In late 2006, Ronald Dominique was apprehended on suspicion of a number of murders, which had occurred over the past ten years across multiple parishes in south-eastern Louisiana. Soon after, he confessed to killing 23 men and, in 2008, began serving eight consecutive life sentences. This sensitive documentary, by Alix Lambert and David McMahon, takes its name from the area of Louisiana swampland, 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, in which the killings took place.
Bayou Blue foregrounds its material against the geological realities of coastal erosion as well as the more immediate concerns of being affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both of which have exacerbated the land and its population’s economic impoverishment. Lambert and McMahon employ a series of considered establishing shots as well as talking heads to exposit the area as quiet and together in spite of its shared hardships, so that when they introduce snippets from Dominique’s confession tape, it becomes apparent that their interviewees are his victims’ relatives. This primes a subtle tonal shift, from would-be tourist board video commission to something more human and heartbreaking. The film concerns itself less with Dominique than the families of those he killed.
To this end, Lambert and McMahon resist reconstructions or fictionalisations of incidents, challenging the discourses that make myths of serial killers while overlooking their victims’ families, whose suffering is ongoing. Furthermore, eschewing a rigid linearity allows the filmmakers to respect the notion that, for some, Dominique’s incarceration does not in any way lend resolution (emotional, or even legal) to the narratives of his victims’ families. As such, though the film begins by recounting how and where Dominique’s first victim August Watkins was found, it assembles its histories thereafter in such a manner that we’re not able to fully trace events, either geographically or temporally, so that its victims come to share the filmic space without any promise of a distinguishable arc or outcome. Other interviewees are the families of Wayne Smith, Oliver LeBanks, Nicholas Pellegrin, Michael Barnett, Kurt Cunningham, Chris Deville; Bill Null tells of how he was the parole and probation officer to whom Ricky Wallace – also present – first reported Dominique, after the latter had unsuccessfully pressured him into letting himself be tied up; the two police officers who investigated the case, meanwhile, take us to the sites at which some of Dominique’s victims were found, mapping out a ground-level geography that Lambert and McMahon choose not to contextualise with, for instance, cartographic overlays.
At first, there was uncertainty as to how Dominique was able to elicit his victims – all men – into the kind of position whereby he was able to rape and murder them. He did so, we learn, by targeting gay men, some of whom were “street people”, and would offer them lifts, asking them if they wanted to have sex with him for money or, if he suspected they were heterosexual, showing them a photo of a woman and telling them they could have sex with her. The film focuses, perhaps too briefly, on how this decade-long killing spree could be attended to by the media (national and local) so little. Robert Morris, a local journalist, hints at the systemic pressures to skirt around societal problems such as homelessness or economic poverty: to delve into how vulnerable people were more easily targeted by Dominique, he suggests, would require an admission that such vulnerability exists. Another interviewee refers to “Katrina fatigue”, to “BP fatigue”: so-called natural disasters and oil spillages, not to mention the long-term ramifications of coastal erosion, have all but cut this area of the world off from normal notions of civilisation. There is, of course, also a racial element to this – which is, de facto, a question of class inequality and economic abandonment.
If these issues are legitimate, however, it’s unfortunate that Lambert and McMahon leave them largely unprobed. Moreover, though their focus on the victims of a crime rather than the perpetrator is to be commended (one segment deals effectively with the arguments for and against Dominique’s evasion of a death sentence), their serial killer is also part and, to some extent, product of the community whose portrait they wish to paint. As such, significant questions go unasked. What was Dominique’s social and psychological background? Was his apparent loneliness another symptom/outcome of the landscape? Why did he change his initial police statement so suddenly (we hear his repeated fabrications, through tears, telling police he killed the men in self-defence)? Without asking these questions – much less searching for answers – it’s difficult for Lambert and McMahon to intervene and shape their material, and you’re left wondering throughout Bayou Blue whether they believe the killings and their fallout are symptomatic of systemic tensions or an aberration.
‘Bayou Blue’ was part of the London Film Festival’s ‘Dare’ strand.
Follow Michael Pattison on Twitter @m_pattison.