As a woman, there are certain things that you just come to expect. One is the fascination and sensationalism that surrounds female murder victims. Not only are murdered women the focus of an endless string of fictional crime dramas but real-life female victims are also desirable subjects for the ever-popular true crime documentary genre. Whether discussing world-renowned cases in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes or incidents like those in The Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer, violence against women is too often at the core of true crime.
There is merit to making documentaries about the murders of women: the format allows light to be shed on the real crimes that women routinely face. When done well, bringing these stories to the fore emphasises the dangers that women experience and educates audiences about the historical injustices to which women have been subjected.
That said, many true crime documentaries still end up relying on grisly horror story tropes. Too often, the format includes melodramatic reconstructions of the victim's last moments, embellished theories about their disappearance and a fixation on the killer rather than the person who was killed. Though these heightened retellings often captivate viewers, they do a gross disservice to the women at the centre of these stories.
This month Netflix is going some way towards rectifying the failings of the genre with its new investigative documentary series, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork. Exploring the unsolved mystery surrounding the death of French film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Ireland in 1996, the three-part project moves from Sophie's disappearance through to the current legal battle to prosecute her alleged killer. Though the story has been well discussed in both Audible’s West Cork podcast and Sky’s Murder At The Cottage series, this new documentary aims to change the focus of the narrative and has been created with the full cooperation of Sophie’s family.
Split into three definitive chapters, Sophie begins by piecing together the details of Sophie’s disappearance and murder in a tiny coastal town in West Cork. Arriving at her Irish holiday home for Christmas on 20th December 1996, Sophie was found brutally killed near her property just three days later. The subsequent investigation concluded that the 39-year-old had suffered repeated blows to the head with a large rock, sustaining over 50 individual injuries in total. With no DNA at the scene apart from her own, the pursuit to find the killer became international news, with the remote village shaken by the devastating event.
Local journalist Ian Bailey became heavily involved in covering the case. Documenting the tragedy for Irish newspapers, the writer and self-professed poet appeared to be incredibly close to the story, noting details that few people were aware of. Shockingly, it eventually transpired that a local woman had allegedly seen Bailey near Sophie’s house on the morning she was murdered, placing him as the prime suspect in the case. While he professed his innocence publicly, interviews with local people in the documentary state that he boasted privately about his involvement in the murder.
Interviews with Bailey in Sophie, nearly 25 years later, are unnerving. He speaks calmly about his ever-changing alibi and the alleged falsehoods that local people told about his involvement in Sophie’s death. The decision to speak to Bailey at length feels like the documentary's one misstep, falling back into the true crime trope of emphasising the role of the alleged perpetrator over the life of the victim. However, interviews with Bailey are not the entire focus. Conversations with Sophie's parents, friends and son go a long way to emphasise who Sophie was as a person and to highlight the tireless work that Sophie’s family continues to do.
The devotion to keeping Sophie’s memory alive is evident in the small details of the documentary, on which her cousin Frédéric Gazeau served as an associate producer. According to The Guardian, Gazeau had three specific requests when it came to the creation of the series, which he hoped would honour Sophie’s legacy: "My wish was to give to Sophie a real place in the story, to have a balanced treatment between the main suspect and the victim. The second request was not to show the body of Sophie. I didn’t want to be involved in a voyeuristic project. The third was to treat the story with dignity and humanity – to talk about emotions rather than evidence."
The result is a docuseries that emphasises Sophie’s uniqueness as a woman, filmmaker and mother, rather than a victim used for dramatic storytelling. Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is without doubt heavy viewing but the familial involvement in the series proves that stories can be both shocking and sensitively told. Though it may not have achieved this in its entirety, the three-part series is an example of how true crime stories might look if the people who create them care to honour the women at their centre.
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is on on Netflix now