Elika Portnoy’s powerful film, “The 6th Amendment,” focuses on the 12 jury members who hold the fate of one of the Boston Marathon bombers in their hands.
“What do you do in a case like this, where you as a society argue this is the only case where you would allow [the death penalty],” the first-time filmmaker said by phone in advance of her film’s screening this week at the 2017 AFI FEST.
Portnoy currently lives near near where the 2013 bombings took place and found herself obsessing over moral dilemma of giving the death penalty to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the bombers of the attack.
A native of Bulgaria, she traveled extensively across the globe, immersing herself in several different cultures, noting family dynamics and value systems.
“In Bulgaria a lot of the decisions are based collectively, where your sisters push you to marry someone else and you do it because it’s kind of a collective decision-making process,” she said by phone. “Which from an American point of view is very hard to understand. That is similar to where [Tsarnaev] is from, even more so. In Muslim cultures, family plays such a huge role in what you do and so I thought ‘what if he did not want to do this? What if he fought his older brother…and had to do it because of his older brother, the only person that he had to look up to?’”
The film’s title refers to the constitutional right for one to face an impartial jury. That right seems almost an impossibility in the Boston Marathon bombing case, in which so much collective anger is held against an individual like Tsarnaev, a Muslim man born in Kyrgyzstan who was a college student in Massachusetts at the time of the bombings.
Portnoy noted that her own son was the same age as an 8-year-old killed in the attack, and how that child’s parents specifically asked for Dzhokhar not to receive the death penalty. She also is intrigued by just how much Dzhokhar’s religious culture, along with his ties to his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, possibly played into the bombings.
“When the relationships are so tight, it’s expected that you do it, otherwise you’re disowned,” she added. “It’s very hard to know exactly where the line of guilt lies, whether it’s between him and his brother, whether it’s exactly on him.”
“I just wondered what Massachusetts would do, because it’s a very liberal state and this is something that drove the city crazy,” she said. “[The death penalty] is still murder, you’re still sending someone to die. I found myself very conflicted about it. Lots of countries in Europe have abandoned the death penalty.”
The premise of the movie bears strong resemblance to “12 Angry Men,” the 1957 legal thriller where a jury must also question their own beliefs while deciding a man’s fate. The movie served both as inspiration for Portnoy’s film, as well as a guide to help keep her own cinematic jury room interesting.
“If you’re sitting in a jury room for 12 minutes, it could easily become boring,” Portnoy said. “So I wondered how to create the tension and what to do. In ’12 Angry Men’ they use heat, there’s a lot of different vehicles, going to the restroom, there’s more locations, so I was the most influenced by that.”
But “The 6th Amendment” isn’t just Sidney Lumet’s film with a 2013 Boston spin.
“I don’t give the answer to what is right and what is wrong,” she said. “That movie is more about, when you think a person is guilty, are they really guilty? ‘The 6th Amendment’ is about ‘we know he’s guilty, should he still die?’’”
Interested in creating more films with similar socially relevant topics, Portnoy is at work on her next project about abortion. “The 6th Amendment” was written by Mike Harden and Robert Tremblay.