the eyeline, those sequences in which something ghastly lies just below the edge of the frame, a thing which everyone on screen is looking at but which remains securely fenced off from our field of vision. One of the striking things about True Stories: The Grave (C4), Belinda Giles's film about the excavation of a mass grave in Croatia, was that it set aside all these prophylactic devices - there to protect our sensibilities or those of society. Instead it relied on the grisly soft-focus of putrefaction, which had compressed and smeared the victims of one of the war's first atrocities into an undifferentiated tangle of bodies. Though the camera didn't avert its gaze during the painstaking excavation - a kind of archaeology of human brutality - it really didn't need to for most of the early scenes; the shapes you saw on screen were so claggy and clumped that it was difficult to say exactly what they were - the most human things about them were their shoes. But that muddy anonymity didn't last for ever and when it began to fall away Giles didn't blink at the sight. (Or spare your other senses either - the sticky suck of rotting bodies being peeled apart was even more unnerving than the image).

But then the act of restoring some kind of recognisability to the corpses was at the heart of this enterprise - both because it would provide firm evidence of guilt in the unlikely event of some legal reckoning and because until names had been attached to bodies the relatives left behind couldn't set aside their hopes. "We actually knew the people who put them on the buses," said one widow, explaining why she found it so hard to believe that her husband had been taken away to be beaten and shot. As you watched the UN investigators scraping away till their trowels hit on bone or matted hair, you realised that this exhumation was also an inverted funeral, burying the fantasies of survival that had sustained the relatives through years of uncertainty. When one muddy, faceless scarecrow yielded family photographs and an identity card in the name of Michaelo Zera you thought of his widow's delayed mourning but were not shown it, an uncharacteristic instance of looking the other way which seemed entirely proper. At all other times Giles's film gazed steadily enough to coax an eloquence out of the fragments of those interrupted lives, most notably with a dirt- clotted wristwatch which was still ticking when it was unearthed, a sound which she amplified to serve as a pertinent accompaniment to the fruitless patience of the relatives waiting for news.

Murder Squad, first of a series of documentaries about real-life murder investigations, bore at least one similarity to The Grave, even if it was far more shy about the fleshly consequences of violence. In both cases the culprit was fairly evident and what was being sought was incontrovertible evidence that would guarantee conviction. Despite the media hype about police "bafflement", and one reporter's insistence that "they're going to need a lot of public help to solve this crime", this admittedly unusual combination of sexual assault and double murder was actually a straightforward case. The man finally convicted walked into a police station on the first day and was never likely to walk out again, having left fingerprints all over the murder scene and his features etched into the memories of the girls he raped. Along with its understandable discretion about the murder victims and detectives now doing undercover work, Murder Squad was also guilty of a bit of strategic exclusion - postponing the revelation that the suspect had lived opposite the murdered couple in order, I presume, to bend the film a little closer to the deliciously elongated mysteries of fiction.

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